City is written with an introduction
as a book and introductions to each of eight parts as if it were an academic
presentation of a series of legends, along with these introductory notes by a
scholar. The scholar lives in our future and is a descendant of today’s
dogs, and the audience he is writing for are future dogs as well. The legends
deal with some (supposed) former inhabitants of Earth called
"men". Different dog scholars have presented a variety of views
on the theory "men" once really existed - some believing there could
be elements of truth in it, some believing it was merely literary license by
ancient dog writers to present ideas, some claiming it is simply old
The legends progress from the
utterly alien first story which doesn't include a single dog. Further
stories present claims that hardly any reasonable dog can take seriously - like
the idea dogs were just animals until "men" modified them to do
things such as talk...
The legends tell of
"men" as having lived in "cities" - places where large
numbers inhabited a relatively small area. With the advent of
hydroponics, atomic energy, personal helicopters and robots, it became possible
for most "men" to live out in the countryside on family
estates. This led to mutants living in isolated areas, emigration to other
planets, etc. Over a period of time, “men” disappeared from Earth and dogs
became the leading species on the planet.
Each "legend" is a
short story giving an insight into one stage of the disappearance of man and,
to a lesser degree, to the rise of dogs as the primary species. The
stories tend to be personal stories about individuals. The individuals
are not just randomly picked average individuals, but they have a personal
presentation as opposed to the kind of story that is expressed as being about
governments and societies. For instance, we have a tale about a person
involved in learning about Jupiter. There is also a part in which telling
the public about Jupiter is an issue on which two people disagree.
Although the migration of many humans to Jupiter is a pivotal point in human
history, the migration itself is not a story here.
We learn some about the ascent
of dog society from later stories in which a few dogs and robots play central
roles. We see certain aspects of dog culture, especially their uplifting
of other mammals and their rule that one mammal should not kill another mammal,
even for food. However, there is a great deal we do not learn about dog
society. If dog society was used to present the author’s view of a better
human society, I missed it. (Perhaps, Simak might have favored not killing
animals, but I don’t get the impression the book is intended to tell us that
humans will disappear unless we stop killing animals.)
A larger fraction of the book
is directly about humans themselves or those acting on their behalf. Even
in parts of the book in which humans are not present and in which the action is
not on behalf of humans, much has to do with the consequences of what humans
had previously done. What we are told about is mostly the processes by
which humans disappeared. Humans don't become extinct as a result of
nuclear war, plague or other common SF apocalypses.
This is partly as a result of
many humans choosing to become something other than human. Partly, some
not-traditional-humans cease to be part of the story, although their fate is
not known. Similarly, the fate of some humans is not clarified beyond the
fact they seem to be isolated from dogs. The concept of the book seems to
be that humanity declined as a result of a lack of having a direction as a
species - although this is not depicted as meaningless lives watching TV as in
some SF stories. There isn’t one single factor that seems to predestine humans
to go down this particular road. There are a series of distinct turning points
which play their own roles in the fate of Man.
I guess part of my reaction
to the book has to do with expectations. I thought City would have more
to do with dog culture, giving a more whimsical perspective on our world. But,
as I said, most of the book is not about dog society and what we do see of dog
society does not seem to be a parable for human society. Nor did the “legends”
about “men” give me the feel of the kind of story I had imagined I would find.
Partly, it’s a matter of
taste. This was not a vision of the future that simulated my particular SF
Partly, my reaction has to do with aspects I considered implausible.
* More or less all humans move to country estates, leading them to become more solitary?
* Surgically altered dogs pass the surgical changes to their offspring?
* In a short period of time
there appears a group of mutant humans who are telepathic and can identify
logical and mechanical problems instantaneously?
* Dogs have sort-of-psychic powers to hear across to parallel universe?
* Ants' bodies have the capability for the kind of intelligence
needed for a technological society?