City: Pastoral SF classic where Rover takes over

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCity by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsCity by Clifford D. Simak

City is a well-loved classic by Clifford D. Simak published back in 1952 and awarded the International Fantasy Award in 1954. It’s actually a collection of linked far-future stories written between 1944 and 1951 about men, mutants, dogs, robots, ants and stranger beings still. It’s told as a series of episodes that trace the evolution of the various species as they reach out to space, but also follows the fates of those groups that remain on Earth.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI would describe Simak’s writing style as “pastoral,” “contemplative,” “philosophical,” and “understated,” and as he was born in rural Wisconsin, there is a recurring theme in his books of rugged Midwestern individuals who take greater pleasure in solitude and the countryside than in crowded cities. As his favorite pastimes were fishing, chess, stamp collecting, and gardening, it’s easy to see how his personality makes its way into his stories. He was designated a SFWA Grand Master and was well regarded in the SF field. However, for readers with more modern sensibilities, his books may seem very quaint and uneventful. Certainly I wouldn’t consider his books “fast-paced” or “intense.” But if your temperament is aligned with his, you might like his work.

In City, we are introduced to the Webster family, who live in the countryside in a future where humanity has developed a decentralized society of independent farms and abandoned city life. As this is the exact opposite of how the world has developed in our world, it’s interesting to speculate how much of this is wish fulfillment for Simak, and how much is based on unbiased extrapolation. I’d hazard that after WWII, based on the explosive growth of suburbs and urban jobs, it’s hard to argue that people would move towards a more agrarian existence, although he does give the threat of nuclear attack as an incentive to live more decentralized lives on farms with their dogs and robots.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe story proceeds to show how robots become increasingly sophisticated and start to develop intelligence, centered on a faithful robot servant named Jenkins (I wonder if he had the butler’s outfit or not). There is also a faithful dog named Towser. There are many hokey scenes of Webster men hunting with their dogs and going after squirrels and rabbits and so on, and these really bored me, but they might appeal to readers yearning for simple country life. The early parts of the book really lacked any kind of narrative energy, as very little happens, and I found it hard to care much about the main characters.

From there the stories move out into space, as mankind seeks to colonize Jupiter, an inhospitable gaseous environment. To survive there, they must take the drastic step of transforming their bodies to a more suitable form, which opens up telepathic communication between man and dogs (who also went through the process). The new bodies and lifestyle are more appealing than human life back on Earth, and these creatures choose not to remain on Jupiter. Later on, other humans decide to migrate to Jupiter as well, leaving on a small scattering of humans back on Earth. I found this story fairly hard to follow, even though the ideas were interesting.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLater stories jump 10,000 years further into the future, when dog civilization has taken over the Earth, assisted by robots. Dogs have developed a pacifist society where all animals are respected and not eaten anymore. Dogs are less interested in the mechanical and intellectual pursuits of humans, but instead pursue more intuitive directions. Meanwhile, there are small enclaves of Websters (a synonym for humans) still surviving, but they live a lonely existence bereft of initiative, and many decide to go into hibernation in the hopes of seeing a better future for humans. At the same time, some new beings called “cobblies” appear, and apparently they can travel between worlds. The robot Jenkins (who is remarkably still around, still faithfully doing his best butler impression) finds a way to emulate this ability to enter other worlds, and decides that humans would be better off somewhere away from dog civilization. My interest at this point was flagging pretty badly, so I really had a tough time keeping up with the story’s details.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn the finals parts of City, Simak returns his focus to Earth, which has now been taken over by an Ant City, a process first began by a mutant telepath in one of the earlier stories who has meddled in human affairs but has little sympathy for normal men. Throughout the stories the mutants co-exist with other beings only grudgingly. The ever-helpful Jenkins seeks a solution for the ants by consulting with the last Websters, but they merely suggest poisoning the ants to destroy them. As the dogs are a pacifist race, they opt instead to leave the Earth to the ant civilization. It took the entire book for me to figure out why it is called City, which I feel was a poor choice of title since it doesn’t really describe the storyline at all. If anything, the book could have been entitled “Country Living,” or “When Rover Takes Over,” or “A Man and His Dog and Robot Servant.”

I’ve wanted to read Simak’s books for a long time, particularly City and Way Station, the latter having won the 1964 Hugo Award. I can certainly see the care he put into his writing, and City abounds with interesting SF ideas, but I found them extremely implausible and not very well explained. His characters also struck me as flat and uninteresting, and the storyline was frankly quite boring. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Ganim, and he did a good job capturing the meditative tone of the story. However, that was a double-edged sword as I was continually struggling to maintain any interest in the book, and my concentration failed again and again. This might have been less so if I read a print copy, but then I’ve listened to many audiobooks and loved them, so I have to believe the story was the problem. Next time I read a story about the world going to the dogs (and robots), I’m hoping it will be more convincing.

Published in 1952. Intelligent canines in a far-future city preserve the legends and lore of their absent human masters Thousands of years have passed since humankind abandoned the city-first for the countryside, then for the stars, and ultimately for oblivion-leaving their most loyal animal companions alone on Earth. Granted the power of speech centuries earlier by the revered Bruce Webster, the intelligent, pacifist dogs are the last keepers of human history, raising their pups with bedtime stories, passed down through generations, of the lost “websters” who gave them so much but will never return. With the aid of Jenkins, an ageless service robot, the dogs live in a world of harmony and peace. But they now face serious threats from their own and other dimensions, perhaps the most dangerous of all being the reawakened remnants of a warlike race called “Man”. In the Golden Age of Asimov and Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak’s writing blazed as brightly as anyone’s in the science fiction firmament. Winner of the International Fantasy Award, City is a magnificent literary metropolis filled with an astonishing array of interlinked stories and structures-at once dystopian, transcendent, compassionate, and visionary.

SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

View all posts by

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *