When it comes to classic sci-fi, there are several names that are largely associated with the genre. Arthur.C.Clarke, Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein are all highly regarded with their often prescient tales of possible futures and rightly deserve their reputation but one author who all too often flies under the radar is American-born newspaperman Clifford.D.Simak. His extensive work is now largely out of print but his novels remain amongst some of my favourite books of all time!
City is regarded by many (wrongly in my eyes) as his greatest and most ambitious work and concerns the gradual fall of the civilisation of man over several thousand years; written as a series of inter-linked short stories originally published seperately. The book begins with the foreward which reveals that in the future mankind is now regarded as a little more than a myth, that intelligent Dogs have taken over the Earth and that the tales that follow are regarded as no more than urban legends or campfire tales with no basis in reality. Over the course of the next eight stories, we gradually witness the evolution of the family Webster, who play a pivotal role in man's development and their eventual fall from grace!
The novel begins with mankind moving out of the cities, returning to the simple country life when automated robots make all work now unnessecary, then follows with mankind reaching out to the stars. Slowly mankind starts to lose their humanity, the robots become self-sufficient and genetically-modified dogs begin to breed to the point where they are the dominant race on the planet! They discover that there are other worlds than this, seperated from our own by the thinnest of margins and begin themselves to travel; leaving the abandoned cities in the hands of the Ants, as slowly the phenonemon known as humanity fades into the area of obscurity.
City is an interesting series of tales, often believable and highly credible, but I can't help thinking that the future they reveal is more than a little bit bleak! Still, with his great story-telling ability, Simak pulls you in and fully immerses you in his world and that is a rare talent in this modern age when so many writers and authors just churn out meaningless and bland tale after tale! In many ways, this is a beautiful piece of literature and one that deserves not to be forgotten. Is it his best work? I would beg to differ but it is true that this book deserves rightly its classic sci-fi status!!
The book is relatively short and very easy to read and can be consumed fairly quickly in only a few sittings. It is available from Amazon in a wide variety of editions (Simak's work has been re-released no end of times as his work comes back in vogue every few years) and the price is dependant solely on how much you are willing to pay. Certainly no sci-fi collection is complete without this in inclusion! As for whether it is the best thing Simak ever wrote, this remains in question. As Simak himself might say.....there are plenty more tales just waiting to be told!!
In the 1940's pulp sci fi was flourishing. Every week would bring out a new edition of some sci fi story magazine or another which would be avidly gobbled up by eager fans. Many of the famous tales we see grace our big screens date from these humble beginnings, and many a grandmaster of science fiction began by collecting his rejection and acceptance notices from these newsstand meccas of the imagination. Indeed, it was in one such now legendary magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, that the City stories by Clifford Simak were initially found. Printed as stand alones in a series during the 1940's, it was not until 1952 that they were gathered up and published as a novel.
Quite often, this meant the writer had reworked his original shorts into a single flowing narrative with a worthy but somehow lesser result. With the exception of some added commentary, this is not the case with this often overlooked great, as each story already had a unifying theme: they were all tales told around a campfire. Now, while this may seem an odd premise for a sci fi novel, when you come to understand that man has disappeared from this world, and the tales are told by sentient dogs and robots, it begins to make a bit more sense. It even becomes more startlingly likely, as one reads on, as it begins to look prescient as the best sci fi always does.
How so? Well, it might have been 1940 something, but Simak foresaw the Internet, and all the ramifications that an online life could bring. Growing increasingly insular in real life, and expanding their social needs online, led to a not so far away possible future where people were largely lethargic and rather agoraphobic. Why go OUT THERE when you could get it ON HERE? People came to rely more and more on the Internet, and robots to do the distasteful as well, because, why bother? Something else can do it...And do it it does, as scientists developed robotics and enhanced animal intelligence in ways that we are currently gasping at as the Japanese unveil more and more lifelike AIs, whose purpose is just that...replace human workers for distasteful jobs, and to cover worker shortages. One such scientifically devoted family, the Websters, spend their entire lives devoted to robotics and enhanced intelligence, with their quest spanning literally millennia. In due course, they have a faithful robot assistant, who witnesses it all unfold and survives to tell the robotic and canine descendents of those who came before, and gave them all they have.It is admittedly a dystopian view, but one that nonetheless appeals for Simak's trademark pastoral background and logically but gently thought out precepts.
Not all tales are full of woe, however, as it would be foolish to think that all people would just blindly follow one path. No, as was ever true, some of mankind are stubbornly NOT going to just sit on their backsides and live virtual lives full of ease. They want to explore, and explore they do, making their dreams come true of space exploration and meeting others from afar. This too, leads to consequences unforeseen by the simple adventuring souls, as they are offered a change of direction in human evolution, and find they must choose. Schisms, schisms, and more schism; the stories cast a reflection of ourselves as we are and could be as we share one common bond, humanity, but different ethos on what that means and how we should go forward.It's as thought provoking today as it was when first published, and truthfully told, its a crying shame that Simak did not have as good a publicist as Asimov as quite honestly, these are as good as it gets and its simply not fair many of the current generation of sci fi fans have NEVER heard of him. It takes a true master storyteller to show us a dystopian future that nonetheless evokes a feeling of great compassion rather than hopelessness, and here we have been given just this rare and invaluable gift.