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2015-09-04

City

City

Clifford D. Simak

I have a soft spot for 1950s Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov's Robot series was the first serious adult fiction I read. I was in the 6th grade. I went through Asimov's Robot books and Foundation books. I read Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert in 7th grade. As I got older I still turn back to the golden age of Science Fiction.

City for me is like an old cozy quilt. Much like Asimov's early works it isn't as much a novel as a tight collection of short stories. Many of the elements are very familiar and the book in many ways is a precursor to Clarke and Asimov.

The collection is drawn together to appear as if it was a scholar edition of oral legends that make up the "mythical" canon of ancient Doggish history. The question the edition is approaching is simple "Is Man a Myth?" You see the edition is a product of intelligent speaking dogs.

The stories begin in the mid-21st century. The urban complexes of the 20th century are dying. Hydroponics and Yeast-based protein substituted have made agriculture to collapse. Farms are abandoned and empty. The middle and upper classes are buying up massive estates built by robots for almost nothing and commuting in to work via personal helicopters. The suburbs are almost empty as no one wants to live in a cramped suburb anymore.

The story, and all of the subsequent ones in the book, center on the Webster family. The family at the beginning are still living in a suburban Chicago home. Dispossessed farmers squatting in foreclosed home-compounds are pretty much their only remaining neighbors.

Over the following stories, we jump forward and learn more about the Webster clan's following generations always accompanied by a faithful robot servant, Jenkins. The third tale introduces the dogs. A result of experimentation by a Webster, the dogs are given the power of speech and literacy.

We also learn of the Mutants, implied to be the descendants of the farmer-squatters from the first story they bring an element of mystery as their motives and thought become less and less human.

In the meantime, man has spread out across the solar system, encountered aliens on Venus and Mars and are planning to go to the stars.

But a series of events, both innocent and malicious, alter the course of humanity leaving the robots, the dogs, and a small enclave of dispirited humans left on the Earth.

The book explores the nature of intelligence and how we approach reality and progress are tied to our own natures

Like most books of the period, you take the science tongue-in-cheek. Lamarckian inheritance is used to explain doggish speech (which is particularly cringe-worthy), there is a strong, albeit subverted, current of 1950s futurism. One thing the book from my perspective in 2015 does give me is a realization that while Simak, who was criticizing the Atomic Age futurism as potentially not resulting in our idea of utopia, seems as dated as many of the futuristic predictions of his time there is a good chance that modern singularity cynics, like Charles Stross, will also seem dated as what comes about won't be what either the futurists or the cynics predict but something different.

My biggest criticism is I that while, I applaud Simak's deep love of dogs, his views of man and dog are a bit stilted. Man is not solely a creature of mechanical progress and death as the later parts of the book proposes. Nor are we truly individualistic hedonists like the early part of the book proposes. We are a social animal. It's why we are able to co-exist with dogs so well. We both have similar social structures. Dogs also are not altruists. They politic amongst themselves, engage in their own small wars, they even kill for pleasure. I love dogs, I do. But they are much more like us than Simak makes them out to be.

All in all, I love the book. And it amazes me how many elements of Simak's stories were later reused by the giants.

I received a digital copy of this book for review from NetGalley and the publisher.