City

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Clifford Simak was a science fiction writer who began publishing in the 1930s, I think, and wrote a book of connected stories published as a novel about 60 years ago, considered a classic of the genre: City.

It’s kind of an odd, wistful and elegiac kind of story beginning approximately in our own time but then extending for thousands of years.  At the beginning Simak seems to have been extrapolating from the expansion of suburbs around big cities to a world where cities died, which obviously didn’t happen. Part of that world is that each family has its own private plane, atomically powered, which also didn’t happen.

In the first story a city is saved from being destroyed, and is kept as a sort of museum, but the decentralization goes on, and humans become more isolated and scattered. There also seems to be a lot less population than we have now. In that isolation some strange things begin happening. First, there are some human mutations. One of them builds a contraption over an anthill that keeps it warm during the winter, so the ants don’t have to hibernate.Therefore they also don’t forget what they’ve learned during the year, and begin to evolve, beginning to make technology.

The stories are built around a human family, the Websters, and the robot, Jenkins, who serves them. The Websters begin experimenting on dogs, changing their mouths so they can speak, giving them glasses so they can read, and self-reproducing robots to be their hands. The dogs realize their own intelligence and extend it.

But the isolation isn’t entirely good for humans. One of the Websters, who went to Mars early in life and made friends with a Martian who has become an eminent philosopher, finds this out. Webster has meanwhile become and eminent surgeon, and has made a study of Martian brain physiology. His old friend is just on the point of a philosophic breakthrough when he has a stroke, or something similar. Webster is the only doctor who can possibly save him, but he discovers that he’s agoraphobic: he’s so attached to his home that when he tries to leave it he becomes terrified, and is unable to go to Mars, so his friend dies.

Meanwhile, humans have built an outpost on Jupiter. They’re studying the planet and its lifeforms (it does have life, though obviously built on different chemical foundations from ours) as best they can, but it’s a very difficult environment to study. Besides the very different atmosphere and temperature (Jupiter here is a very cold world compared to earth, though this may not actually be true), it has much higher gravity than earth. Scientists are trying to get around this by transferring human personalities to some of the native animals on the planet, which seem to be quadripeds, and which they call “Lopers.” The problem is, no one they send ever comes back–until one does. This is because it’s much more pleasant to be a Loper than a human. Lopers need no food or sleep, and they’re able to use their entire brains, so life is much clearer and more vivid. One man comes back from being a Loper to tell the world, and most of the remaining humans go to Jupiter and become Lopers.

Back on earth, this leaves the dogs, grouped around Jenkins, the Webster family robot; the mutants; a group of wild robots left behind when the humans they served went to Jupiter; a few humans who have been left behind; and the ants.

The dogs, partially from Jenkins’ influence, are quite humane. They interrupt the predator/prey structure, feeding the animals at stations with food made from yeast. Violence seems to have been conquered.

One of the Webster family comes to visit and sees what the dogs have done. Jenkins encourages him to visit and bring others: the dogs will enjoy it. The man goes away and thinks about it. One of his friends has been put into suspended animation, and he’s been thinking about doing the same. He thinks about the interaction with the dogs, and what kind of interaction it would be. He feels that the dogs, who have come so far, consider humans to be gods, and that they ought not to. Humans, despite whatever they’ve accomplished, are imperfect; the dogs are by now at least their equals, and ought not to be overshadowed by humans. So he activates something like a force field that seals the city he lives in, Geneva, so that nothing can get in or out. Then he goes into suspended animation, intending to sleep till the end of time.

As things go on, animals are suddenly getting killed, but not eaten, so it’s not animals doing it. The few humans aren’t the killers either. It’s a mystery.

At the same time, one man has independently reinvents the bow and arrow, and in trying it out, accidentally kills a robin, not realizing how powerful a bow and arrow can be. He goes with a friend to give himself up for punishment, and his friend is suddenly killed by the “cobbly” which has been doing the killing. This entity doesn’t seem to be material in the usual sense, and seems to be from some parallel world. The human tries to shoot it wiith his bow and arrows, but actually scares it away through hating it. Jenkins, the robot, now some 7,000 years old, and in a brand new body, witnesses the whole thing and understands it.

He’s been trying to think what to do about the sudden outbreak of violence, and now understands what to do. Instead of punishing the human who killed the robin, he tells him he’ll show him how to make better bows and arrows. then gathers the remaining humans in the world. When the “cobbly” was scared by the human it had thought a particular kind of thought, which Jenkins had been able to catch and remember, which took it out of this world into another one. Jenkins gathers all the humans together and uses the word, taking them all to another world. This removes the humans from their original world, and also removes their violent influence: Jenkins has recognized that this is how humans function, and he shouldn’t attempt to change that. Instead, he feels sorry for the “cobblies”.

In the last story of the book Jenkins returns from the parallel world to visit the Webster house again. It’s again been several thousand years, and of course things have changed. He says nothing about the humans he took away with him, so we don’t know if they’ve survived or not. The difficulty now is the ants. They’ve been building a huge structure and adding on to it, so that it now takes up acres. The dogs can’t communicate with the ants, and ask Jenkins what to do. Jenkins wakes up the last Webster for a few minutes and asks what humans used to do to combat ants. He’s told to take a slow-acting poison and put it into something sweet, so the ants will eat it and then bring it back to the hive where they’ll infect the others. Jenkins goes away to think about this.

The dogs have reached a level of maturity and civilization. Jenkins could tell them how to make poison to kill the ants, but that would be reintroducing violence into the world. He decides instead to take the dogs to another of the parallel worlds, and leave their original home to the ants.

Obviously this is a fable. The author isn’t happy with the human proclivity to violence, but his depiction of the ending of the predator/prey structure of the world is unrealistic. Of course he shows the animals as being intelligent, but that would, by itself, make little difference, as human history shows.

Simak seems to be unable to dig deeply enough into the problem to see all aspects of it. He feels there’s something wrong with humans, and considers violence to be wrong, but at the same time recognizes that violence can at times be useful. Of course the problem with violence has always been to keep it under control and to use it only ethically.

At one point in the story humans celebrate the 125th anniversary of the last murder. Going that long without a single human committing murder is something that OUGHT  to be celebrated, but Simak still sees humans as needing to accomplish something more, and not wanting to, as if humans were no longer violent because they’ve become rich and decadent. I tend to doubt that decadence would express itself in this way.

When the Websters work at helping dogs to evolve their vision is that the two races work together, as they have historically, but this time on a higher level. Humans don’t hold up their end of the bargain, instead going off to Jupiter, living the old comfortable human life in a city, or living isolated in the wild. If humans had really solved the problem of violence, you’d think they could find something less frivolous to do.

So Jenkins, the robot, decides to hide the previous human existence from the dogs by censoring mention of them from some books and burning the others. Each story is prefaced by what purports to be criticism by leading canine intellectuals, who disagree as to whether Man actually existed, or is merely a mythological figure.

I wonder just how clearly Simak saw the problem. His solution to it was clearly unrealistic; I don’t know if deliberately so or not. He seems to think that cities are the source of all violence, but that’s clearly not true, though cities may be more violent per capita than most areas. It’s certainly clear that he sees humans going off in unsatisfactory directions that achieve little of any use, even though they’ve apparently solved the problem of violence. Maybe the apparent solution is explained by people not caring enough anymore to be violent.

As I said, it’s a strange story, but maybe worth pondering.

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