Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: CITY (1952) by Clifford D. Simak

by Clifford D. Simak

Published  in novel form by Ace Books in 1952
City, Huddling Place, and Census published in 1944.
Paradise and Hobbies published in 1946.
Aesop published 1947.
Trouble With Ants published 1951.

"Where man would follow metal, the dogs will follow ghosts."

After World War II, in the imagination of Clifford D. Simak, reality took a strange turn. All the nations of the world decided to unite as one, and become the planet state of Earth. Its capital was Geneva. War was outlawed, the old  national borders were erased, and a new era began. United humanity re-purposed atomic power as an unlimited source of energy and ended scarcity and want, and devoted themselves to developing what we would call artificial intelligence of a very high order, and soon the world was filled with sapient robot companions and laborers. Humanity, across many generations, used mysterious techniques, no doubt involving genetic engineering, to teach dogs to speak, and soon this program of elevating animals to human levels of communication and cognition spread to all the mammalian creatures of the planet. Violence and the eating of meat are outlawed, and all the beasts of nature, whether predator or prey, come to live in peaceful fellowship.

Truly, paradise.

Well, not exactly. You see there are these mutants. The mutants are hyper-individualists who decided they didn't want to be part of the global nation state. Not so much because they had serious political objections, but more because they had developed such powerful facilities of cognition, and the hypnotically compelling inner lives to go along with such advanced capacities, that they ceased to care what society, any society, thought about them. The mutants weren't violent or warlike. They just stopped giving a damn about society's rules and expectations, and even its larger goals. Let the utopians, the robots, and those talking dogs deal with it. They'd rather not be bothered.

Hey, I guess it's not paradise.It's not without some conflict. No paradise without its discontents. But not too bad.

Yeah, that transition from the city to the wilderness. It's another quirk of Simak's future vision. Instead of crowded megalopolises, humanity decides to spread out, and partly it's fear related to cities being targets for bombs. For awhile there, no one knew how the last global war was going to play out, and so humanity began to abscond from the city, and--

Oh, but did I tell you about Juwain, the Martian philosopher? Yeah, there's Martians in this book, too. Well, there's the one Martian, in particular, Juwain, and his transcendent, fix-all philosophy, Juwainism, and it's kinda funny how that one played out . . . some people couldn't handle the transition from cities, you know? Some people just clung to the old ways, of an ever-expanding humanity, glittering skyscrapers, just stack humankind by the floor, up, up, and up. You'd think most humans, if they could accept towering apartment complexes, they could handle the vast interstellar gulfs. You'd think. Just a Jaunt to Mars to get the rest of Juwain's notes, or something like that. Some people prefer to stay home in a number of senses.

And heaven exists. It's on Jupiter. Now, you won't get there by praying, but you do have to engage in a kind of transubstantiation of the flesh to be able to handle it. Brave young astronauts must be subjected to a form of pantropy--modified to endure the harshness of the Jovian world, but maybe Heaven's not all it's cracked up to be . . .

And then there's the cobblies. Only the dogs and other animals can sense the cobblies, those intrepid movers of furniture, who refuse to manifest in any comprehensible form when photographed. So rare that humans stooped to hoaxing photos and embellishing stories about hauntings and possessions in order to convince themselves they weren't losing their minds. We elevated the dogs, but the dogs could've returned the favor, it would seem, in certain matters of perception. It's that human arrogance, my friend, we don't like the idea that the lifeforms we breed into existence could maybe surpass us somehow, some way.

I guess we gave a kind of pass to the robots. We made them as happy slaves, much like Asimov's early take on robots, but Simak's robotic protagonist, Jenkins, evolves and grows across the generations, and becomes thoroughly human, even downright elderly. Jenkins may remind some readers of Anne Rice's vampires, but without the blood-lust and aristocratic ennui. This loyal robot retainer is witness to generations of the family Webster, which is basically the family of humankind. The canine philosophers of many generations hence even come to call humans websters. That is: "websters" replaces "humans" in canine vocabulary. But about the robots. We create the robots in our image, make them happy in bondage, and, eventually, let them evolve their own way, towards a strange kind of robotic freedom. But even this is due to our human arrogance, you see. We like that human shape. We like it even more when it's shaped in invincible steel, a vision of our armored dreams of hegemony and horror. But Jenkins evolves past our human arrogance, I think, but we the humans set such an acceptable form in motion.

Which brings me to the ants, to critters with decidedly unacceptable forms. You gotta ask yourself: why doesn't humanity elevate the insects, the spiders, the scorpions, the cockroaches, the moths, the butterflies, the whales, the dolphins, the octopuses, the squid, the lobsters, the crabs, the snails, and all the other creepy-crawlies? 'Cause we're bigots, that's why. But bigots, in the long run, seldom have their way in Simak's visionary future history.

Simak's book, City, is full of wild and woolly speculations. It's an exercise in purest make believe. It's science fiction of a kind that doesn't seem to have too much currency anymore. It certainly isn't "hard" SF. You won't find any loving descriptions of heavy-duty megadeath future war equipment being used to wage high body count libertarian revolutions against nanny governments on the moon, or Mars or wherever. No striving intergalactic capitalists or armored mecha soldiers here. No paeans to the glory of dying like some kind of shiny, space-age Spartan in mortal combat with vicious catmen, or anything of the sort. Simak's book is unsettling in its mellowness. He puts most of the technological magic into the black box, as it were, and focuses on the story and the themes. The characters are there to help serve as guideposts in the overall evolution of humanity, and, later, the robots and animals, as one civilization supplants another one, and much is lost, good, bad, spectacular, bizarre, to the erosion of centuries, of millenniums. There's no World War III, thank the cobblies, just time, a worldaround sickness at the prospect of more nationalistic barbarism, a refusal to be hypnotized by the false-power spectacle of Cold Wars and nuclear arsenals, and the many Laws of Unintended Consequences.

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