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RETRO-REVIEW: City by Clifford D. Simak

A recent post prompted me to pull out this review from June 2003. Here’s what I said then.

REVIEW SUMMARY: Good collection of related stories

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Snapshots of the future history of Man and dogs.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Epic quality since related stories span thousands of years; a nostalgic “classic sci-fi” feel

CONS: One or two stories were a bit slow-moving

BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining collection and worthwhile diversion.


City is a “fix-up” novel. The formerly independent stories are loosely strung together by the narrator. Here, the narrators are dogs that, in the future, are the inheritors of Earth. The tales are spoken of as legends and the notes on each provide some interesting perspective on humanity. Each story depicts a period of time in the history of the Webster family. Was that part of the original stories? Or, was that added to make the fix-up novel?

STORIES IN THIS COLLECTION:

  1. “City”
    • Not much of a plot in this story. There is some redeeming quality in some of the suppositions, though. Technological progress (hydroponics, the family helicopter) has made cities a dying societal phenomenon. Houses are mostly deserted; “squatters” now occupy some of them. Interesting idea, pushed further by supposing that without cities, there were no more logical targets for nuclear attack.
  2. “Huddling Place”
    • Another snapshot in the Webster family history, this one about 200 years after the previous story about man’s migration away from the “huddling places” of the cities. Now, there is no need at all for anyone to leave his home since everything is available at the touch of a button. Even robots serve as serfs. Jerome Webster is a recluse who soon realizes he also suffers from agoraphobia – the fear of open spaces. More accurately, he has a fear of leaving home or anything familiar. The fear first grips him when his son goes off to mars, a trip Jerome himself made with no qualms when he was younger. When a Martian friend falls ill, he is called upon to leave the comfort and familiarity of his home. And he might have, had it not been for the robot Jenkins.
    • Simak does an excellent job of setting the mood with the opening funeral service sequence that occurs at a rainy family crypt. The story slowly drops clues about the agoraphobia and when Webster realizes, the reader realizes that although man has migrated away from the huddling places of the cities, he has simply moved to another huddling place that is his daily surroundings.
    • This story is also included in the excellent collection The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume I. I read that a few years ago and remembering liking this story as much as I did this time.
  3. “Census”
    • This story takes place nearly 70 years after the previous one. Jerome Webster’s grandson, attempting to make up for his grandfather’s failure to propel mankind through thousand’s of years of social evolution, gives the power of speech to dogs. Only another race working in harmony with men, he surmises, can advance humanity through the evolutionary steps required for its survival. All of this is seen through the eyes of Richard Grant, a census-taker for the World Committee government of the future. Also present is the robot Jenkins, who, it seems at this point in the novel, may play the Asimovian Daneel-Olivaw-type role. Although he plays no part on the destiny of humanity (at least, there is no indication yet), he is in serving a fourth generation of Websters. Finally, there is the mysterious mutant, “Joe”, who has been helping humankind for 150 years. Joe mingles with men for his own amusement and, by story’s end, has walked off with Grant’s notes on the Martian philosophy that could advance mankind through centuries of evolution (again, this is like Asimov’s Foundation series).
    • Another good story in Simak’s future history, and the first one where the Dogs that are present in the story introductions play a prominent role. This story advances the idea of Man spreading out, this time across the stars. Grant is looking for a solution to a Martian’s unfinished thesis in the field of philosophy, a thesis that could prove to be Man’s evolutionary rocket ship. The Martian is Juwain from the previous story, which provides another easy way for Simak to link these stories together. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic, but, still, a fun read.
  4. “Desertion”
    • Explorers on the planet Jupiter are first transformed into beings that can survive the harsh atmosphere, then sent out to gather data. None have come back
    • Another excellent story in the collection. The premise is intriguing and mysterious. There is a definite sense of wonder when Simak compares the Jupiter experienced by the recently transformed main character (and his dog, of course!) with the planet as seen through human eyes.
    • This story is also included in the recently-read Great Tales of Science Fiction and is the reason that City was put on my to read soon list.
  5. “Paradise”
    • A sequel, of sorts, to both “Desertion” and “Census”. Five years after being transformed into a Jovian Loper, Fowler returns to human form to tell the human race of the paradise that awaits them on Jupiter. However, Tyler Webster, the latest family member of the self-proclaimed pilots of human destiny, sees the news as a threat to the survival of the human race. After all, once news gets out, who will want to remain human? It is only Fowler’s inability to justifiably express the euphoria that keeps Webster from worrying too much. And, making his first appearance since he stole the “Juwain Philosophy”, the Martian thesis whose results could advance humanity thousands of years in two generations, is Joe, one of a group of mutant humans. The good news: Joe finally grants the humans the gift of the Juwain philosophy. It is a gift of total understanding of one another; just a small step away from telepathy. The bad news (at least for Tyler Webster): it is granted just before Fowler publicizes the paradise that awaits humanity on Jupiter. It’s an ingenious plot that would allow the mutants to dominate the solar system.
    • The robot Jenkins is still around as the ever-present servant of the Webster family. And the talking dogs, along with the humans and mutants, still make up a third of the intelligent beings existing on Earth. The dogs, in fact, are acting as agents for the World Committee.
    • Another fantastic story! I loved the meaty plot; there’s just a lot going on, and it all ties together quite nicely. Simak definitely provides more intricate plots than most short stories
  6. “Hobbies”
    • Not much plot here (but then again, I was a bit sleepy when I read it). Jon Webster is one of the five thousand remaining humans on Earth after the rest of mankind has migrated to Jupiter to live as Lopers in the Jovian paradise. Those left on Earth have no goals and spend their time on useless “hobbies”. This story takes place one thousand years after “Census”.
    • A so-so story. There’s a mysterious “defense device” that has existed at the Webster mansion since it was built. Jon Webster pulls the switch in the last couple of pages and, it is surmised, encapsulates Geneva, the last remaining city, in and impenetrable shield, dooming the rest of humanity.
  7. “Aesop”
    • Jenkins is now seven thousand years old. The dogs are the dominating species of Earth and there are few men (known to the dogs as “websters”) remaining. All animal species now live in harmony, and killing is outlawed. However, when a Webster kills a bird with his newly-invented bow and arrow, Jenkins realizes that violence is an inherent trait on man. He decides to leave Earth to the dogs and takes men to a parallel world.
    • Another good tale and a quick read.
  8. “The Simple Way”
    • Four thousand years after “Aesop”, Earth is populated only by the Beasts and the watcher robots. Jenkins returns after from the parallel world of “Aesop” to check the progress of the civilization. Thanks to mutant Joe’s genetic engineering in the distant past (see “Census”), Ants have become super-intelligent and are reprogramming robots to build an ever-widening city. Jenkins revives Jon Webster from suspended animation to learn the “simple way” that man had to deal with the bothersome insects (using a low-acting poison sweetener). Unfortunately, the idea of killing is so heinous, that Jenkins chooses the lesser of two evils and allows nature to take its course.
    • Another good story that involves several of the characters and happenings of the previous tales.
  9. “Epilog”
    • Except for the Webster house, where Jenkins lives, Earth is entirely covered by the ant city. When the city’s walls begin to crumble, Jenkins discovers that the ants have become extinct; there is nobody left on Earth. When a ship lands carrying robots that have long since left the Earth, Webster decides he has no reason to stay.
    • The robot Jenkins, the only character left to write about, is holding on to the past. When he discovers that the ants have become extinct, he realizes he is alone (except for Geneva, where, presumably, Jon Webster is still in suspended animation). Kind of a sad tale, a farewell with a feeling of futility.
    • This story was written as a memorial tribute to the late John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding (now Analog) Magazine, more than 20 years after the eighth City tale.
About John DeNardo (13014 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on RETRO-REVIEW: City by Clifford D. Simak

  1. Fred Kiesche // March 20, 2005 at 5:45 pm //

    One of my all-time favorite Simak tales (along with “Goblin Reservation”, “The Werewolf Principle” and “A Choice of Gods” as well as some of the shorts like “The Thing in the Stone”). Rated 10+ in my rating system.

    You say “not much plot here” a couple of times. Simak was never much one for action and adventure, he excelled in building character and scene, of conveying mood (especially a “pastoral” mood).

    Simak was a newspaperman. It shows in his writing in the dialog and economy of style. Where somebody like Robert Jordan needs 900 pages to tell a tale, Simak always managed to do it briefly and with punch.

    Can you tell that Simak is one of my all-time favorite authors?

    😛

  2. Fred Kiesche // March 20, 2005 at 5:54 pm //

    I noticed that you’re using the cover of the new edition of the book (Old Earth Books). It’s a beautiful edition. Mike W. also has “Way Station” (but I haven’t gotten that one yet).

    Another small press is doing a multi-volume unified edition of Simak’s short works. Got to start saving the pennies for that one!

  3. whats really fuckin good?

  4. Fred Kiesche // February 13, 2007 at 6:04 am //

    Well, for one thing, Simak knows how to spell.

    :-S

  5. mike.shegog // July 29, 2007 at 9:46 pm //

    just re-read Epilog.

    I’d always understood the ending,

    when he’s saying goodbye,

    to mean he’s saying goodbye to Webster House and Earth

    and so leaving with the robot Andrew.

    But now I realise it just as easily could mean

    he’s staying, and saying goodbye to Andrew.

    What do you think ?

  6. I couldn’t say…it’s been so long since I read it. But going from what I wrote above (which now sounds a bit too spoilery) I would say that he left Earth.

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