by Clifford D. Simak
"What is Man?" they'll ask.
Or perhaps: "What is a city?"
Or: "What is a war?
There is no positive answer to any of these questions."
The novel describes a legend consisting of eight tales the pastoral and pacifist Dogs recite as they pass down an oral legend of a creature known as Man. Each tale is preceded by doggish notes and learned discussion.
As the tales unfold, they recount a world where humans, having developed superior transportation, have abandoned the cities and moved into the countryside. Hydroponic farming and decentralized power allow small communities to become self-sufficient. In the beginning the driving force for dispersion is the fear of nuclear holocaust, but eventually humans discover they simply prefer the pastoral lifestyle.
The tales primarily focus around the Webster family, and their robot servant, Jenkins. The name Webster gradually becomes "webster", a noun meaning a human. Similar themes recur in these stories, notably the pastoral settings and the faithful dogs.
Each successive tale tells of further breakdown of urban society. As mankind abandons the cities, each family becomes increasingly isolated. Bruce Webster surgically provides dogs with a means of speech and better vision. The breakdown of civilization allows wandering mutant geniuses to grow up unrestrained by conventional mores. A mutant called Joe invents a way for ants to stay active year round in Wisconsin, so that they need not start over every spring. Eventually the ants form an industrial society in their hill. The amoral Joe, tiring of the game, kicks over the anthill. The ants ignore this setback and build bigger and more industrialized colonies.
It is notable that over time the past is forgotten by the dogs. In the penultimate tale entitled, ironically, Aesop the narrative says "there wasn't any past. No past, that was, except the figment of remembrance that flitted like a night-winged thing in the shadow of one's mind. No past that one could reach. No pictures painted on the wall of time." (p 188) The memory of the past is beyond the stage where it could be reconstituted by the taste of a madeleine. Not even Proust's creation Marcel would be successful here. (In Search of Lost Time: "And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.")
By the end of the last story even the man-made robots begin to wear out. And the word man is reinvented to be defined as "an animal who went on two legs". The story becomes so animal-centric it reminded me of a shorter and different story that shared a similar perspective, Orwell's Animal Farm. Simak's work is another literary masterpiece.
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