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Millennial Reviews XXXI: City” by Clifford Simak (1946)


By Clifford D. Simak 

14 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Clifford Simak
Ace 1976 [1946]
30 pages

Synopsis: The age of the city has come to an end, killed by cheap atomic power, the family helicopter and tank farms. Only a few people stick around in the remains of the cities, conservatives, politicians and rural refugees from the collapse of old-style farming.

The city politicians, tired of squatters in the suburbs, want to burn out the abandoned bits of the city. Some of the old residents are against this, Gramps Stevens among them, as are the squatters. The functionaries have a lock on office and are hard to effectively oppose. In a heated public discussion over the problems the city has, Webster, who works for the city, makes an impassioned speech explaining that the city, as an idea, is dead and the politicians should just learn to live with it. This costs him his job, although the World Committee’s Bureau of Human Adjustment makes a job offer.

The plan to burn the abandoned buildings goes on as planned. There’s a sporadic firefight but the day is saved when Adams, whose family was an early investor in commercial atomic power shows up with the deeds to the abandoned building. He proposes to turn the city into a museum for later generations. Various other economic DPs find solutions to the new economic realities. Everything ends more or less happily, except for the politicians: Adams is having the city government dissolved.

The problem with reading this story in the collection City is that any apparent victories are strictly temporary: by the very next story, 200 years later, the scattered humans, each with their own home- stead and telepresence, are so used to their little estates that most of them can’t leave them without suffering acute agoraphobia. Eventually humans are all gone, leaving the world to the dogs, the robots and the ants.

This was an uneven story, but it sets the tone for the rest of the collection, being pretty depressing. I wouldn’t miss farms, but I like cities. I even like people and having them end up as they do is sad. Simak wrote these stories as a reaction to disillusionment caused by WWII so it is not surprising people don’t come off all that well in the mass, however sympathetic they might seem individually. ‑Being- human is eventually shown up as a dead end: the rejection of the city is just the first step on the path to rejecting being human.

One beneficial side-effect of the population dispersion is that people are too spread out to make even nuclear war worth the trouble. Apparently, the various governments then turned to responsible world government, not being able to slaughter millions of people. Again, on the surface an upbeat development with a pretty pessimistic core.

Cheap atomic power, aircars and tank farms: We didn’t get any of that but seeing the consequences that is not a bad thing.