April 27th, 2008

ozarque figure

Book review; Clifford D. Simak's "City"...

Once upon a time, science fiction publishers used to send copies of almost everything they published to the entire membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA); because of that, I have a very large collection of ancient sf paperbacks, many of which I still haven't read. The other night I was looking for something to read, and I lucked into Clifford D. Simak's City, in a 1981 edition from Ace that includes the extra "Epilog" story Simak wrote years after the book first appeared. My copy is yellowed, and shows the effects of sitting for decades on a bookshelf unread, but I am so very glad that it's what I chose. What a wonderful book. What a wonderful -- and horrifying -- book.

City is put together as if it were a semi-scholarly work intended for a general audience [a general audience of literate dogs, as it happens]. It has eight stories that are foundation folktales of the "doggish" culture, each with a brief introductory "Notes" section that comments on the story and gives it a historical and cultural context. And it has a ninth story titled "Epilog" with a notes section written by Simak, who tells us that he never intended to write it. When he was asked to do it as part of a memorial volume for John W. Campbell, he says (on page 253): "I found myself shying away from the task. The saga, I told myself, was complete as it stood; I also was skeptical about how competent a job I could do on a ninth City story, more than twenty years after I had written the others. After all, I knew I was a different writer than the younger man who had fashioned the tales." But in the end, he agreed, and I think we can all be grateful for that, because "Epilog" is a perfect ending for the book.

There won't be any spoilers in this review; I'm not going to talk about the plot. I am going to celebrate the fact that each of the nine tales has an actual beginning, middle, and end, and the fact that each one tells a coherent self-contained narrative. That's old-fashioned, I know; the current fashion in sf is to make the reader struggle to figure out what's happening. But I found it a tremendous relief.

The book revolves around a single conundrum, and it's one that could not possibly be more timely. Suppose you discover that a culture slightly less advanced than your own is facing a serious problem; suppose you have the knowledge and the power necessary to intervene. What, if anything, should you do?

People are dying for lack of drinkable water; you show them a simple way to make wells that will provide that water; the water turns out to be tainted with arsenic. People are dying for lack of food because farmers have no way to irrigate their crops and the rains are not dependable; you show them a simple way to put down tube wells and bring that water up for irrigation; the result, before long, is a depletion of the water table so severe that the water coming in is too salty to use for growing crops.

We humans understand now that no matter how hard you try, no matter how advanced your technology, you never can know for sure what the consequences of an intervention are going to be. And that leaves us with the conundrum: Do you do nothing and just let the suffering go on? Do you intervene, knowing very well that your intervention may only make things worse? What do you do?

Simak takes up this dilemma and explores it for us. He shows us a whole set of examples; the examples tell a story that breaks the reader's heart, but that is of tremendous value for a culture facing exactly the same dilemma.

There's a Wikipedia page for City -- that does have spoilers; because its URL ends with those parentheses that confuse LiveJournal's link-making software I'm not going to try to provide it here, but you'll have no trouble finding it; just go to Google and type title and author in the search box and the link will appear. There's a good review (with spoilers) by Tal Cohen at
http://tal.forum2.org/city , and another (with spoilers) by Robert M. Tilendis at http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_simak_city.html .