Clifford D. Simak’s City contains material written in the 1940s, material that wasn’t collected into book form until 1952. New interstitial material transformed it into something like a novel.
City was popular and has been reprinted in many editions. The edition I own is the Ace mass market paperback, which means it does include Simak’s 1976 introduction (not included in earlier editions), but it does not include “Epilog,” which was written for the 1973 tribute collection for Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology1. (“Epilog” is included in later editions of City.)
While it didn’t win the Hugo2, City did win the International Fantasy Award. My copy is well-worn; I still regard it fondly, despite the fact that it would seem to be exactly the sort of city-hating SF I loathe. And the book isn’t exactly keen on humans either. But it has the Dogs and the Cobbly worlds, and apparently that’s enough for me. And for many other readers as well.
Author’s Foreword (1976):
Simak explains that this sequence of stories expressed his vast disillusionment with humans, a reaction to the horrors of World War Two. Although by 1976, Simak had mellowed, he still didn’t think much of the concept of cities, although he allows that technology is all right … in its place.
In his defence, 1976 was not a high water mark for cities in the US.
Editor’s Preface • (1952) • short fiction:
Each story has critical commentary. It’s almost immediately apparent that the critic is a Dog, an intelligent canine. It’s also clear that much of Dog history has been lost and that due to the vast cultural gulf between humans and the Dogs, significant aspects of these oft-repeated folk tales are incomprehensible to the Dogs. Various Dogs have tried to hammer the stories into a shape they can understand, but any human reading this will see how badly the Dogs fail to understand humans.
And they cannot simply ask humans for clarifications because the humans are so long gone that they are now mere myth.
The Dogs have a respectable level of technology (with some very specific gaps I will discuss later) thanks to their robots, whom they see as extensions of themselves. I applaud the level of circular reasoning the Dogs employ in their attempt to explain robot origins without crediting the mythical humans.
City • (1944) • novelette:
In the year 1999, the city as a functioning organism is dead, killed by hydroponic farms (which put former farmland on the market for cheap) and atom-powered personal planes and helicopters (which meant commutes of hundreds of miles were perfectly reasonable). But here and there are those who have not come to terms with the fact that cities no longer have a reason to exist.
I don’t know to what degree Simak revised the individual stories in 1952, but it’s interesting that he predicted that the threat of nuclear war wouldn’t be enough to get people to desert all cities. It’s only when its economic reason to exist vanishes that the city as a viable economic unit vanishes as well.
If I stopped to think about it, I would have a lot of questions about how City’s politics and economics work. The world in City seems to have industrial and business activity, but how the government regulates it or adjudicates disputes is unclear at best. I like the stories enough that I am happy to refrain from asking questions. Well, maybe a few questions.
I know that City the novelette does not exist in the aftermath of the robot apocalypse, because A: that has not happened by the time in which this story is set, and B: adding robots to the mix doesn’t mean most people are unemployed. The majority just find something else to do. Although not everyone does. Simak does not appear optimistic about the prospects of all those ex farmers. So, granting the absence of full-time inhabitants, clumping the means of production should still be useful. Manhattan with no full time inhabitants would still be a city.
It’s kind of amusing the fix-up as a whole is called City, given that Simak eradicates the cities in the backstory to this first tale.
“Huddling Place” • (1944) • short story:
2117: humans have expanded off Earth into the Solar System, where they meet the Martians. The two species, Martian and human, turn out to be complements: what one lacks, the other can supply. Humans are far advanced in the medical sciences, but Martians have made philosophical strides no human can match.
Juwain, the greatest Martian philosopher, is on the verge of a breakthrough; he is also on the verge of death. Only Jerome Webster, with his remarkable grasp of Martian brain anatomy, can save Juwain’s life. But a century of living on isolated estates has taken its toll. To save Juwain, Jerome would have to leave his familiar, safe homestead.…
Many of the stories have Websters in them, all from the same line. In fact, webster becomes the Dog term for human.
This story introduces the seemingly amiable robot Jenkins, who also features in many of the City stories (Jenkins lasts at least seven thousand years). Simakian robots and Asimovian robots differ in a very important aspect, which is that Asimov’s Three Laws require robots to prioritize humans, but Simak’s Jenkins can consider the well-being of intelligent species in general, not just humans. By the end of the book, I am not sure that Jenkins thinks of humans as people at all.
An R. Daneel–Jenkins crossover would be interesting.
Census • (1944) • novelette:
The Websters may be forever shamed by Juwain’s death, but they still have their role to play in history. The Webster in this story uplifts dogs to Dogs, the beings who eventually replace the humans. Not to be outdone, Joe the Mutant has done something very similar for ants. He gives them culture, that is, knowledge that can be shared and outlives individuals.
I don’t think I ever noticed before this rereading that Simak apparently believed in the ideas of the controversial biologist Lamarck. Webster transforms dogs into Dogs using surgical methods; those changes then are then inherited by offspring. Also, Joe explains that ants lack culture and technology because winter. Well, as someone who once ended up waist-deep in an ant nest in Brazil, I can assure you that there are a great many ants living in places where there is no winter.
Joe is kind of a dick, of the griefer variety, but he seems to have been driven to his dickishness by bigotry. Ordinary humans are irrationally fearful of mutants, and have taught Joe all about grief..
“Desertion” • (1944) • short story:
The natural conditions on Jupiter are such that humans cannot colonize the giant planet. Not to worry; the converter can transform humans into new entities adapted to any planetary conditions, which means that the colonization of Jupiter should be as easy as selecting an appropriate form. For Jupiter, that is something called a loaper. But can you call it colonization if every explorer who has been converted into a loaper has vanished into the mists of Jupiter’s surface, never to return?
It falls to project director Fowler and his faithful dog Towser to find how why.
This has one of the more memorable final lines in SF, which I won’t spoil by repetition.
Having served their narrative purpose, converters vanish from City. Pity, because I wonder if they might have more mundane applications. Can you, for example, convert a sick human into a healthy one? An old human into a young one?
“Paradise” • (1946) • short story:
Fowler returns to Earth with a revelation that could doom all humanity. The latest Webster could save the race: all that is required is that he silence Fowler before the project director reveals what he found on Jupiter. Silencing him would require little effort; one little ray gun blast, that’s all.
But no human has killed another in over a century. Is saving human race worth bringing murder back into the world?
The ray gun Webster considers using can be used to evaporate someone or, if appropriately dialed down, it can be used to light a cigarette. I wonder how many tragic accidents happened when someone tried to light their smoke with a pistol set to maximum power?
On the one hand, this Webster really wrestles with the conflict between saving humanity and the prohibition on murder. On the other hand, he is astoundingly bigoted against any and all mutants, being convinced that it would have been best to eradicate them. I can see why Jenkins, having lived with Websters for centuries, effectively deserts and swears allegiance to the Dogs.
Hobbies • (1946) • novelette:
The City is reborn! In the sense that the last five thousand humans left on Earth live together in Geneva. Inheritors of all the wealth of the vanished billions, served by a planet full of machines, humans are free to indulge all their little passions.
Out in the world, the Dogs and their robots are building a new civilization. It falls to the latest Webster to consider what humans might contribute to this new world. What could be humanity’s best, and perhaps last, gift?
Simak hints at the decadence of this last human society. Men and women live as they please, untrammelled by social convention and economic need. Unfortunately, there’s nothing explicitly salacious in this novelette. I was rather hoping that these folks had invented some interesting new vices.
(Given the astounding technology these people possess, it seems like they should be having more fun than they do. I wonder if the Websters are genetically prone to depression.)
Jenkins expects his fellow robots to serve the Dogs without question and without ego. Some of the robots run off to form communities of Free Robots. Good for them!
Feel free to speculate about what real world models Simak may have had in mind for his robots.
Aesop • (1947) • novelette:
Have the final handful of humans finally brought murder back to the Earth? The Dog world is a paradise of nonviolent talking animals. Or is something even darker than humans loose in the world?
Jenkins comes up with an interesting use for humans in this story. He seeds them on alternate worlds, where their murderous propensities ensure that they will eliminate lifeforms that might compete with Dogs. Dog paws will not be stained with spilled blood. Humans as smallpox viruses … interesting.
Birth control does not appear to be one of the tools available to the Dogs and their allies. This matters because the Dogs have uplifted many other species and none of them eat each other any more. Granted, they would have inherited cheap hydroponics from the humans but overpopulation is an issue they worry about.
The Simple Way • (1951) • novelette:
Joe the Mutant’s little joke with the ants bears fruit as the Ants, technologically adept and alien beyond comprehension, threaten to take the whole of the Earth for their own. Jenkins, returning millennia after he led the last websters off into the Cobbly worlds (alternate Earths), remembers that the humans had a simple method of controlling insects, but for the life of him he cannot recall what it was.
Happily, he thinks he does know where he can find the last webster. The webster might know.…
The last humans seem to have died out under Jenkins’ watchful eye. The text suggests that this was at worst benign neglect; Jenkins did not decide to rid the multiverse of the scourge that is humanity.
Ants and other social insects make up a surprisingly large fraction of the animal biomass on Earth; I think it’s something like 25%. Really, we already live in the Ants’ world. We just try not to notice.
This is a sixty-odd-year-old fix-up incorporating elements that are even older. It’s definitely of its time; quaint conventions like atomic-powered vehicles have not yet been replaced by younger, equally quaint conventions. Also, while I use the more general term for humanity, Man might have been more appropriate because there are no female characters of significance in this book.
This is either inexplicably gloomy for an upbeat book (our flawed society is replaced by a much nicer one, if you don’t mind fleas and that whole robotic involuntary servitude thing), or strangely upbeat for such a dystopian story (most Websters act out of the best of intentions and they almost invariably push humans closer to extinction). Either way, it is clear Simak was not a happy guy when he wrote these stories.
Generally I find the sort of material authors use to transform a collection of thematically linked short works into a fix-up (something novel-shaped enough to be sold as a novel) tolerable at best, clumsy and disjointed at worst. In the case of City, while I have never read the original versions of these stories, I think the baffled commentary by the Dogs on each tale really does transform the book into something more than just a collection of stories. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but there is a charm to this book that I think would be lacking if the Dog commentary were not there.
I don’t know if Old Earth Books’ edition of City is still in print (it appears to be out of stock). but Open Road Media definitely has an ebook edition of City, along with a healthy selection of other Simak works.
1: Which I own and could be convinced to review.
2: I would say that City lost the 1953 novel Hugo to The Demolished Man, but I am not sure if it was even in the running. The mechanics of early Hugos are a mystery to me.