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I came across Clifford Simak’s CITY unexpectedly while on my honeymoon in Greece. After browsing around one of the coolest book stores I’ve ever been to (Atlantis Books on the Greek Island of Oia), I stumbled on this paperback in the science fiction section and was immediately struck by the cover art. An evil looking robot holding a dog, while flanked by a menacing black tower seemed at the same time sinister, absurd, and almost comical. Judging by the cover of this book alone, I initially had a hard time believing that it was actually one of the top science fiction novels of all time. After finishing it by the pool in a day of feverish reading, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a lot further up on this list. The book manages to flawlessly create a cohesive overarching narrative through stories that could just as easily stand on their own. For sheer scope of vision, imagination and audacity, it doesn’t get much better than this.
City Summary: With a structure and tone similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, CITY is made up of eight loosely connected stories that are told in the form of “Legends” by the narrator, who prefaces each tale with a bit of commentary and academic notes on the story to come – and who also happens to be an intelligent dog. These legends provide an episodic recounting of the twilight of mankind and the emergence of dogs as the dominant species on the planet. Speaking from some point in the far future, the narrator, in recounting these oral legends to the next generation of pups, makes it clear that, while the stories make mention of a creature called “Man” and a thing called a “City,” there is no proof that they actually existed. In fact, the narrator even mentions that most dog scholars who’ve studied these legends actually believe that idea of Man is simply a literary device used by the original authors to account for the existence of dog culture, much the same way that our human legends and origin stories mention gods and beings who no longer exist.
The first story shows mankind in the midst of a great sociological transformation. With the emergence of near instantaneous transportation options and advanced hydroponic farming methods, the need for humans to live in crowded cities (or “Huddling Places” as Simak describes them) becomes unnecessary, causing many people to move back to the uncrowded countrysides to live a pastoral life. After the initial set up, we are introduced to the Websters, a wealthy family living in a large mansion in the countryside with their faithful robot servant Jenkins. It is through them (and subsequent generations of Westers) that we begin to trace the history of mankind’s eventual obsolescence and the rise of the dogs. From renowned brain surgeon John Webster (whose bout with agoraphobia results in the loss of a potentially groundbreaking philosophical breakthrough for mankind) to John’s son (who develops an interstellar drive enabling man to travel outside of the galaxy) to Robert Webster (a master geneticist whose experiments on dogs provide the groundwork for what is to come), the Webster clan pops up throughout the subsequent stories – to the point where, in the future, the term “Webster” is used by the dogs to describe any Man.
City Review: At this point I don’t want to give away too much, as half of the wonder and excitement of the story relies on experiencing the subtle transformation on your own. I will say, however, that the fall of man is not due to any violence or deceit by the dogs – in fact, the dogs are forever loyal and obedient to their masters. Instead, what makes the story so tragic in the end is how mankind, in failing to achieve enlightenment and unable to truly connect with each other on a spiritual level, end up abandoning our universe (and in some cases the physical world altogether). It’s a counter-intuitive vision of the apocalypse – one in which mankind isn’t destroyed by a nuclear weapon or an invading alien species, but by their own sense of loneliness and isolation from each other. It’s a melancholy eulogy to a species that is constantly evolving and trying to improve their physical surroundings while never quite getting around to developing the spirituality and enlightenment necessary to truly be happy.