When Simak wrote the introduction for City in 1976 he assumed that it would be the book that would define him. I’m not sure it has but that’s only because unlike Bradbury, he never got his own Fahrenheit 451, that defining book everyone knows you for because it seems to say something IMPORTANT about where we’re all headed as a civilization.
City might be Simak’s own Fahrenheit 451, but it isn’t. It’s more like his On the Beach. Fahrenheit came off as a rebellious blast, but Simak’s City has no rebels. Just the Websters who are inept, weak and full of bad ideas. The Websters are meant to be heroes, but by the time the earth has been abandoned to the ants by a pacifist animal brotherhood which can’t even defend itself, they seem more like villains. To read City is to slowly watch humanity die off by people who have taken Simak’s philosophy and applied it. Simak may have meant City to comment on the destructiveness of nuclear war, but its comment on pacifism as a dead is much more decisive.
Like most of Simak’s works, City is patient and loving, filled with nostalgia and characters who love the land and its streams and rustic homes. It begins with the end of the city, twice, as humanity leaves the cities for a decentralized life in the country with atomic planes and cheap rural houses, and then gathers in a city when there are only a handful left to hibernate in a virtual reality. It begins with men who can’t leave the place they live and ends with their robot who can’t do it either.
There is insight in City, but much more sentimentality. Simak’s search for a path away from violence puts an end to the human race, when a Webster is unable to pull the trigger even to save the human race (or come up with a more elegant non-violent solution). The robots and dogs who are extensions of humanity go on, but humanity vanishes into alien bodies on Jupiter, another dimension and virtual reality in a closed city.