A Lamentation to Mankind
City is a Post Apocalyptic novel, don’t let anyone tell you any different. The Apocalypse may not be a large single world changing even but the slow isolation of Humanity, but it’s still an Apocalypse. It was written during and Post Second World War when the most destructive forces man had ever seen were used in anger. In this edition of the book there is a Foreword by Clifford Simak in which he states:
‘I, personally, was not so struck with the massive destructiveness of the weapon concept as I was by the evidence that man in his madness for power, would stop at nothing’
In some way City as a book is a deep grieving about the downfall of humanity and their problematic relationship with the planet we all live upon. Even though that description sounds like doom laden book, City is everything but. There is a melancholy edge to it there is still this pastoral like warmth.
“The thought occurred to me then, and I said as much to friends, that I peopled the fantasy world with dogs and robots because I could see little hope of man arriving at such a world’
As with the majority of Simak’s books City has a rural setting. It is a collection of linked stories put together as a past/future History of the decline of the legendary creature known as man as told by the Dogs. At the beginning of each tale we get some notes in order to put the stories in context. The stories follow man as they move from the cities to rural area’s and become more isolated. One of the reason’s for this move is to overt the danger of a Nuclear Holocaust. Humanity comes to like the more rural and dispersed life style and through that become more secluded and isolated.
The preceding educational notes by the Dogs discuss if even a ‘City’ could exist as such a concept seems outlandish to them. In the second story ‘Huddling Place’ the story explores Isolation and touches on themes that Asimov has also covered in books such as The Naked Sun (1957) and The Robots of Dawn (1953). This is Simak’s vision of the Human Apocalypse the isolation and loneliness. In later stories it is shown how man always reverts to past behaviours even an a pacifist society, there is an implication that Humanity cannot throw off it’s innate aggressive tendencies.
The individual stories mainly follow the Webster family and their descendants but making one constant throughout the stories their Robot Butler Jenkins. The clever use of him as an anchor for the overall narrative stops it feeling distant and disjointed, which can sometimes be the problem with this sort of novel of linked stories.
Throughout the stories you can feel the post World War ruminations. After the destruction on such a large scale a lot of Science Fiction of the late 40’s and 50’s concentrated on external threats from Aliens or the environment, where as City in its whole is about man’s threat to himself and the planet we live on.
One of the later tales tells of a research station on Jupiter and as inhospitable as Jupiter is the push to find a way to survive on that planet. Looking at it through the lens of modern issues we can see the idea of advancing in areas that push man further before addressing the issues nearer home.
Overall you can look at City as a Lamentation to mankind and our stewardship of the planet. It is nuanced and doesn’t hit you with concepts, this gives room for thought and ruminations. It’s the sort of novel that afterwards you just feel like a hug. Simak’s prose although straightforward has this literary almost poetic feel to it.
Once there had been joy, but now there was only sadness, and it was not, he knew, alone the sadness of an empty house; it was the sadness of all else, the sadness of earth, the sadness of the failures and empty triumphs.’