Travels in Genre Fiction (Part V – How Simak’s “City” Changed My Understanding of Science Fiction)

I love science fiction. I’ve written in the past about issues I have with some genre fiction, but at the heart of it I love the idea of exploring the future; it’s intensely personal, for everyone has their own worldview. And yet the joy of science fiction is that it’s not real; it’s entirely imagined but in the best cases based off a reasoned understanding of the world and an extrapolation of real ideas – or a way of exploring a human response to the unknowable, or incomprehensible.

This is why I think “science fiction” as a genre is a miniscule one. “Science fiction” as a setting, a theme for writing, is huge. A novel can be a crime novel in the future, or a war story in the future, or a love story in the future. But that isn’t a science fiction novel – it’s a novel set in the future. Actual science fiction, for me, is a very specific thing that there’s not so much of any more – it’s a fable-like genre in which the future is used to safely distance thought experiments from reality. It’s thinking about future worlds and societies not as the backdrop to awesome action, but as entire, fleshed-out worlds – an almost empirical approach to fiction. While a student at university, I was told you could read Middlemarch quite effectively as an “empirical” novel – one which is a clinical, controlled addition of a “variable” to a “culture” in the form of a scientific experiment. That interested me – Middlemarch did little to enthrall me, but the idea of the novel as an experiment remained in the back of my mind. It came back when I began reading classic SF – Pohl, Asimov et al – but was most clearly brought back to me when I was lent a copy of City by Clifford Simak. City is an empirical book – it is pure science fiction. I realised while reading it what “science fiction” meant to me – I’d enjoyed, without doubt, books like Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series in the same way as I enjoyed watching Battlestar Galactica or Macross, because they were all about heroic space captains beating the odds. I’d enjoyed playing Mass Effect because it was a flashy futuristic adventure about chilling with blue aliens and shooting robots. But reading Simak made me question whether those were really SF.

Simak’s premise is not “hard” SF, to use niche parlance – it is not scientifically-minded, particularly. It is filled with atomic age idealism, and the technology is the stock in trade of this era – personal robot butlers, atomic power, private planes and so on. What it is is empirical fiction, exploring in a way that the absolute best SF does what life might be like under certain conditions. While a “military SF” novel might consider what a future war would be like, in many cases it still feels like a modern military story with different weapons. What Simak does in City is consider the downfall of mankind and the emergence of replacement societies, and takes a far more sociological rather than technological line. The questions asked are not why shoot lasers, or how does hyperspace work, but if there was no competition for resources, would we still migrate to urban areas and is absolute pacifism and understanding actually viable? The book takes the form of a collection of short stories moving gradually away from a human focus, with a binding narrative of the storytellers questioning whether what they are reading is history or myth. Each has a fable-like message – from the first, explaining that technological progress and improved infrastructure renders urban living obsolete, to the last, explaining that with absolute pacifism invariably comes the obsolescence of a culture since it refuses to defend itself from threats. Another story has a man given the chance to live as an alien being for a period of time in order to find out what has happened to others who have undergone the process – he finds that they have not died, or been irreversibly mutated, but simply that life as a different species is preferable to human life – and that alien insights cannot be expressed or understood by the human brain.

Simak’s philosophies and worldviews are arguably cynical ones – the pacifistic animal race which emerges as the successors of humanity are undone by their unwillingness to even countenance the idea of just killing, while in another story the clinical obedience of a robot leads to tragedy as it cannot possibly understand why one would need to make an exception to a rule – but they are soundly argued, and the stories within City never feel moralistic. The collection does not seek to force a viewpoint on the reader, but it presents a completely alien society in a way which explains and rationalises it in order for the reader to understand and consider it; whereas in some novels with futuristic settings, the trappings of the genre are simply there for plot contrivance and flavour, for Simak, as with other pieces of contemporary SF, the future is the plot. City is a work about the downfall of humanity and what might replace it. It’s almost a thesis – a theoretical work depicting a fictional society. And that’s where the concept of the empirical novel comes back in. The binding narrative in City constantly questions the veracity of what is being presented – it plays on the language of the historian, the inherent doubt in taking myth at face value, and this uncertainty lets the reader form their own conclusion far more freely.

By the end of City the justification for the phasing out of man as a species seems so reasoned, and the replacement so apparently utopian (until the final section of the final tale) that a reader may well think it a good future. For a collection of SF stories to use as its core premise a comfortable, scarcity-free apocalypse where humanity dwindles to nothing in a state of happy freedom and plenty is perhaps more shocking and attention-grabbing than any tale of nuclear fire or dictatorship. When given the choice of whether to carry or on stop, humanity chooses for the most part to stop. It’s a sort of selflessness and nobility that’s quite alien to modern readers, I think, and one which made City stand out to me. It charts a gradual decline of what is a recognisably flawed urban society – first the cities and towns are phased out, then much of the need for work and finance, and finally the human body itself – all in a constant striving towards a better, fairer and more illuminated future.

So to conclude, I have come to believe there are two “kinds” of SF – there’s the genre of “science fiction”, speculative writing in the vein of City that builds on the empirical tradition and invites the reader to think on a moral or philosophical conundrum of some sort through the creation of an alien society – and the theme of “science fiction,” the act of setting some other story in a futuristic setting. Both can be great – but I think making this distinction is important and that in many cases the themes explored in the latter sort of writing can be as fruitfully explored in non-SF settings.


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