Did you find a copy of The City by Clifford D. Simak? I hope you did. Please tell me you did. I don’t want you to read on if you didn’t. Clifford D. Simak is my guilty pleasure. His short stories are amazing, and always manage to push into new territories. Territories, that I might add, few dare touch even now. Where he really excels is in the novel. Technically our novel today is a collection of short stories, assembled in a neat framework and involving an interlinked cast of characters. I picked this book not only because it’s a classic, and usually regarded as his best, but also because the structure shows off what he does best.
This is a book in layers. Any attempt to summarize beyond a sentence ends up spilling into paragraphs and conversations. You have mutants, you have dogs, you have humans, and robots all nestled together in a weird universe. Not to mention the aliens and the ants. Did I mention that this book is about philosophy? I could summarize the plot, but you know what happens. I hope you do. It was a wild ride.
Again, what I love about his novels is the layers, and I will not apologize for the fact that the many layers of The City is the sole focus of this review. There is no one resolution. There can’t be. The reader is strung along waiting for all these things to resolve themselves. Some do, some don’t, some resolve right away, some on the final pages. It keeps the story moving, and considering that Simak is already an author that moves, this is impressive. The layers are constantly competing for your attention, which could be bad thing if it wasn’t done so seamlessly. Even though the novel is divided into short stories, they work quite well as legends and fables. No quote can adequately describe this aspect of the novel, but I find it to be relaxing. It’s like life in a way. Nothing is explained totally in simple terms. No real story moves from A all the way to Z. This story pops and bubbles like a thick slow rolling boil. Like something that could almost be real, almost.
It’s not easy to layer like this, but what is more impressive, is that every layer still manages to explore the topic of philosophy in new and varied ways. Every civilization in the book, I think there is seven by my count, handles things in new and varied ways. What is better? I don’t think the book answers that. I don’t think it was meant to. Instead, it highlights that there are different solutions. There are different ways of organizing ourselves into a culture. The cities die before page one. In a way, cities are a metaphor for culture and philosophy throughout the book, and many of these cities die. Joe’s first city dies. He is a loner, and though he prefers it, he doesn’t stay alone. The ants had their hills, and they fell away. They built something grand, and that disappeared too. Dogs, robots, aliens, and especially the humans all go through these transformations.
I suppose every story worth anything has layers. Most, even the good ones, are so thin that it’s like graphite on a page. I am not trying to say that this is a bad way to write. Many of the greats always wrote like this. The layers were psychologically driven, and environmentally driven. Here, in Simak’s world, the layers are always story driven.
To describe how these layers affect the reader, it almost requires a graph. The idea of pictures on this site offends my delicate sensibilities, so I will have to work with my words. Most stories are like riding your bicycle up a lone mountain. Think Mount Kilimanjaro, if you truly need an image. Imagine a road going up it. It may twist and turn as you ascend, you may even descend for a moment or two before you reach the top, the climax. It’s going to take some time, but a good mountain will always reward you along the way and at the summit. Once you are at the top, there is another road down. It is subject to the same rules as the road that brought you here, but it will invariably be fast and easier. Sometimes this is the real reward, the gentle glide to the end of the mountain. Many are so steep in fact, that you are going to get to the bottom in a mere fraction of the time it took you to get to the top.
A Simak novel is not like Kilimanjaro, it is more like the Rocky Mountains. It will take you up, shoot you down, and then send you back up again. Climax after climax after climax. A roller coaster, if you will forgive the cliché, that is drawn out over a few hundred pages. What’s even stranger is that some of the mountains you climb, are related to other ones that you have already climbed in the journey. Some so distant that you can barely see them anymore. The novel is not a single thread. It is an elaborate woven tapestry with multiple threads that you can cling too. As soon as you get atop one mountain, you are always looking for the next, and if you’re anything like me, then you’re kind of hoping that the mountains never stop.
If you ever see a book or a short story with the name Simak on it, then try your damnedest to get your hands on it. Don’t steal it, unless you really really have to. He had a talent for imagining science fiction stories that still stand-alone today. While other people were caught climbing the same old mountains, he was finding new ones that nobody had ever seen before.
Enough talk about mountains, let’s talk about what you will find here next time, and what you should try to start reading. I have turned to one of the greatest science fiction collaborative teams of all time. Larry Niven is famous for many things in the realms of science fiction, namely the Ringworld Universe. Though that is a favorite of mine, not only is it not a collaborative work, but it is not the world that I am diving into next. Instead, let’s see what happens when the minds of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle get together in the novel Footfall. Prepare for the alien invasion.