Clifford Simak, Flying Houses, and Self-Driving Cars

When I got into SF in my teens, it was divided roughly into three broad phases, each dominated by an influential tastemaker. Hugo Gernsback (of the eponymous “Hugo” awards) essentially built a genre around the work of Verne and Wells. SF of his era were dominated by super scientists who were also all-round fabulous guys. This is the era in which E.E. “Doc” Smith emerged.

The second phase, from the late 30s through the early 50s, was dominated by John Campbell, who pushed for more rounded and realistic characters, but had his own foibles, such as a penchant for powers of the Mind (the Lensman series straddles the eras). Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein all emerged during this period, which — Wikipedia tells us — celebrated “hard” SF (i.e. SF which tried to get the science right).

The third phase, which I grew up in, was eventually dominated spiritually by Harlan Ellison, and it was characterized by the integration of speculation outside science (e.g. politics, social anthropology). Fussing over the science became less important than setting and character. Ellison, Silverberg, and Le Guin were ascendant.

Clifford Simak had the misfortune to do his best work in the later part of the Golden Age, while belonging in the third phase. He was also prolific and somewhat uneven. His best known novel is City — apparently voted the greatest SF novel of all time by the readers of Locus more times than any other. If you haven’t read City you need to stop reading this blog and go find yourself a copy. (It’s not easy — it’s out of print, and not available in electronic form.)

Even if Clifford Simak were a terrible writer (and Cosmic Engineers was pretty terrible, even though he was a working newspaperman when he wrote it) he would be worth reading as an antidote to almost every SF cliché. His robots have emotions, his aliens are friendly and helpful in a weird and alien way, his stories tend to take place in rural settings, there’s nary a space battle nor gunfight to be seen, and when there’s violence it tends to be catastrophic, one-sided, and not solve anything.

Cityspoiler alert — is presented as a collection of traditional stories, passed from dogs to their puppies around the campfire, about a mythical race of creatures called “humans” for which no archeological evidence has been found. The stories happen explain away the need for such evidence, which the introduction drily notes is very convenient.

In the earliest stories, humans are living very high on the hog. Their houses are able to fly where-ever the occupants want to live (assuming a “housing space” is available to park in) and life is good (at least in the US). Everything hard or dangerous is done willingly by tirelessly friendly robots. When it’s pointed out to one of the robots that they’re slave labor, one responds that it has been created with effectively eternal life, so why should it resent a bit of servitude in repayment?

In a later story, humans explore Jupiter by transforming themselves into native Jovians (the only practical method given the hostility of the Jovian atmosphere). The humans discover that being a Jovian is simply so much better than being a human that most emigrate to Jupiter and are never seen or heard from again. The few remaining gradually dial out of existence by going into long-term hibersleep.

Left behind, dogs — modified for greater intelligence and the ability to speak by the humans — together with robots mind the farm, and gradually form their own society, with each dog having an assigned robot helper referred to as its “hands”. They live in peace and happiness for a long time until ants, who have been uplifted by one of the few remaining non-hibernating humans, start taking over the world. Asked for advice on dealing with the ants, a briefly awake human suggests extermination. The dogs and robots instead migrate to a new alternate Earth.

In the last story, human children are being raised on the new Earth by dogs and robots, but despite removing all cultural legacy, the human children engage in horrific acts of violence.

Look, seriously, go read it.

If you’re interested in Simak’s best books, my nominees would be:

  • City
  • Way Station
  • Shakespeare’s Planet
  • The Werewolf Principle
  • Project Pope

Anyway, I was thinking of Simak today while musing over the news that we could see self-driving cars being allowed on California roads next year. My wife and I agreed that the impact of self-driving cars on society will probably exceed the impact of the car itself (consider that the “suburb” exists because of the car) and it struck me that if there was one SF writer who had foreseen anything like what we might experience, it was Clifford Simak with his [self-] flying houses.

  • Chris Gentle

    Only my youngest child has not read City, and I fear it may fall apart before she has the opportunity. I’m hoping a digital version appears soon.

  • It seems to me something of a tragedy that such a major writer’s works are essentially unobtainable today.