This is one of his earliest works. An incredibly epic story for its time it covers ten thousand years. It is a set of eight short stories tied together by an “historical” review of the authenticity of said stories.
The story begins in the late 20th century as man develops spaceflight and urban centers disintegrate in favor of country-manor living. Simak examines the concept of cities being abandoned as new technology and an unprecedented era of plenty gives everyone a chance to own their own piece of real estate and live closer to nature. This is, of course, a completely improbable scenario; not taking into account increasing population levels or land conservation. But it allows an interesting examination of what happens to politicians when the only ones left to vote for them is themselves and it has a strong streak of sentimentality for “keeping things as they were” in the name of posterity. Both are preposterous in this day and age but typical of the 1950s. [Food for thought: did this predate Heinlein’s “past thru tomorrow” stories as a collection? I know it predates the “Past Through Tomorrow” collection. Did Simak and Heinlein ever meet over drinks?] It is the weakest story of the collection and seems designed to simply set the stage, but isn’t necessary in my estimation.
The second story focuses on the Webster family central to this theme. In this one, man has reached Mars and made contact with the natives and our protagonist, Jerome Webster, who has made a reputation in the field of Martian medicine, is challenged to do something that is, quite simply, completely impossible for him. But if he does not, a Martian will die and with him, a functional philosophy that will change mankind fundamentally for the better. This story introduces the robot, Jenkins, who will be a unifying thread through the balance of the book. This story really sets the stage for the subsequent stories.
The third story is a couple generations further along and Earth is still enjoying pastoral living [a hallmark of later Simak stories, BTW.] Thomas Webster is now the patriarch of the Webster family. The Webster family, in the aftermath of the Martian debacle embarked on a genetics and breeding program to elevate Dogs to a higher level of sentience. This story also introduces the Mutants an inevitable development in human evolution according to many authors. One such Mutant, Joe, is telepathic, has a longer life-span, an intuitive understanding of mechanics and an inquisitive mind that asks a question which ultimately dooms the Earth thousands of years later. Joe also steals the unfinished Martian philosophy.
The fourth and fifth tales remind me, irresistibly, of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, which certainly predates City by a decade. Man is working very hard at developing all the planets in our solar system but Jupiter’s environment is particularly challenging. Simak didn’t believe in terraforming so his colonists either create a habitat or a way to change humans to exist in the environment. In this story, [reminiscent of the 2009 movie Avatar] man is transformed into a native form capable of living on the surface of Jupiter. But for unknown reasons, none of the transformed men ever return to tell the scientists if the transformation is successful or not. The director of the project, mostly convinced that he is simply sentencing all the volunteers to death, decides he and his faithful dog will be transformed next. He does eventually return, duty-bound, and his revelations are the death-knell for mankind or their salvation, depending on your point of view. Another important point in the fifth story is the revelation that mankind has eschewed killing each other for generations. But when the Mutant, Joe, returns [I told you he was long-lived] with the completed Martian philosophy he deliberately “infects” all of non-mutant humankind; changing the course of history significantly.
In the sixth tale, a thousand years since the first Dog talked, the earth is all but deserted. The Dogs have been on their own for a long time but they still consider themselves the caretakers of the Webster estate. Without the constraints of human thought, the Dogs are finding their own destiny and they are determined to bring all animals into harmony ending the natural conclusion of the food-chain: no animal will ever kill another for food. The Dogs are also exploring parallel universes. The handful of humans left on earth, including the last Webster, have collected in the city of Geneva and the Dogs only remember them in legend. Jenkins, the Webster’s most faithful robot, is still managing the estate and shepherding the Dogs. Jon Webster, in the dying city of Geneva, determines that he wants to visit the old family homestead to see what is left. He is astonished at the progress of the Dogs but when Jenkins implores him to remain as leader to the Dogs, he realizes that the time of Man is ending and he would only lengthen the time it will take for the Dogs to realize their true destiny. He advises Jenkins to eradicate the memory of Man from the Dogs’ legends to free them. He then returns to Geneva and permanently seals up the city and the remaining humans so that none of them will ever leave the city and he enters suspended animation for eternity. But he forgot that his own son and a small group of young people were outside the city playing…
The seventh story starts with the results of the Dogs employing the Martian philosophy on all animals so that killing is now strictly forbidden and monitored by robots. Not all animals are completely content although none of the current generations have ever eaten anything but the synthetic meat provided by the Dogs and the robots. This has caused, of course, a population problem for the Dogs. A thousand years after the last Webster sealed the city of Geneva, the small band of humans left outside the dome were eventually rescued by Jenkins and brought to the estate but by then, they had devolved and were simple. Known now by the Dogs as websters, one of them inevitably invents a killing device which accidently introduces murder into this new society. Jenkins is unsure how to deal with the development and decides to consult with the Mutants. The Mutants haven’t been seen for generations since they built huge castles and locked themselves in. He finds that the Mutants also discovered the parallel worlds and have probably been gone for generations. In this story, Simak looks a little closer at the parallel universe theme. The Dogs have begun to explore the parallel worlds in order to colonize them with the overpopulation of animals. Somehow a murderous creature from one of those worlds gets loose on Earth. However, the reawakened impulse to kill from one of the websters drives it away, permanently it seems. But in its departure, Jenkins ‘hears’ the thoughts of the creature and now has the means to travel to parallel worlds on his own. He decides that he still has a mandate to protect the Dogs destiny and the websters are going to eventually impact the Dogs progress. So he plans to remove all the remaining humans to another world; unfortunately, he gets stranded there and is unable to return as he planned.
Story eight is five thousand years later and Jenkins finally returns to the original Earth. The Dogs have completely forgotten humans and Mutants but robots are still there. Something new is happening: the robots who are the helpmeets of the Dogs are being reprogrammed to assist in some mysterious building project. When one of the Dogs investigates he encounters an ancient robot, one of the last that was actually built by a man. This robot begins the tale of a mythological race called Humans. Jenkins is there at the end of everything that was begun with a question from the Mutant Joe. The solution to the impending catastrophe was a simple one in the time of Man but is now impossible for the Dogs to solve as their evolution went on an entirely different path. Jenkins mentally contacts the last Webster, asleep for eternity in Geneva, to ask how Man would have stopped the apocalypse. The answer, simple as it is, is now both technologically and ethically impossible. Eventually, the earth will be uninhabitable for the Dogs and all animals.
All of the stories are tied together with commentary from a Dog scholar debating the authenticity of said stories from a vantage point more thousands of years in the future. It was a lot of fun and was probably pretty revolutionary at the time. I thought it still stood the test of time. ~~ Catherine Book