by Robert Silverberg
He was a stocky, white-haired middlewestem newspaper editor when I knew him, a man of gentle mien with twinkling eyes and a warm smile and a calm, unpretentious manner. Since he tended to write stories set in the world he knew best, which was that of Wisconsin in the 1920s, it was easy to think of him primarily as a folksy, homespun kind of writer, science-fiction's own cracker-barrel philosopher. The ostensible setting of his fiction might be the eightieth century, or a parallel universe, or a strange world of some other galaxy, but somehow, in one way or another, it was always fundamentally Wisconsin in the 1920s there, a world of farmers and dogs and fishing-holes and rocking-chairs on the porch. And so it was all too convenient to categorize Clifford D. Simak's work as mere nostalgic rhapsodizing for a time of lost innocence -- simple, gentle fiction by a simple, gentle man. City, his most highly regarded novel, is the best evidence I know to prove that this is a vast oversimplification.
In understanding Simak, it might be useful to consider the career of another American writer with whom he has more than a little in common: Robert Frost. Frost celebrated the vanished world of rural New England in straightforward, unadorned, colloquial verse, telling apparently artless little tales of hired men and mended fences and crows shaking snow out of hemlock trees. Those who wanted to see in Frost's work only the cheery countrified affirmations of an American bumpkin-bard saw only that and nothing more, and for a long time he was popularly regarded by casual readers as a cheerful spinner of the sort of verse often found on greeting cards; but those who were willing to take a closer look at his poems discovered that behind the Currier-and-lves surface lay a cold, clear-eyed vision of the fullness of life, realistic and uncompromising even unto the ultimate darkness and bleakness.
So too with Simak. He was, by my unvarying experience and that of his other colleagues, a genuinely good and kindly man, benevolent and lovable, a thoroughly nice person. (Frost, so I understand, was not quite as nice.) And he did, in his fiction, recapitulate again and again his woodsy boyhood world, so different from the one most of us have experienced. "We hunted and fished," he once wrote, "we ran coons at night, we had a long string of noble squirrel and coon dogs. I sometimes think that despite the fact my boyhood spanned part of the first and second decades of the twentieth century that I actually lived in what amounted to the tail end of the pioneer days. I swam in the big hole in the creek, I rode toboggans down long hills, I went barefoot in the summer, I got out of bed at four o'clock in the morning during summer vacations to do the morning chores. For four years I rode a horse to high school -- the orneriest old gray mare you ever saw, and yet I loved her and she, in her fashion, loved me. Which didn't mean she wouldn't kick me if she had a chance. And before high school I walked a mile and a half to a country school (one of those schools where the teacher taught everything from first grade through eighth.)"
Which didn't mean she wouldn't kick me if she had a chance. A little touch of country realism, that. Simak never was afraid to express sentiment, but he was no sentimentalist; the country boy learns early that life is real and life is earnest, and that after the rich crops of summer come the inevitable cold blasts of autumn's winds and the silence of the winter snows. Those who go to his fiction -- the best of it, anyway -- for bland reassurance are likely to come up against disturbing surprises. City is a prime case in point.
Simak was born in 1904 in Millville, Wisconsin, where his father, a native of a town near Prague, had built a log house and established a small farm. After high school he held a succession of miscellaneous jobs before joining a small-town newspaper, the Iron River Reporter of Iron River, Michigan, in 1929. Swiftly he rose to become its editor; then he moved along to Spencer, Iowa in 1932 to edit the Spencer Reporter, and when that paper was bought by a larger chain his employers moved him to a series of jobs as editorial troubleshooter for various small newspapers in North Dakota, Missouri, and Minnesota. Seeking greater journalistic challenges, in 1939 he found a job on the copy desk of the much larger Minneapolis Star, and he rose steadily through the paper's hierarchy until in 1949 he attained the post of news editor, a position he would hold until 1962, when he was named science editor of the Star and its companion paper, the Minneapolis Tribune.
Reading had been an important part of his life from his first years, and an early fascination with the science fiction of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs led him, by 1927, to become a regular reader of the pioneering science fiction magazine, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Like many science fiction readers, he soon decided to try his hand at writing stories of his own as a parttime avocation. His first, "Cubes of Ganymede," was submitted early in 1931 to T. O'Conor Sloane, the scholarly octogenarian who had replaced Gernsback at the helm of Amazing Stories. Sloane accepted the story but somehow never notified Simak of the fact, nor did he get around to publishing it; evidently it languished forgotten in the magazine's files until 1935, at which time Sloane returned it as obsolete. It never did see print.
Simak had better luck with his second story, "World of the Red Sun," which Gernsback published in the December, 1931 issue of his new magazine, Wonder Stories. Over the next couple of years Simak wrote a handful of other stories for the primitive science fiction magazines of the day. Those early stories were undistinguished items with names like "Hellhounds of the Cosmos" and "Mutiny on Mercury," but they displayed a considerable gift for science fictional conceptualization and they were notable also for Simak's clear, precise, straightforward narrative style.
Even as a hobby, writing science fiction in that period was an unrewarding pastime: the magazines paid poorly and slowly, the editors were often capricious and limited in their tastes, the troubled circumstances of Depression-era publishing made it a matter of chance that any magazine would survive long enough to publish the material it had accepted. (And payment was generally made only on publication.) Simak drifted away from writing fiction and not until 1937, when the vigorous and iconoclastic John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories, the most successful of the three existing magazines, did he return.
Simak found Campbell's uncompromising rationalism and his no-nonsense approach to the craft of fiction very much to his own taste. He became a frequent contributor to Campbell's retitled Astounding Science Fiction during that magazine's robust Golden Age, a period when Campbell was introducing such new writers as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, and A.E. van Vogt to his readers, creating an astonishing revolution in the nature of magazine science fiction.
Although, because his stories were relatively few and far between, Simak was never considered a first-magnitude star of Campbell's magazine in the same way as Heinlein or van Vogt, he nevertheless quickly became one of the most important members of the Campbellian circle of writers. He introduced himself to Campbell's readers with three short stories within five months, "Rule 18," "Hunger Death," and "Reunion on Ganymede." (An adolescent reader named Isaac Asimov didn't like "Rule 18," and wrote to Campbell to tell him so. When Asimov's letter was published in the magazine, Simak sent a letter to the teenager, politely asking him for further details of what he felt was wrong, so that he might improve his work. Asimov, amazed, re-read the story, discovered that he had misinterpreted Simak's subtly understated technique as incompetence, and apologized, thus starting a correspondence between the two that would last for many decades. As he entered into his own writing career, Asimov unashamedly and openly imitated Simak's literary approach.)
After those initial stories came a three-part serial, Cosmic Engineers, a space epic that blended the grandiose high-tech mode of such established Astounding favorites as E.E. Smith and Campbell himself with his own uncluttered and direct narrative approach. He followed it over the next five years with a group of competent but unspectacular stories at intervals of four to seven months, earning himself a solid place in the second rank of Campbell's contributors. The down-home manner of his writing and the resolutely unflamboyant nature of his themes, though, led his work to be consistently underestimated by the readers.
And so, when a short story called "City" appeared in the May 1944 Astounding, it was received in most quarters with indifference. The ho-hum opening lines -- "Gramp Stevens sat in a lawn chair, feeling the warm, soft sunshine seep into his bones" -- promised nothing more than amiable folksiness, and as the story unfolded, setting forth a prediction of a re-ruralized United States of the near future and making much use of phrases like "danged fool" and "that dadburned lawn mower," it seemed to deliver just that. Campbell's readers gave it a disappointing fourth place in their monthly review of the issue's contents.
But two months later came a sequel, "Huddling Place," that carried the premise of its predecessor into new and unsuspectedly somber territory, as Simak demonstrated that one of the consequences of the dismantling of American urban life would be a crushing sense of agoraphobia. "Huddling Place," when the ratings came in, finished in second place, behind the opening installment of Raymond F. Jones's powerful and popular novel, Renaissance. And when "Census," the third segment of what now was obviously going to be a continuing series, appeared in the September 1944 issue, it too finished a strong second behind another installment of Renaissance. Campbell's readership -- in the main, a fastidious and knowledgeable group of sophisticated science fiction readers -- had quickly come to see that Simak had something special under way.
Four more stories followed at irregular intervals, until what had become known as the "City" series came to its apparent end in the December, 1947 Astounding with "Aesop." By then the series had traveled an immense distance from its deceptively underplayed opening, and Simak had unveiled a startling melange of robotics, immortality, extraterrestrial exploration, and parallel-world mysticism, all stemming in unforced sequence from his original premise of a decentralization of urban civilization. "Aesop" finished first in its issue's reader ratings, topping even the current installment of E.E. Smith's long-awaited novel, Children of the Lens.
The tale was told, or so it seemed, and that was that. In those days, when the concept of paperback books was just becoming established and science fiction in hardcover form was entirely the province of a few undercapitalized private presses, virtually all magazine science fiction -- even the work of Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury -- was doomed to immediate oblivion, surviving only in the yellowing files of pulp-magazine collectors. When Simak unexpectedly added an epilog to the "City" series -- "The Trouble with Ants," four years after the publication of "Aesop" -- it was an event of interest mainly to those collectors. (The fact that the story appeared not in Astounding but in a mediocre contemporary, Fantastic Adventures, caused no little discussion at the time. Plainly Campbell had rejected the story -- but why? Simak, questioned many years later about it, replied, "What I remember him writing was that he thought we had enough of the series. So I took him at his word. I never argue with an editor. He has a perfect right to turn down a story." But other writers, less kind-hearted than Simak or perhaps more knowledgeable about Campbell's philosophical quirks and prejudices, have speculated that the real reason for the rejection was Campbell's unwillingness to publish a story so barren of hope for Earth's human inhabitants. Passively handing the planet over to the ants would never have been an idea palatable to Campbell. Or perhaps Campbell felt that the story formed too inconclusive, as well as too bleak, a finale for the famous series. (Simak may have felt that way too: two decades later he wrote a second epilog to the series, fittingly entitled "Epilog," as a contribution to a book of original stories by Campbell's regular authors that was published in Campbell's honor, a couple of years after the great editor's death in 1971. In it he explicitly resolved much that had been left unsaid at the completion of the original 1944-51 group of stories.)
City did not, of course, remain hidden in crumbling pulp-magazine pages forever. The private-press science-fiction publishers assiduously mined the classics of Campbell's Astounding all during the early 1950s, bringing forth Heinlein's "Future History" novels and Asimov's "Foundation" books and Smith's "Lensman" series and much else; and in 1952 it was the turn of Simak's "City" stories, artfully assembled into chronicle form by means of a group of brief prologs by supposed canine editors of the ancient tales, and published by Gnome Press, one of the foremost specialist houses of the day. Many other editions have followed over the years, and City is generally considered to be one of the greatest science fiction works of its era. (In 1953 it received the International Fantasy Award, the most significant science-fiction/fantasy literary award at that time, as the best science fiction novel of the year, and it has been included in virtually everybody's hundred-greatest-science-fiction-book-list ever since.)
But is it, I wonder, really science fiction? Certainly it is no ultrarealistic "hard-science" novel. Simak attempts little in the way of extrapolative thinking, and such as there is has long since been rendered obsolete by events. His profound nostalgia for a vanished America led him, in the opening story, to show how the world of circa 1823 could be recreated by way of post-World War II technology -- hydroponics, atomics, cheap private planes leading to a withering away of urban culture by the late twentieth century. That did not happen, nor is it likely to. He gives us, also, such oddities as an experimental starship essentially being designed and built by one man, and hints at the possibility of the heritability of acquired characteristics, something that he (and Campbell) surely knew was not merely an unorthodox scientific concept but a disreputable one.
No, I think Simak had something other than extrapolative prediction in mind. What he has given us is a poetic fantasy of an imaginary time that he must never seriously have expected literally to come to pass, a steadily deepening vision of an ever stranger future Earth. He is writing about the loss of community in a world altered by technology, and the strange manifestations of the communal spirit that might emerge once our present mechanistic society has been swept away by the forces we have set in motion. His folksy opening, Gramps and his "dadburned" lawn mower, widens and widens until a breathtaking personal vision of futurity is revealed, informed on every page by the deep compassion that was integral to Clifford D. Simak's character, but innately pessimistic as a view of humanity's future on Earth. City is no humanistic hymn to the enduring spirit and worth of the human race. Far from it.
"The series was written in a revulsion against mass killing and as a protest against war," Simak declared, many years afterward. "The series was also written as a sort of wish fulfillment. It was the creation of a world I thought there ought to be. It was filled with the gentleness and the kindness and the courage that I thought were needed in the world. And it was nostalgic because I was nostalgic for the old world we had lost and the world that would never be again. . . . I made the dogs and robots the kind of people I would like to live with. And the vital point is this: That they must be dogs or robots, because people were not that kind of folks."
And so, surprisingly, it turns out that the literary masterpiece of this warm and good and loving man is basically an excursion into misanthropy -- the quiet cry of someone who has lost patience with his own species. We see mankind -- focused, for simplicity's sake, through the single family of the Websters -- making a series of decisions, often disastrous ones, that cumulatively obliterate our history, our culture, everything familiar, and even, eventually, our ties to Earth itself, so that we abandon the planet to sentient dogs, to wise old robots, to mutant supermen and -- finally -- to the ants.
"Desertion," which has been reprinted
many times as a standalone story, is the key story here. It relies on
is essentially magic -- the conversion of humans and even dogs at that
flip of a switch into an unimaginably alien life-form -- to make
points about the nature of humanity, of perception, and even the
relationship. The dark, haunting final lines of that story -- embedded
as it is virtually at the center of the book -- give the lie forever to
the legend of Simak as a simple, artless celebrator of the epoch of the
old swimming hole. There are certain flaws of execution in City
Simak would, I'm sure, gladly have acknowledged. But to pay much
to them is to miss the point. City is a rich and
powerful and disturbing
novel, as well as a work of singular beauty and remarkable visionary
the finest book of one of the greatest of the pioneering science
writers of the Campbellian Golden Age.
- Robert Silverberg
August 3, 1995
This essay first appeared as an introduction to the 1995 Easton Press edition of City by Clifford Simak and appears here courtesy of Robert Silverberg.
Background courtesy of Eos Development