Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review of City by Clifford Simak

Clifford Simak’s work puts such a debate into my mind: where to draw the line between good intentions and overly-simplistic outlay?  If writers were judged on the sentiment of their work and its relationship to humanity’s future, Simak would rank among the most concerned.  Much of his fiction, for example his major novel Way Station, caution us against short-sighted views and champion a mindset which has nature and universal respect at its core.  What greater vision could a reader ask for?  But there is also much of his fiction caught up in unsophisticated ideas that scan at a quick glance, but upon any deeper examination, crumble into plainness, mindlessness, even cheesiness.  City (1952), perhaps Simak’s most famous work, only heightens the debate.

Extrapolating upon the direction Simak perceived society and technology to be moving post-WWII in the US, City is a series of eight stories (nine, depending on the version) presenting a chronological sequence of views of said extrapolation.  Positing humanity incapable of getting out of its own way, he portrays a future wherein dogs, after a jump in sentience, rise to the peak of civilization—not through the deft use of cunning or brute force, rather by stepping into a vacancy afforded by humanity’s mismanagement of its own affairs.   Self-interest and poor decisions deflating civilization, in an ironic utopia it’s canines who bring peace to Earth.

The dogs presented as ideal society, City nevertheless remains focused on humanity.  The lovey-lovey canine interaction ignoring wolf-ish instinct and instead depending on their loyalty, playfulness, and relative innocence, Simak focuses on the wolf in man, rendering him capable of paranoia and egotism, and with little view to the long term.  The Webster family directly and indirectly featured in the eight stories, their sons and their sons and their sons are faced with situations key to the evolution of Earth, the solar system, and beyond.  From agoraphobia to front yard diatribes, the Websters, by turns, improve and detract from humanity’s extended chances for survival.  Simak delineating each story along straight-forward lines, there are no spaceships or laser fights, rather weighty conversations, introspection, and a focus on the sociology of humanity.  The conversations oscillating between clunky and pertinent, the weight of their import varies.

But where Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius treats the idea of dog sentience with rigor, City remains caught between satire and children’s story.  Simply put, Simak can’t decide whether he wants the dogs to be symbolic or mimetic.  But were this presentation to have kept itself at the individual level, all would be ok.  But that each is intended to represent the whole, one can’t help but accuse Simak of reductionism.  One story, for example, hinges on the idea that if somebody tells society that a mental utopia awaits on Jupiter, all humans would go, and therefore the human race would die out as each person would become an uber-human.  Simak himself pastoral, surely there would be more than a few wanting to remain, living in the mountains in a cabin or at home in a city, paranoid as to the possibilities on Jupiter, and thus preserving the human race.  The idea works in fiction, but scratching below the surface reveals the premise to reside on a shaky foundation.

But the simpli-city continues.  Simak posits that if atomic power replaced gasoline, and plastic, wood, and hydroponics, standard agriculture, then all humans would move to the countryside and leave the cities behind.  A head-scratcher for sure, it again calls into question Simak’s understanding of not only technology, but also humanity.  Covering a wide spectrum, some are extrovert hive dwellers while others prefer nature and introversion. 

But no matter how appropriated humanity and all its myriad possibilities are, Simak has his heart in the right place.  The dogs are a bit corny if one can’t suspend their disbelief, but the idea they embody is a worthy goal.  The people, their situations, and their conversations are not always at the most subtle, but the invisible driving force behind them is something to pause and at least have a moment’s thought about.

City a fix up novel, Simak welds the pieces together in direct fashion.  Each story has an introduction written by an unnamed future historian, and then proceeds as originally published in Astounding magazine.  I have read opinions that these interludes add to the text, and opinions that they detract.  I’m caught in the middle. The voice-over does a good job of distancing the individual stories—creating legend from story, as it were—by providing an overarching context.  On the other hand, they destroy a bit of the magic.   The escalation of surprise, story upon story, is not allowed to proceed unabated; instead the reader is forced into a pit stop at the conclusion of each to get a hint of what is to come before the ride is continued.

In the end, City is a simple cautionary that climbs through eight stories in imaginative, albeit logically puzzlingly fashion.  Speculative fiction ideas carry their own inherent unquestionability, but when they interfere with the realities of human behavior being aimed at, one must call them into question.  This is not to say Simak is writing pulp and his story is a means of getting person A to B, rather that his intentions are in the right place, only his directions to that place sometimes misleading. Indeed, if we are not mindful of developments to technology and the collective human mindset we may be shooting ourselves in the foot, but the manner in which this idea is presented is in more naïve than credible terms.  Simak a country bumpkin, much of the simple-mindedness comes out in the writing.  That being said, there is likewise wisdom tucked away in his words, wisdom that we would do well to listen to.

The ants, well, best not to read that ninth story...

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