"City" is a magical book, a true modern fable, and I highly recommend it. But if you do read it, I hope it doesn't take you as long as it took me to get started. As the old saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover. Or its first tale, for that matter.
Not that it is a bad story. On the contrary, it has a certain nostalgic flavor, a dated atmosphere that has to be appreciated under the correct light, Like the light of the fireplace in the Webster House, the rural property that serves as the common scenery that connects the tales, and leads the story into its climax.
But I guess I wasn't prepared for that when this book first got into my hands. I was attending a seminar for English teachers in Southern Brazil and the school where the event was taking place was giving away some old books, the kind nobody wants anymore. City was among the ones I picked.
The graphic layout of the cover showed how old the book was, and so was the fact that it was literally falling apart. Anyway, I read the first story, and all these elements together left me the strong feeling that it was just another curiosity, an example of how far from reality SF writers of the past were, of how wrong they were when predicting the decades still to come, and what the end of the twentieth century would be like.
Family planes powered by atomics? Yeah, right. Those guys in the fifties thought nuclear energy either would be the ultimate curse or the ultimate solution. References to World War II as "the war"? Of course there wouldn't be any other wars after that one. Hydroponics replacing "dirt farming"? People fleeing the cities to live in large estates in the interior? Yeah, like there would be room for everyone in the country.
Th result, I thought, was almost laughable. I thought City was a tribute to the author's lack of sight, his complete inability understand the major social and economical trends. As many SF/fantasy writers have done, he picked one specific phenomenon, the bucolic lifestyle in American suburbs, (and from there to the country) and extrapolated that to the entire human race. All of this in the distant year of 1990...
So I put the book aside and didn't touch it for another eleven years. But now, when I'm older and wiser, I did a little restoration work on those old yellow pages, and read it all the way though. As the story advanced, and hundreds, even thousands of years passed, I realize I was before a deep and thought-provoking tale of incredible literary and philosophical value. And the more the story progressed, the more my impression of the author's universe changed.
The fact is that the book has many surprises, and is a real gift for the reader. When it finally ended, I was hoping for more, but of course, there won't be more, as it was written a long time ago, and the author is already dead. Like a message in a time vault from a distant past.
Sometimes a book leaves me feeling this way. Another was the also classic "More than Human," by Theodore Sturgeon. It's really gratifying when an author has the sensibility to look into the human nature in such an insightful and equally entertaining way. And, who knows, now that we have the Internet, who says people might not prefer to live away from the cities? And perhaps in a not so distant future, the author's predictions might get to be much closer to reality than we thought possible.