Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!
"Desertion" is something of the odd one out in the City cycle, because unlike the other City stories, "Desertion" doesn't take place on Earth, but on a human research station on Jupiter. Kent Fowler is head of the Dome No. 3 Jovian Survey Project and has a problem. For none of the four intrepid explorers that he sent out into the wilds of Jupiter, their bodies altered to suit the atmospheric conditions, have ever returned. And now Fowler is about to send out the fifth explorer, one Harold Allen, who most likely won't come back either.
Fowler is not happy about this, but he feels that he has no choice but to send people out into the deadly Jovian atmosphere, because otherwise the human colonists on Jupiter will be stuck in enclosed domes that are almost impossible to maintain considered the atmospheric conditions as well as the high pressure and gravity of Jupiter. This being a hard science fiction story published in Astounding, we get a detailed description of the conditions on Jupiter with its high pressure and gravity and its corrosive ammonia rains. This being a Clifford D. Simak story, these descriptions are much better written than usual.
Miss Stanley, who is in charge of converting the explorers into their Jupiter-adapted form, is even less happy about the whole mission than Fowler and flat out accuses Fowler of sending young men to their death, while he himself sits safe in his office inside the dome, all so Fowler can become a great man, the one who opened Jupiter to human colonisation.
Miss Stanley is the rare example of an older woman character in a golden age science fiction story who is not someone's mother, aunt or grandmother, but a highly skilled specialist (the best conversion operator in the solar system) in her own right. Miss Stanley also takes absolutely no shit from anybody, least of all Fowler. She knows a man who's chasing glory and doesn't care whom he sacrifices along the way when she sees one. And yes, I'm certain that it is total coincidence that the argument between Fowler and Miss Stanley about the ethics of sacrificing young men for some nebulous greater good was written towards the end of WWII, when the Fowlers of our world were sending young soldiers out to die by the thousands.
To no one's surprise, Harold Allen does not come back, but vanishes without a trace. Fowler tries to deflect the blame onto the conversion machine and the biologists who programmed it, based on a Jovian lifeform the humans call "Loper". But Miss Stanley declares that nothing is wrong with her machine and the biologists offer an undoubtedly lengthy explanation why their data is correct that Simak thankfully spares us.
Unlike some of the more bloodthirsty and ruthless WWII generals of the era, Fowler does have a conscience. As a result, Miss Stanley's accusation that he is sitting there high and dry, while he is sending young men to their deaths has clearly gotten to him. Therefore, Fowler decides that the next person to go out into the Jovian atmosphere will be Fowler himself. Though he won't be going alone. Instead, he'll take his faithful dog Towser with him, because Fowler would feel bad about leaving him behind.
When Fowler tries to call for Towser, he realises that he's telepathic and that he can talk to Towser now. And Towser, who's very happy with his new body, because it is so much better than his aging dog body, can answer him.
"You're… talking to me", a stunned Fowler exclaims, whereupon Towser replies that he always talked to Fowler, only that Fowler could never understand him.
Fowler and Towser engage in a friendly race to an ammonia waterfall that crashes over a cliff of frozen oxygen and realise that their minds are changing as well and that they know things they never knew before about Jovian colours and how to make metal withstand the Jovian atmosphere better. "Maybe…" Fowler muses, "…humans are the morons of the universe, naturally slow and foggy."
Fowler also realises why none of the people he sent out ever came back. Because life is simply so much better as a Loper, the surface of Jupiter is beautiful and there are so many mysteries to explore.
Towser declares that he won't go back, because they would only turn him into a dog again. Fowler pities the people in the dome who have no idea how wonderful life as a Loper really is. But he also realises that he couldn't live in his old human body anymore, not even for a short while, because its limitations would simply be too much to bear, now he knows how much better life can be.
And so Fowler and Towser head off into the sunset (or the Jovian equivalent thereof) to have amazing adventures on Jupiter, while back at the dome, Miss Stanley and the others wonder what happened to them.
For some reason, I haven't read much of Clifford D. Simak. At least based on "Desertion", I should probably remedy that, because "Desertion" is a wonderful story. It's also that rare beast, a hard science fiction story published in Astounding that manages not to be clunky and filled with infodumps and exposition, but beautifully written. And "Desertion" absolutely is hard science fiction based on what was known about Jupiter at the time, even if the conversion machine is very much handwavium.
In fact, I was stunned that "Desertion" (and the other City stories, for that matter) was published in Astounding, because even though it is hard science fiction, "Desertion" is not at all what you'd expect to find in Astounding and not just because it is better written than approximately ninety percent of the other stories in the magazine. No, "Desertion" also violates John W. Campbell's famous dictum that humans must always triumph. Because the humans in "Desertion" are not superior at all. Instead, they are small-minded, blinkered and – to quote Fowler – "the morons of the solar system". Even a random Jovian critter the Earth scientists are not even sure is intelligent is superior to humans.
Add to that Miss Stanley (who's awesome, by the way, and who I hope gets a Loper body and great and glorious adventures of her own) blatantly criticising men (and they almost always are men) sending out others to die, just so they can make their mark in the world, and I honestly wonder how on Earth this story came to be published by John W. Campbell in Astounding? Was Campbell too busy writing manuals for sonar systems or annoying the FBI that month, so that his assistant Kay Tarrant (who according to contemporary accounts had more than a little of Miss Stanley in her) took over and picked this one out of the slush pile? On the other hand, as I've noted before, John W. Campbell published quite a lot of stories that were a far cry from what we now consider Campbellian science fiction.
Stylistically, Simak is much closer to Ray Bradbury as well as Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore's solo works than to Isaac Asimov, George O. Smith, A.E. van Vogt and the other mainstays in Campbell's stable during the war years. And like the Bradbury stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project, "Desertion" feels very timeless and with a few tweaks wouldn't seem out of place in a contemporary issue of Lightspeed, Clarkesworld or Tor.com. But unlike the various Bradbury stories, "Desertion" is hard science fiction, which usually dates much worse than softer science fiction or outright fantasy.
A beautiful story about friendship, dogs and what it feels like to be alive. Highly recommended.