Clifford D. Simak
Joel Van Valin
Few things seem as dated as old science fiction. When set against a futuristic background, the fashions, mannerisms, and slang of an earlier era appear as quaint anachronisms, conspicuously out of place. Men on spaceships smoke pipes, robotic servants coexist with housewives, handwritten letters are delivered to other planets by an interstellar mail service. A particularly laughable example from Clifford D. Simak's story "Hobbies":
Chapter Twenty-six, he thought and the writer clicked and chuckled and wrote "Chapter XXVI."
I suppose a telepathic typewriter would have seemed far out when "Hobbies" first appeared in 1946, well before the advent of desktop publishing. Now the notion is absurd and Simak, winner of Hugo and Nebula awards and one of the bestselling science fiction writers of the Golden Age, is all but unknown to younger readers of the genre; of his two dozen some novels and story collections only one or two are currently in print.
But there is more than imaginative gadgetry to discover in Simak's fiction. He took on the big questions, and addressed them directly. What will happen to Earth? How will humans be changed by our advancing civilization? How long will we stick around, and what will happen after that?
Simak speculates on many of these concerns in City, a collection of related stories first published in 1952, now considered his masterpiece. The stories trace the evolution of civilization on Earth over roughly ten thousand years, charting the decline of humans and the rise of an intelligent canine culture, as seen through one important family, the Websters. In the title story, taking place in the near future (or, for us, the recent past) humans, no longer tethered to the city, desert its stresses and noise for the country, which makes conventional warfare impossible. In "Census", Bruce Webster modifies dogs so that they can speak (the dog Nathaniel is based on Simak's dog Scootie, to whom he dedicated the book). Humans eventually leave Earth to the dogs and assume a more ideal form on Jupiter ("Paradise"), but a few men and women linger on in Geneva. Having no more need to make a living, and no more hunger for greatness or advancement, they fall into a malaise of idleness and illusion ("Hobbies"). There is also a mutant race of geniuses who feel no particular loyalty to humankind, and a philosophy discovered by a Martian that irreversibly changes human interaction. In the last stories ("Aesop", "The Simple Way") the dogs discover a way to travel to parallel worlds, only slightly different from ours, leaving the Earth to the rising civilization of ants. The whole sequence is built on the assumption that these are ancient legends of the dogs; there are even preliminary notes to each story detailing the interpretations of various canine scholars (of whom Bounce, Rover and Tige seem preeminent).
Contrary to what its title suggests, most of the tales in City take place in rural Wisconsin, around the Webster home. This is where Simak himself grew up (he was born in Millville in 1904) and it forms a common backdrop in his novels. In Way Station, for example, Enoch Wallace, a Civil War Veteran, has let his farmhouse near Millville become a sort of interstellar inn for aliens from across the galaxy. The rustic background, in place of the nominal space port or colony on a distant planet, is a distinctive element of Simak's work, and he has been called the "pastoralist of science fiction." Simak himself, however, lived most of his adult life in the Twin Cities, where he worked as a journalist and editor for the Minneapolis Star (later the Star Tribune).
The stories that make up City were mostly written during the Second World War, the same time period in which Tolkien produced The Lord of the Rings. One can imagine Simak at his news desk at the Star as word of Corregidor or Normandy or Auschwitz came across the wire; the outlook for humanity must have been bleak. In a forward to the 1976 edition of the book he explained that he had been "seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing. Perhaps, deep inside myself, I was trying to create a world in which I and other disillusioned people could, for a moment, take refuge from the world in which we lived." But while Tolkien created a true fantasy world of magical creatures and medieval customs, Simak simply took a step back from our own, to put things into perspective. And it's this perspective, along with the ideas (mostly sociological rather than technological) that shape it which makes Simak worth reading. City forces us to see the Big Picture, but it does so not through epic storytelling but by positioning short tales across time—a device later used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles. Like the many small mirrors in an array telescope, the stories combine to focus on a grand vision.
Simak is probably at his best in his short stories, where an idea can serve as the main vehicle, without having to flesh out characters and narratives (he was not particularly gifted at either). The story was also ideal for his economical, journalistic writing style, tinctured here and there with the debonair persona of his great literary influence, H.G. Wells. Wells himself couldn't have done better than this paragraph, from the story "Founding Father":
Simak might have been describing his own house in Excelsior, where he lived with his wife Agnes and his two children, Scott and Shelley. And of course, the dogs. I imagine it to be both enchanted and comfortably familiar, like the Webster house or the dwelling in Way Station. But Simak's was also a house of serious thought, where a newspaper man looked at cold facts and pondered our fate. He took science fiction seriously too, and after retiring in 1976 he wrote full time, almost up until his death at Riverside hospital in 1988. His vision for the genre was to make it a great literature, dealing with scientific fact and speculation; something that could offer the world a glimpse of its future, and perhaps a gleam of hope as well. "I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space," he wrote in the forward to his collection Skirmish. "I have been concerned with where we, as a race, may be going and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one."
Joel Van Valin is the publisher of Whistling Shade and the author of the fantasy novel The Flower of Clear Burning. He is a firm believer in the future of canine civilization.