City

by Clifford D. Simak

“But for speech and hands, we might be dogs and dogs be men.”

The story opens with Dogs, sitting around discussing the possible previous existence of a creature called Man. But they cannot prove his existence one way or another, so they reference a document they’ve found containing eight stories concerning the fall of man and the dissolution of his cities. Is the collection history or myth?

(Note: As this is a novel consisting of short stories, each story is referenced below instead of just highlights.)

“City” – Cities are being abandoned en masse, opting instead to live in rural areas and commute to work using cheap, clean atomic energy. A city’s council fights against its new opposition, squatters and a dwindling tax base, only to learn it has already lost.

“Huddling Place” – Webster is living out his live of the inherited family farm, constantly battling crippling agoraphobia supported by his lonely lifestyle. When Webster learns a Martian friend of his father’s is dying from a medical issue of the brain, Webster has to decide whether to face his overwhelming fear and travel to Mars to save his friend, or to stay home, safe.

“Census” – Grant, a census-taker, is near the old Webster house when he encounters the talking dog Nathaniel and the enigmatic Joe who for generations has been popping up in family stories where a Webster had an insurmountable problem that Joe then fixed. When Joe makes off with documentation of an unfinished philosophy that would change the world, Grant and Nathaniel decide to give chase.

“Desertion” – Fowler is on Jupiter, in charge of transmuting volunteer’s bodies to that of a native life form in order to explore the hostile planet. But the first five volunteers never returned, and instead of sending another man out to die Fowler and his dog Towser undertake the transformation to discover the mystery. (This is a brilliant story.)

“I can’t go back,” said Towser.
“Nor I,” said Fowler.
“They would turn me back into a dog,” said Towser, “And me,” said Fowler, “back into a man.”

“Paradise” – For five years Fowler has roamed Jupiter as a Loper, a native life form with Fowler’s mind. He decides to go back to humanity, to transform back to a man and explain to the rest of mankind that they don’t have to live out their lives as humans—paradise is right around the corner, on Jupiter. Webster tries to talk Fowler out of revealing his experiences to the world.

“Hobbies” – This is the tale of the robot Jenkins, the servant of the Webster family for the last 1,000 years, now shepherding the intelligent dogs who roam the earth. The last remaining humans, about 5,000, are barricaded in their own stronghold where they can ignore the universe at large and declare themselves its masters. But a Webster returns, looking for a certain hidden switch.

“Aesop” – Jenkins, now 7,000 years old, is a keeper of the Dogs and also serves a new Webster, Peter. When Peter invents the bow and arrow and accidentally kills a bird, Jenkins travels to the last mutant stronghold to gain advice on how to deal with Man’s ability to make war.

“The Simple Way” – Man has been gone for 12,000 years, and Jenkins still guards the Webster home and the Dogs. The ants, given a key to evolution by a mutant named Joe thousands of years before, are constructing a vast, new building, one that will cover the entire Earth in a few centuries, and they are forcing robots to assist them. Jenkins, in a world where the beasts walk hand in hand and killing is no more, wakens the one remaining Webster, in hibernation for millennia, to discover how humans dealt with ants.

“Epilogue” (the 9th story – published somewhat reluctantly twenty years after the eighth and final story) – The Dogs are gone. The mutants are gone. The robots are gone. All that’s left is Jenkins, watching over the Webster house, mice, and the building the ants had covered the Earth with. When Jenkins is finally able to breach the structure, he finds he’s truly alone.

This one’s an ambitious mind-boggler that manages to maintain frenetic pacing. It catalogs mankind’s characteristics by slowly revealing them to the dogs, the robots or Jenkins himself. Interestingly, perspectives from both sides of the essential human issue, war or peace, are given consideration. This story, its assertion that Man may have risen in the first place only due to hostile environment, rings with the same danger as did John T. Sladek’s cripplingly powerful short “The Happy Breed” in Dangerous Visions. But this one’s not just about doom; it’s about the evolution of life, even if in strange, unknowable ways.

Science Fiction Grand Master Clifford D. Simak’s City is as good as it gets. This is a must read.

For Man didn’t know much about what was going on outside. Only what his instruments told him was going on.

5 stars

City 1

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