City by Clifford D. Simak
There are any number of well known authors in science fiction (e.g., Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Vonnegut), and I’ve written about two of them in previous articles. There are other significant authors who are not as well known, however, and I thought I’d introduce one of them through one of his stories: Clifford D. Simak. While he wasn’t as prolific a writer as Heinlein or Asimov, Simak did write thought provoking (if somewhat pessimistic) novels that most sci-fi readers will find enjoyable (you can find a full listing of his works here). His focus was generally more on people than gadgets. One of his more dystopian works in that regard (but also a fun read) was his novel City.
City spins it’s tale in the form of histories and folklore told by the intelligent descendants of genetically modified dogs; these tales are mostly focused on the more or less mythical beings “men”. It has a little something for everyone: alien races, mutants, cross-species conflict, parallel universes, and one of the first instances of pantropy in science fiction. What makes it an especially interesting read for me is its prescient look (in 1952!) in the first half of the book at what an-internet centric, robot assisted world might lead to in terms of actual human interaction. Some of the trends we see today–increasing isolation, erosion of social coping skills, the virtual world becoming more real than the real world–form the basis for the eventual downfall of human society in the story. The second half of the book is equally somber. It examines an alternate dog-centric society based on nobler human ideals, and how that society could quickly be undone by the random acts of the few remaining humans.
City is thought provoking if somewhat downbeat, but is still an interesting read. I’ve read two other Simak novels that I also enjoyed: Time and Again and Cosmic Engineers. They both reflect Simak’s dystopian views of mankind’s future, but are also tales that make you sit up and think about things in ways you might not have before. Even though he was one of John Campbell’s stable of writers, Simak’s generally downbeat expectations for man’s future contrasts with that of most of his peers. That doesn’t make his works any less compelling or interesting reading! If you’re looking for another pioneer of sci-fi to read, give Clifford D. Simak a try. You may not have heard of him before this article, but I guarantee you won’t forget his stories once you’ve read them.