Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Retro Review: "City" by Clifford D. Simak

I'm not a huge William Timmins fan, but this is a great cover.

"City" is a science fiction novelette by Clifford D. Simak, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo. The magazine version may be found online here. "City" is part of Simak's eponymous City cycle and has been widely reprinted.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

"City" opens with an old man known only as Gramp Stevens (in "The Huddling Place", a later City story, we learn that his full name is William Stevens) sitting in a lawn chair, enjoying the sun and watching as the lawn is mowed. Gramp Stevens grumbles about his grandson Charlie's taste in music and grumbles even more, when his daughter Betty asks him to move, so the lawn can be properly mowed.

The whole scene feels like a 1950s suburban idyll and reads like something found in an issue of the Saturday Evening Post or Ladies Home Journal, if not for the fact that the lawnmower is a robot. The automatic lawnmower might be the most accurate prediction found in all of Astounding in 1944, by the way, because robotic lawnmowers have become pretty common in recent years. The timing is a bit off, though, because from dates given in this and other stories, we can deduce that "City" is set in 1990.

We gradually get more clues that this is not a piece of contemporary fiction, when Gramp Stevens gets a visitor, Ole Johnson. What makes Johnson's arrival remarkable is that Ole Johnson still drives a car, an ancient, dilapidated car that would never pass the mandatory biannual technical TÜV inspections in Germany. Johnson is the only person Gramp Stevens knows who still drives a car – everybody else switched to personal helicopters long ago. And since no one is using cars anymore, the streets have long since fallen into disrepair as well, the asphalt cracked and overgrown with weed. Gasoline is no longer available as well – Johnson's car runs on a mix of kerosene, tractor oil and rubbing alcohol.

Gramp Stevens and Ole Johnson chat for a bit, then Johnson takes off again to try and sell some of his homegrown vegetables at the market. Gramp cautions Johnson that he won't be able to sell anything. Everybody is only eating hydroponic vegetables now, because hydroponics are more sanitary and the produce supposedly tastes better. I suspect Simak never had the misfortune of trying to eat the watery and tasteless Dutch greenhouse tomatoes that were common until approx. twenty years ago.

Once Ole Johnson has gone and the robot lawnmower has chased Gramp Stevens away by switching to watering the lawn, Gramp gets another visitor, Mark Bailey, one of the few remaining neighbours. However, Bailey only drops by to say good-bye, because his daughter-in-law has finally persuaded his son to move out into the country like everybody else. Gramp confesses that his daughter Betty is pestering her husband to move into the country as well, but that her husband won't go along with it, because he is the secretary of the chamber of commerce of the unnamed city, so moving away would look bad. Gramp Stevens and Mark Bailey muse about the olden days of the American suburban idyll.

Once Bailey has left, Gramp Stevens goes for a walk and muses some more about the lost suburban idyll and coincidentally also gives us an infodump about why this particular suburban idyll is largely deserted and has fallen into disrepair. Since this is a Clifford D. Simak story, the infodump is also much better written than the usual Astounding infodumps.

In short, the introduction of personal planes and helicopters made cars unnecessary and commuting easier. The introduction of hydroponics meant that traditional farms were no longer necessary. This freed up former farmland, so people flocked out into the country to purchase huge estates. Furthermore, new constructions technologies mean that homes can be quickly and cheaply built and altered at will. Gramp Stevens doesn't like any of these new developments. He also has another encounter, this time with Henry Adams, the grandson of a former neighbour and old war buddy of Gramp's. Henry Adams wants to know where his grandfather lived. Gramp shows him the house and also learns that his old war buddy has died.

The scene now switches to John J. Webster, son-in-law of Gramp Stevens and one of Websters who are the red thread that runs through the City stories. Webster is late for a city council meeting, when he meets a ragged man – Simak describes him as a scarecrow – carrying a shotgun. We learn that this ragged man is named Levi Lewis and that he is one of the farmers displaced by the rise of hydroponics and the exodus to the country. As a result, Lewis and his fellow displaced farmers moved into the abandoned city houses to grow their gardens and hunt rabbits. However, these squatters are not wanted in the city either. Police Chief Jim Maxwell considers them criminals and wants to get rid of the abandoned houses as quickly as possible by burning them down. After all, the city owns the houses now because they were seized over unpaid taxes. Other members of the city council disagree and so Webster walks into a heated debate.

One city council member accuses the chamber of commerce of being ineffective and running campaigns and events that cost money, but fail to draw the necessary crowds because the crowds have all moved to the country. When Webster, who is the secretary of the chamber of commerce, is asked to give his opinion, he holds an impassioned monologue and declares that the city is dead and over, that it was dead and over even before personal helicopters and hydroponics were its death knell, that people headed out to the suburbs as soon as they could. Since Webster has just proven himself to be insubordinate and well as something of a jerk, he's fired on the spot. Webster doesn't much mind – after all, now he can move to the country, too, and buy himself a huge estate with a running stream. Though he'll have to find a new job first.

However, finding a new job is easier said than done and so we meet Webster again, when he heads for an office with the slightly sinister name "Bureau of Human Adjustment", which is apparently an employment agency. The secretary – just referred to as a girl – tells him that he is expected, which surprises Webster, because he didn't make an appointment and doesn't need to be adjusted either. All he needs is a job. To his surprise, Taylor – head of the bureau – offers him one. He also tells Webster that they have been expecting him, because Webster's old boss made sure that he was blackballed and won't get a job on any city council or chamber of commerce anywhere in the world.

Now it's Taylor's turn to infodump. He tells Webster that the Bureau of Human Adjustment is not really an employment agency. Instead, they help people to adjust to the brave new world they find themselves in. The advent of atomic power cost a lot of jobs, so people had to be retrained and learn new skills. The abolition of traditional farming cost even more jobs and caused even more problems, because – so Taylor says – the farmers didn't really have any skills beyond growing crops and handling animals. I'd say that Taylor (and Simak for that matter) have never met a farmer, but it seems that it's surprisingly common sentiment that farming is low-skilled work. Michael Bloomberg uttered it just recently during his failed presidential campaign. With that attitude, I'm not at all surprised that his campaign failed.

Furthermore, those dastardly farmers are resisting Taylor's attempts to adjust them and flat out refuse to learn new skills. Webster agrees and tells Taylor about the squatters living in the abandoned houses and subsisting on what they can grow and hunt. Taylor in turn asks Webster whether he knows Ole Johnson and whether he will help to adjust him. Webster is doubtful that Johnson will let himself be adjusted – after all, there was a brief scene earlier, where Martha Johnson tried and failed to persuade her husband to sell the farm and get a job at the hydroponic farm as well as a personal helicopter and a nice country home with running water and a real bathtub – but he agrees to try.

When Webster leaves the Bureau of Human Adjustment, he once again meets the ex-farmer turned squatter Levi Lewis who tells him that the police are getting ready to burn down the abandoned houses and smoke out the squatters. But the squatters have had enough. They're not leaving and they're armed. Oh yes, and Gramp Stevens has joined them and appointed himself as their general, employing his old wartime skills (so much for unskilled farmers). Plus, Gramp has commandeered an ornamental cannon and also found some shells to go with it. Webster is understandably horrified – after all, this will mean a bloodbath. He tells Levi to let Gramp know that he shan't shoot unless he absolutely has to. Then Webster heads for the city hall to prevent a bloodbath.

Webster storms into mayor's office, knocking down his (male) secretary first, and gives yet another monologue about how the mayor is clinging to outdated ideas such as rugged individualism and "pulling oneself up by one's boostraps". At this point, I was wondering how on Earth Simak ever managed to sell the City stories to Astounding, since Astounding is normally all about rugged individualism and "by one's bootstraps" ideals. But then, pretty much every Astounding story I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project has been atypical in some way.

Webster ends his monologue by telling the mayor that if the police burns down the abandoned houses, the squatters will shell the city centre, starting with the town hall. And if the city centre is shot to rubble, the mayor will certainly lose his job, because the few remaining city residents won't re-elect him. That threat is about to work, too, especially since gun fire is heard, followed by a loud explosion. Unfortunately, the chief of police calls the mayor at this point to inform him that the squatters had a really big gun – apparently, the chief of police has never seen a cannon before – but that it exploded.

Webster is understandably worried about Gramp Stevens, who was after all the one person who knew how to operate a cannon, and wants to check on him as soon as possible. The mayor is still intending to burn down the houses, when Gramp Stevens himself comes hobbling into the mayor's office, Henry Adams in tow. It turns out that Henry Adams used the fortune his family made by getting early into atomic power to pay all the unpaid taxes and buy up all of the abandoned houses. And would the mayor kindly stop burning his property, please.

The mayor orders a very disgruntled chief of police to put out the fires and call in the fire department, if necessary, though I suspect the fire engines will have a hard time even getting to the houses, considering the roads are all overgrown. Henry Adams finally delivery the coupe de grace. He informs the mayor that he will ask the courts for a dissolution of the city charter, since he is now the owner of most of the city grounds. And the courts will comply, because cities are no longer necessary. Oh yes, and the mayor is fired.

The story ends with Webster, Gramp and Henry Adams standing on a hill, overlooking what was once the city or rather its suburbs. Henry Adams announces that he is going to restore the abandoned houses and turn them into a museum, so people can see how their ancestors lived. The squatters can stay – after all, someone needs to restore the houses and gardens. Henry Adams also offers Webster a job as project manager/museum director. Webster is initially reluctant to accept – after all, his wife really wants to move into the country. However – so Henry Adams tells him – Webster doesn't actually have to stay in the city. He can simply commute every day. And just in case you were wondering what happened to Ole Johnson – inspired by Henry Adams and the city museum, Johnson has decided to turn his farm into a holiday attraction. And so the story ends happily, but those of us who have read the entire City cycle know that this is but the first step that will eventually lead to human extinction, as dogs and ants take over the world.

The cover for the first collected edition of the "City" stories.

When I first read the City stories as a teenager, I mentally filed them in the same "terrible dystopia" category as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. I also didn't much care for them, less than I liked Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World actually, because those two books at least had the advantage of being some of the few works of assigned school reading I actually enjoyed. City, however, was not assigned reading (and indeed the teacher who assigned Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four had never heard of it, when I asked her if she knew this other dystopian novel I'd read), but an overprized import paperback I'd bought for myself with my pocket money.

In fact, I was surprised how much I enjoyed "Desertion", when I reread it for the Retro Reviews project, because I remembered not liking the City stories very much. "City" and "The Huddling Place" are both closer to the City stories as I remember them. And while I like the City stories these days and can also tell that they are among the best stories published in Astounding in 1944, I can also easily see why 16-year-old Cora did not care for the City stories at all.

As I said in my review of "The Huddling Place", I consider myself a city person and my 16-year-old self was even more of a city person. 16-year-old Cora was determined to move to a major international metropolis – London, New York or Paris were my top choices – as soon as possible and literally could not understand that there were people who actually enjoyed living in the countryside or in suburbs or small towns. I always assumed that people were forced to live in such places due to jobs, money issues or the idiotic idea that children should grow up in the countryside.

Now my parents fell for that particular idiotic idea and moved to what was then a very rural area a few years before I was born. So I spent my teens in a village without a cinema or theatre or a bookshop or a shopping mall (or indeed any shops that weren't food related) or a discotheque (never my thing, but sorely missed by my classmates) or any kind of entertainment option at all. Bremen, which had all of those things and was a city of acceptable size, was only eleven kilometres away. But the only way to get there was by bus and the bus only went five times per day. The last bus went at 8 PM, so forget attending any evening events. Of course, you could always go by bike, but again my parents wouldn't let me out on my bike after dark.

To the teen girl who was grew up in that place, never really fit in there and hated it, the city world of Trantor, capital of the Galactic Empire from Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, sounded like the coolest place ever and I would have moved there immediately, if it had been remotely possible (Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar was a distant second in my personal ranking of fictional places from SFF where I wanted to live). City, on the other hand, was a horror story about a world, where everybody was forced to live in the countryside, because some arseholes had decided that cities were superfluous. Even if the huge country estates themselves, run by robot labour, are pretty nice places to live, even if it's not clear where the wealth to run them comes from, as Steve J. Wright points out in his review. Viewed through this lens, it's obvious why my younger self didn't much care for the City cycle.

The true protagonists of "City": Robot butler Jenkins and the dogs.

Adult me has a more differentiated view of the City stories. No, the City stories are not horror tales, but neither are they happy stories – after all, humanity eventually dies out, as dogs and ants (and Jenkins, the faithful robot butler) take over the world. And Simak very obviously has an ambiguous view of future he presents – after all, the main POV character in "City" is Gramp Stevens who does not care for all of those newfangled ideas at all. John J. Webster may deliver all the monologues, but it's very clear that Simak's sympathy lies with Gramp Stevens and the displaced farmers.

Adventures Fantastic views "City" as a conflict between collectivists and individualists in his review of the story, but that's not what "City" is about, in spite of some vague mentions of a world government and John J. Webster's crack about rugged individualism and that it's as over as the city. If anything, the people who move out onto huge country estates are the individualists, while the squatters and the city council types try to keep some semblance of human society running. In the end, the City stories are neither utopias nor dystopias, they are is a serious attempt at extrapolation based trends that were already apparent by the time the first stories were written.

"City", reimagined as a Soviert war monument.

We mostly associate the move out of the city centres to the suburbs with the post-WWII era, when identikit suburbs like Levittown sprang up all over the US, made possible by the proliferation of cars. But the desire to leave the cities behind clearly predates the widespread suburbification of the postwar era. Nor was it purely a US phenomenon, though it was most pronounced there. But the urge to move "into the green countryside" was present in the UK and (West) Germany and elsewhere in Europe as well.

Furthermore, the urge to leave the city behind is also at least partly understandable, because in the first half of the twentieth century "city" often meant crime and disease-ridden slums, it meant poverty, it meant lack of space. And in most of Europe, the cities were ruins and rubble anyway. By the time I first read the City stories in the late 1980s, the ruins had been rebuilt (though there were holdouts – hidden behind advertising signs – well into the 1990s), the old slums were gone, poverty had been moved to the public housing estates on the periphery of the big cities and vaccination programs and improved medical treatments had dealt with the diseases. By then, cities were the places where the shops were, the cinemas, the theatres, the museums, the restaurants, the clubs, where the life and the lights were.

In the good old science fiction tradition of "If this goes on…", Simak tried to extrapolate a trend he saw developing into the future. And as with most science fiction attempts at making predictions, he gets things very wrong, even if he did correctly predict the robotic lawnmower as well as the ending of World War II (Gramp Stevens and Henry Adams' grandfather started building their respective suburban homes in 1946, after they came back from the war).

This psychedelic cover of "City" makes Jenkins look rather sinister.

For starters, Simak failed to anticipate that the trend towards surbubification and (white) flight from the cities would not continue indefinitely, but that there would be a reurbification as a counter reaction. In Europe, I'd say that the reurbification has been going on at least since the 1970s. In the US, it started somewhat later, in the 1990s to 2000s. But basically what happened is that once the kids who grew up in the suburbs and experienced all the downsides of being a teenager stuck in a place with little to nothing to do came of age, they moved back into the cities, which had been cleaned up by that point. Similarly, some of those who had moved to the suburbs or even the countryside as newlyweds and young families move back into the city in older age, when driving becomes difficult and living within walking distance to shops, doctors, etc… becomes important.

The world Simak describes is also very much a white American middle class world. People of colour don't seem to exist in Simak's stories at all – at any rate, I can't recall a single person of colour in his oeuvre. Simak normally also isn't all that great on the gender front either, though "City" at least features two named female characters – Betty Webster, nee Stevens, and Martha Johnson – with speaking parts as well as an unnamed female secretary with lines and another named female character – Mark Bailey's daughter-in-law Lucinda – without any lines. Alas, Betty and Martha never interact with each other and the only purpose of the various female characters in "City" seems to be to harass their menfolk to move out into the country already. Meanwhile, all of the important people who make the decisions – the city council, the squatters, the Bureau of Human Adjustment – are all white men.

Jenkins and the dogs in their own huddling place

"City" – and that's probably part of what irritated me as a young reader – is also a very American text. In Europe, downtowns were never abandoned and remained the commercial centres of the respective cities, even as many people moved out into the suburbs. Also, simply letting roads and infrastructure decay and abandoning houses as they are, not even bothering to sell them, is another very American phenomenon. In Germany, roads and other infrastructure that is no longer needed is usually removed, but not left to decay. Germany is also slim picking for urban archaeologists, because houses, shops, malls and being abandoned and left as they are is extremely rare over here. It did happen in former East Germany, largely because no one knew who the legal owner of many buildings was, but is almost unknown in the western part of Germany. The one example I can think of is a clothing shop in the small town of Berne that was abandoned as is and looks like a time warp into the 1970s, because its owner was murdered.

Deliberately destroying homes for fear of squatters is another very American thing. In Centralia, a town in Pennsylvania which has the misfortune of being largely uninhabitable due to being located on top of a mine fire that emits toxic gases, the empty houses were torn down to discourage squatters after the residents were evacuated/forced out, depending on whom you ask. I can't really imagining this happening in Europe, even if a place is completely uninhabitable.

Ants play an important role in "City", but I'm not sure if I would have used them as a cover model.

Hydroponics may have looked like the future of agriculture in 1944. The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening by William Frederick Gericke, the seminal book on hydroponics, was published in 1940 and by the 1930s hydroponics were used on several pacific islands with little to no agricultural land to feed airline passengers during stopovers and later US soldiers stationed in the Pacific. So Simak can be forgiven for believing that hydroponics would eventually replace conventional agriculture.
However, while hydroponics are good for lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables (and for houseplants), they don't work for grains, which are the crops that take up the most space. And greenhouses take up a lot of space as well, as everybody who has ever visited the Netherlands knows. Simak also completely fails to anticipate the movement towards more natural and organic food as well as the fact that at least in the early years, greenhouse vegetables simply didn't taste very good, though the quality has markedly improved in the past twenty years or so.

Talking of hydroponics, do you know those little clay pellets that are used for hydroponic houseplant growing and are often found in potted plants in banks, malls and other public buildings? Do you know what they are made of? They are made from slag from furnaces and kilns. Back when hydroculture for houseplants became popular in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, my Dad was the supervisor of a hazardous waste disposal facility in Moordijk in the Netherlands. The facility burned hazardous waste at very high temperatures in special furnaces either on land or at sea for the particularly toxic substances (the process was later banned, because seals started dying in North Sea – of a virus and not of burn residues – but try telling that to the environmentalists and politicians). And the slag left over in the furnace after the waste had been burned was used to make those little clay pellets. Mind you, the residue had been tested and was completely harmless – the toxic substances had been neutralised by the high temperatures inside the furnace. And besides it was only used to grow houseplants anyway, not vegetables for human consumption. But whenever my Dad tells the story of how they made a lot of money turning slag from toxic waste burning into hydroculture clay pellets, you can see people slowly moving away from the pots with the sad houseplants. Sometimes, I swear he does it on purpose.

Finally, meat production is something Simak does not consider at all. Unless the people of Simak's have gone vegan, they are going to need land to raise animals. Even factory farming under horribly cramped conditions (and the worst excesses of factory farming have been banned in Europe for a while now due to public pressure) requires space. And there is no way to grow a cow or pig or chicken via hydroponics.

This Dutch cover for "City" manages to be both accurate and misleading.
 Simak also assumes that farming will not innovate and that farmers will remain stuck in the 19th century in houses without running water and electricity, as becomes clear in the scene between Ole Johnson and his wife Martha. And in 1944, there probably still were a lot of farms that had neither running water nor electricity. However, technical progress not only came to rural areas – no, the much maligned farmers were often innovators. The hydroponic greenhouses that dominate rural areas in the Netherland were set up by farmers, not outside innovators. And in Germany, farmers were at the forefront of the transition towards renewable energy. Whenever you go to a renewable energy presentation or workshop, most of the people you'll meet there are not stereotypical hippies, but otherwise conservative farmers. I even know one former farmer who now rents out his fields, barns and pig pens to other farmers, because he makes more money selling renewable energy systems.

So in short, "City" is an attempt at serious extrapolation of social trends that has been overtaken and rendered obsolete by reality. This is an issue the City cycle shares with most golden age science fiction. And the fact that the futures presented never came to pass does not matter, as long as the stories are good. So is "City" still a good story?

This French cover is my favourite of the many covers "City" has had over the years, because it perfectly encapsulates what the series is about.

Well, Clifford D. Simak was certainly one of the best writers publishing in Astounding in the 1940s. And like all Simak stories, "City" is well written. Nonetheless, it is a flawed story and IMO the weakest of the four City stories Simak published in 1944.

The main problem with "City" is that it spends much of its time meandering about in search of a plot, as Gramp Stevens reminisces about the good old days. And once it finally finds a plot, namely the conflict between the squatters and the city council, most of the actual action happens off-page. We don't even see Gramp Stevens siding with the squatters, nor do we see him liberating the cannon. The brief firefight between the squatters and the police is observed at a distance by John J. Webster and the mayor. The action happening off-page was a common issue with Astounding in the 1940s, for example Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories also tend to keep the actual action off stage in favour of having people talk later about what happened. And yes, I know that Astounding was the idea mag, but some action to go with the ideas would have been nice.

The two monologues by John J. Webster also sit like indigestible lumps in the middle of the story. They also seem a lot more clumsy than Simak's usual writing and I now wonder whether Campbell, who we know was fond of characters monologuing, insisted on them. Paul Fraser also complains about the speechifying and data-dumping in his review of "City". And yes, I know I just asked for more action, but John J Webster of the mild-mannered and agoraphobic Websters punching out the mayor's (male) secretary just feels out of character.

I would classify the early City stories under what Joanna Russ called "Galactic Suburbia" science fiction – domestic stories that project the values of mid-century American suburbia into the future. And while "Galactic Suburbia" science fiction is normally associated with the so-called silver age of science fiction – and with women writers, for that matter – I was surprised to find several "Galactic Suburbia" stories during the golden age, quite a few of them written by men.

"Galactic Suburbia" science fiction is often reminiscent of the sort of fiction found in women's magazines and the so-called slicks – magazines like the Saturday Evening Post – during the 1940s and 1950s. "City" is no exception here and particularly the beginning with Gramp Stevens reminiscing about the good old days feels very much like a literary story of the period with some science fiction trappings thrown in. And while adult me appreciates Simak's writing skills as well as the melancholy atmosphere of the abandoned streets and houses (yet another melancholic story in a 1944 issue of Astounding), I'm not surprised that my teen self did not much care for City.

"City" is a well-written, if flawed novelette, but it's not the best novelette of 1944. It's not even the best City novelette of 1944, since "Census" is better, as are "Desertion" and "The Huddling Place". I suspect a lot of Retro Hugo nominators went by name recognition here – ditto for "Foundation" winning over the superior "Bridle and Saddle" in the 1943 Retro Hugos. After all, "City" and "Foundation" were the stories that the respective fix-up novel/series was named after. And most of us will have encountered those stories first in fix-up form. Finally, it is also notable that with many fix-ups – definitely the Foundation trilogy and maybe City as well – the whole is greater than its parts. Though with City, the individual parts are usually pretty damn good as well, even if "City" is one of the weaker entries in the cycle.

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