Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
City / Cliffod D. Simak
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Saturday, 28 November 1998
Far, far in the future, Man is but a myth. The ruling race on the Earth are the Dogs. Not warhounds, mind you; intelligent, caring dogs. And the legend of Man is passed among dogs from father to son, in eight stories that are more likely to be legend than truth - or so the dogs think, anyway.

City is a collection of these stories; one of many published by the dogs. It includes general notes on the legend of Man, and specific notes for each of the eight stories.

Unless you’ve read the book, this probably sounds silly or childish, some sort of a parody on Planet of the Apes (written a good decade and a half before the 1968 movie starring Charlton Heston). But it isn’t. Simak’s pastoral writing style slowly reveals how, over the centuries, dogs became the dominant race on earth.

They didn’t do it without help: Bruce Webster surgically altered dogs’ tongues, enabling them to mimic human speech. I guess that today, genetic engineering (rather than surgical alteration) would have been chosen. But this doesn’t really matter, since the book is not hard-core SF.

Simak uses the doggish viewpoint for looking at humanity from a radically different angle. The first of the stories is timed somewhere at the end of the 20th century. When commenting about it, the doggish editor wonders about the concept of the city, but more than that, about war and mass killing. Cities, in Simak’s future history, slowly disappeared after the appearance of family air-transport (like private helicopters), which enabled people to move to rural homes and come to work from afar. In retrospect, this looks unlikely today, but the advance of work-from-home technologies might eventually lead to a similar result.

(From the book) Another concept which the reader will find entirely at odds with his way of life and which may violate his very thinking, is the idea of war and killing. Killing is a process, usually involving violence, by which one living thing ends the life of another living thing. War, it would appear, was mass killing caried out on a scale which is inconceivable.

The hero of the first story is named Webster, and his sons for generations to come are the heros of most of the other seven stories. The stories step through time, sometimes in small steps of a few years, sometimes in giant leaps of several centuries; the last story is timed hundreds, or thousands, of years in the future.

In addition to the dogs’ view of humankind’s (future) history, and the underlying cynicism and criticism, there’s also the layer of the stories themselves. Simak does not predict a brilliant future for our race - but it’s nothing like an atomic disaster either. Except for the Webser family, two characters survive throughout the ages. One is Joe the mutant, who’s sardonic laughter keeps on echoing down time. The other is Jenkins the robot, which is intelligent enough to realize that humans will always follow the bow-and-arrow path, that long and twisting road that always leads to tools of mass destruction.

(From the book) “Because it’s not a laughing matter. It’s just a bow and arrow, but it’s not a laughing matter. It might have been at one time, but history takes the laugh out of many things. If the arrow is a joke, so is the atom bomb, so is the sweep desease-laden dust that wipes out whole cities, so is the screaming rocket that arcs away and falls ten thousand miles away and kills a million people.”

— Jenkins

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If you liked City:
You will probably also enjoy Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

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