Saturday, October 03, 2009

City & The Oxford History of the Roman World

Can any two books be more different than City (a science fiction novel) and The Oxford History of the Roman World (history)? I doubt it. One is a dubiously valuable novel about man’s post-urban future and demise (as related by talking dogs) and the other a collection of essays for those who have forgotten Roman history, or at least want to read about it again. The well-researched essays in the latter book are excellent, including “Early Rome and Italy,“ "The First Roman Literature,” “Augustan Poetry and Society,” “Silver Latin,” “Roman Art & Architecture,” etc. It can be read as a good, short history, used as a reference book, or dipped into according to interests. I’m so glad I found it - browsing at B&N.

Clifford D. Simak’s novel, City, however, is a puzzling mix of apparent prescience, pure fantasy, and a series of conventional SF plot hooks. In 1953 Simak won the International Science Fiction Award for City. Simak (1904-1988) was a journalist whose avocation was science fiction: he won the Hugo, the Nebula, and other awards for various of his 26 novels and seven short story collections. Because I adored They Walked Like Men (1962), an ironic, little-known classic in which Simak imagines real estate as more valuable than any other human property to aliens who seek to take over the world, I expected great things of City. Aside from Simak's obsession with the demise of urban real estate and the spread of urban sprawl, the novel is disappointing, more like a children’s book than an SF classic. (And, indeed, I think I must have read it as a child, because some parts I remember vividly - such as the talking dogs’ giving a new body to a personable, ancient robot, who has been passed down to them from the last family of humans.)

The novel is really a collection of Simak's short stories from 1944-1951 - eight legends of mankind linked by the anthropological Notes of a race of genetically altered talking dogs. Did man ever exist? The talking dogs who inhabit the planet - man long ago fled to Jupiter - doubt it.

“Most authorities in economics and sociology regard such an organization as a city an impossible structure, not only from the economic standpoint, but from the sociological and psychological as well. No creature of the highly nervous structure necessary to develop a culture, they point out, would be able to survive such restricted limits. The result, if it were tried, these authorities say, would lead to mass neuroticism which in a short period of time would destroy the very culture which had built the city.”

The first short story, “City,” is the most memorable, and is worth looking for if one is interested in urban sprawl. Very few people in the late 20th century remain in cities - atomic airplanes and helicopters have replaced cars and made it possible for a dwindling population to live on big country estates and commute hundreds of miles to work. Only renegades still live in cities: old-fashioned residents reluctant to give up the traditional ways and farmers displaced by hydroponic farming who have developed their own urban culture (ironically). A crisis occurs when an insanely controlling police force decides to burn down the farmers’ houses. Webster (the first of many Websters in the novel) supports the rebel farmers and gives a speech on how the city is a dying structure, and “the automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it.”

How did Simak know all this? Was he already noticing and writing about urban sprawl for the newspapers after WWII? I’m sure that’s it. During WWII people were encouraged to bicycle rather than drive (save gas) by the government (I read this in a rather radical bicycling book). Then the trend was reversed at the end of the war. All that road-building. One can only surmise that Simak the journalist knew this.

Talking dogs are genetically engineered by one of the later generations of Websters, who hopes that dogs can live without making man’s mistakes.

It’s a strange, strange book - some of it a bit like Ray Bradbury.

I can’t really recommend it, but there are interesting passages. Still, the lively voice of They Walked Like Men is lacking. A clever idea, though. The dog’s appalled look at the unlikeliness of human culture.


Ellen said...

One the nice effects of teaching: I find I look for books which connect to my teaching even if not directly. In a way it's like lists: the books set up in them then give me ideas for other books, and I feel interconnected.

All in my own mind -- but then that's the way I live.

Jim (my husband who took many years of Latin in his public school) reads books of Roman history and we have quite a number in our library.

I wasn't surprised so few students had read the Aeneid. A while back I was surprised when I discovered none of the people in the group I happened to be in had ever heard of Virgil. But it was an alert awakener. To get more than say 3 students to read the Aeneid (and I set the whole poem -- I did few books and all of them in the First half of All literature) I had to bring in tapes with Derek Jacobi and have them listen to Books 1, 2, 4 and 6 and for most of them that's all they read (oops listened to).

On City, your blog made me remember Byron's "Darkness: A Vision." It's online if you don't have it, and Mary Shelley has her unreadable (alas) _The Last Man_. The city was "born" by their time.

I miss its parks and great museums -- meaning NYC's.


Mad Housewife said...

It is amazing how the lost art of studying Latin coincides with the loss of interest in Virgil. The translations of Virgil are much more vital and accessible than the
translations of Caesar and Cicero - and yet they are the ones who are remembered or recognized (from history). Epic translates better than lyric (Catullus translations are all ghastly) - it must be because in epic there's a story to tell.

I like the short essays in The Oxford History. They're concise and thoughtful.

What a good idea to let them listen to the Aeneid. Inspiring!

Thanks for the recommendations of Byron and Mary Shelley.