Friday 1 January 2016

A cache of vintage science fiction is a great draw for a thoughtful twenty-something, probably a man, likely an artist, a philosopher, who stands in front of a shelf of them in the attic, purring. Although I read them when I was twenty-something I have no recollection of any of them or why I liked them; at that time I read and read, one direction then another, could be Proust, could be Kurt Vonnegut, looking for new realities, every day and half the night.

City by Clifford Simak, the 1965 Four Square edition, has only a faint smell off it; a Penguin the same age smells of vanilla. Can I get past the Editor's Preface, which is in fact part of the novel and continues throughout? Can I accept the dogs and then the ants gradually gaining supremacy over humans, who, by the end of the book, the few that are left in Geneva (Switzerland ever the refuge) have opted for endless, dreamless sleep? If I wear the Simak jacket, am I dislocated in a good cause? I can't help doing a rough reading, lopsided, flailing, looking for a smooth passage among all this transmutation, among which man (woman is hardly there) is the failed, faint, nostalgic form.

City comes out of world war two. As do I. The sense of human doom is modified by the kindness of dogs and robots, the ingenuity of mutants, then threatened by the building prowess of ants. The written word, as Simak says, is a sorry tool. But tales will be told, philosophies elaborated.
The Juwain philosophy provides an ability to sense the viewpoint of another. It won't necessarily make you agree with that viewpoint, but it does make you recognize it. You not only know what the other fellow is talking about, but how he feels about it.
A woman would know. Juwain is another fellow, and a martian. There's wisdom on Mars chez Simak, not on Earth; there's ecstasy on Jupiter, and full use of brain capacity, while on earth they stumble on empty. The Juwain philosophy remains incomplete through the agoraphobia of nearly extinct man, known generically as webster, second to Rover and Towser, third, eventually, to a colony of ants. Webster/Simak liked the countryside, the scent on the breeze. As much as a PG Wodehouse character, he liked and respected his robot, Jenkins, who had served four generations and would continue for thousands of years, serving the memory when there were no more humans left.

Once embarked in science fiction you're sealed from the world you know, until, some way into the book, you emerge and there it is, the world you know better now you're not in it any more, the idea of an ideal: no city, no war, no killing, like a less saccharine John Lennon.
No misunderstanding, no prejudice, no bias, no jangling — but a clear, complete grasp of all the conflicting angles of any human problem. Applicable to anything, to any type of human endeavour. To sociology, to psychology, to engineering, to all the various facets of a complex civilisation. No more bungling, no more quarrelling, but honest and sincere appraisal of the facts and the ideas at hand.
Thousands of years later the last webster is woken from his dreamless sleep by Jenkins the trusty robot, who wants to know what to do about the ants, whose building threatens to take over the earth. The advice, straight from the middle of the twentieth century, is poison in syrup, a slow poison they'd take back to the nest, to kill many instead of just two or three. Go to sleep again, says Jenkins.

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