I noticed today that, of the four things on my blog, 3 of them are fairly negative and the fourth I can’t remember at all. Oh, right, it was “Cthulu: The Calling” or whatever. I wish that had been more memorable. Sad day. I think that’s because I think negativity is funny, and I am occasionally afraid to say anything unless I can hope someone, somewhere, will find it funny. I actually don’t hate any of the things I reviewed – well, okay, I do hate Space: 1999¸ but in that special way where I actually love it.
To fix that, my next three “reviews” will be (mostly) positive! So to kick that off – I like Clifford D. Simak and I wrote a lot of words about that. A lot. Seriously, 3 people who will read this, so many words. I just keep adding to them. I cannot stop. It is a disease.
I just [er, about, two weeks ago] finished reading City, by Clifford D. Simak, and I really enjoyed it. Even though it took me at least a month to read. And then another two weeks to finish “reviewing” I’ve been busy, shut up! Spoilers follow, but it’s fairly old, and only occasionally depends on suspense, so you should be okay.
City spans at least 12,000 years, chronicling the advancement and disappearance of humanity, and the development of its replacements: the dogs. It follows, primarily, a family of the last name Webster. The Websters are leaders among men, who initially lead the drive to remove Cities in favor of a global community; who lead humanity into space; who help humanity far along its path, and then occasionally hinder that path. They constantly develop new technologies, teach dogs to speak, help discover that there is a paradise on Jupiter (and almost rob humanity of that paradise), and are just all around people. It’s pretty impressive, the way that Simak was able to generate this amazing, successful, and important family without making them perfect. One of them, a brain surgeon in the third or fourth story, sets both humanity and the Martians back by thousands of years. Not because he was evil, or anything, or a coward. Not because he was afraid to visit Mars, but because he developed a violent form of agoraphobia and couldn’t leave his own home. (Whether phobias can develop without a trauma, of course, may be left to Simak’s literary devices.)
City’s strongest point is its framing narrative. City is structured as an academic collection of a myth cycle, produced, reproduced, and beloved by dogs. The “editor” compares varying interpretations of the myth cycle of the Websters and men, trying to summarize the debate over whether or not men had ever been real. Varying scholars that he “cites” argue that the lack of Doggish touches in the first stories suggest a non-Doggish origin, but the lack of any evidence of men’s existence beyond the myth cycle is used by other scholars to argue against this point. It’s a beautiful little reproduction and extrapolation of pre-history scholarship and a wonderful reflection on our understanding of our world’s history, and, most importantly, a great approach to telling the story. I love academically based narratives, and would like more of them. (Any recommendations? The Third Policeman comes to mind, and I think I’ll have to read The Dalkey Archives next. Oh, Flann O’Brien <3)
Narratively, it does have one major weakness. The first few stories depend heavily that old “as you know…” form, which is very grating most of the time. Because I had a suspicion that this book was going to be really good, it having been recommended by my dad, I went ahead and paced on through. I suppose that it can be forgiven by the fact that these stories are supposed to be myths, passed down only as dogs could remember them, but it also takes a second hit from that. If they have that much “as you know…” information, it’s kind of hard to believe that they only read these stories as myths.
City also has a few portions which may or may not be good, depending on how you look at it. In one story, an entire Martian civilization is introduced, which never appears outside of that story except for its one named member. That’s the story which introduces Juwainism, and is the other one that I’ve mentioned directly — where agoraphobia ruins a chance for Earth and Mars to shoot forward into the universe. Juwain is a Martian philosopher who comes up with a way of thinking which would propel both races “a hundred thousand years in the space of two generations.” (Later, we find out that this philosophy is a semi-psychic ability to sense what others feel, saving it from the MacGuffin pile.) Juwain dies, causing the incompletion of his philosophy for the next 3 or four stories, until the mutants suss out what he was trying to get at.
Juwainism exemplifies one of the primary themes of the book. City is largely an examination of competing modes of thinking and competing natures, and how those modes and natures can be co-operative and additive rather than in competition. The Martians, in their one appearance, are philosophers, all of them subject to a certain version of fatalism which means that they haven’t even thought of the concept of medicine or seeking escape from disease. When the humans reach Mars, with their knowledge of medicine, it shoots the Martians forward. It’s suggested that the contact with the Martians also did wonders for humanity, but I don’t recall what advances these philosophers brought being specified beyond “new ways of thinking are neat!” There is a recurring subset of humanity called Mutants, long-lived super-geniuses who shun the company of other men and even of other mutants. They cleanse humanity from the planet by using Juwainism to make them realize that the residents of Jupiter live in a paradise of sensation. It’s cool, trust me. Dogs, without men to guide them, are peaceful and investigative, where they had been subservient to men and constantly striving to be more like them. Robots, without men to guide them, just explore and expand – except for Jenkins the Robot, who still does what the Websters would have wanted, by taking care of and encouraging the dogs. Other animals gain intelligence, and have their own fairly predictable quirks. Squirrels are jittery and act rashly and quickly; a wolf we meet is kind of snide and self-important/reliant, but doesn’t shun company or assistance.
The Science of the Sci-Fi is intriguing itself, although it tends to be glossed over in Simak’s poorest dialogue. Time does not flow the way we think it does; each moment continues on, changing. There is no past, only other worlds – other moments which could almost be said to be a step behind us. A great concept, though I have heard it in other places, I think. Dogs have a psychic ability to sense “cobblies”, things in those other moment-worlds. The only part which really fell short for me in this aspect is Juwainism. A philosophy that directly causes you to understand why other people feel the way they do, and directly. While it’s a great concept, it just strikes me as poor terminology to call it a philosophy. It’s more of a developed psychic ability which, perhaps, could develop from a philosophy. But Simak seems to insist on this ability as being the philosophy itself. While it is the Martian version of Philosophy (described in text as a variety of science), it still seems like poor terminology.
City’s the only thing I’ve read by Simak, so I don’t know if this is a common thread to his work, but it doesn’t really have a strong female presence. There are two significant female characters; one is a secretary, whose only purpose is to chastise her employer, and one is an ex-wife, serving only as a foil to her ex-husband. Both only serve as foils for the male main characters. There are one or two with lines in the 7th tale, but they only giggle (of course, all “men” are giggling dunces by this point of the story). Even all of the animal characters are the male of the species, and all the robots are masculine in the small aspect of a robot’s gender resemblance. “Humanity” is always referred to as “men” or “man,” which is certainly not his fault – except that I don’t recall him using the term “humanity” or “humans” to much effect. It says a lot about the whole issue that I didn’t notice the lack of female characters until I sat down to write this review. I was trying to think of more things to say about the book [which was really necessary, look at all these words], and only then did I think of women. I didn’t even notice it, because it just seemed like the default. And that’s terrible.
My favorite touch was right at the very conclusion, and was very clever and understated, easy to miss, and perhaps even just my imagination: Jenkins asks Jon Webster how the humans used to take care of ants. Jon Webster says that men would put out poison, sweetened with sugar, in order to kill the ants. But it would be slow poison, which they would take back to the hive, killing the entire colony. This is exactly how Joe uses Juwainism to get rid of humanity; Jupiter is sweet, pleasing, and the risk is completely unrecognizable to them until they’re gone.
For some reason, google searches for “Juwainism” primarily produce ads for Viagra. What’s up with that?