Sunday, March 7, 2021

City, by Clifford D. Simak (author), Peter Ganim (narrator), Mike Resnick (narrator)

Audible Studios, July 2008 (original publication 1952)

This is a collection of connected short stories and novellas, recounting the decline of the civilization of Man and the rise of the civilization of Dogs. Obsolete usage intentional; these stories were written in the 1940s, with a couple of exceptions, and the underlying viewpoint is that of a midwestern American man of that era, born in 1904. In the case of Simak, that's a compassionate, kindly, humane, even in many ways progressive viewpoint, but it's not the viewpoint of someone whose formative years were the 1960s or later.

These stories chronicle thousands of years of history in relatively brief glimpses of a total of nine short stories and novellas, and the "notes" that tie them together and provide added context, to make them a novel. We follow the men of the Webster family; the Webster family's robot and household retainer, Jenkins; and the dogs. Or, as they start to become beginning in the third story, the Dogs, the uplifted species that will succeed Man.

The first two stories show the start of the unraveling of human civilization, due to, in fact, its success. Nuclear power as an energy source, creating wealth and independence from the need to gather in cities, combined with the existence of nuclear weapons, making cities fatal places to be if there's ever another war, leads to people dispersing into the countryside. Land is cheap outside the cities, and every man can buy acreage and build a luxury estate for his family. (And yes, the use of gender and possessive in that sentence is deliberate. As noted above, Simak's a good man, but not a man of even the late 20th century.) As technology develops (largely undescribed, but we see what are videophones more advanced than we have but entirely recognizable, as well as robots with AI that's still just a happy daydream for us), no one needs to leave home for any of the essentials or luxuries of life, and many don't. Agoraphobia becomes a significant and common problem, which has crucial plot implications in one of the stories, with consequences that reverberate down the centuries.

Seeing the flaws in human beings, one of the Websters, Bruce Webster, starts to work on the dogs, giving them the ability to speak, and the ability to read--including the physical modifications necessary to make these things physically possible for them, not just intellectually possible. We learn of, and encounter, the mutants, humans with far greater intelligence, and lacking the human instinct to gather and connect with each other. In each story we see the dogs on the road to becoming Dogs, advancing in intelligence and understanding. A crucial turning point is the story, "Desertion," where humans on Jupiter are sending out exploratory missions of humans transformed into lifeforms able to live on Jupiter outside the human domes--for the purpose of reporting back, with the awkward complication that none of them do. Finally the head of that project goes out himself, with just his dog, Towser, leading to the complete upending of the progress of humans toward dominating the solar system and expanding to the stars.

The notes frame these stories as the myths and fables of Doggish civilization, in a time when Dogs are pretty  sure that Man is only a myth, a tribal legend from the early days of their race, before civilization developed. The one continuing character who ties all the stories together is Jenkins, the robot who served the Websters, and then inherited their responsibility to help the Dogs along their own path. There's an underlying sadness in these stories, a certain pessimism about humankind, intertwined with a love for both humans and dogs.

What's missing, almost entirely, is women. Women are mentioned from time to time, but there's only two women who become in any way real characters with their own personalities and views, and only one of them is outside of the roles of wife, girlfriend, daughter, secretary. I love these stories; I don't love that aspect of these stories. These are still fine and much-loved stories, but they are also period pieces, and should be approached with that in mind.

Still very much recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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