Retro Review: “The Huddling Place” by Clifford D. Simak

Astounding Science Fiction, July 1944

Is it me or are some of the 1944 covers of Astounding Science Fiction really bad?

“The Huddling Place” is a science fiction short story by Clifford D. Simak, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. “The Huddling Place” is part of Simak’s City cycle and has been widely reprinted.

This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“The Huddling Place” starts off with the funeral of one Nelson F. Webster. It might be a scene in any contemporary set story, if not for the fact that the pallbearers are robots and that Nelson F. Webster died in 2117, aged eighty-three.

Our narrator is Jerome A. Webster, son of the late Nelson F. Webster, and one of only three Websters still left alive. The other two are Jerome’s son Thomas, who will soon be leaving for Mars, and Jerome’s mother, who never gets a name. In the course of the funeral, We also get a brief rundown of the Websters (and a Webster father-in-law, William “Gramp” Stevens who is an important character in the first “City” story published earlier the same year)  interred in the family crypt on the Webster estate. Again, only one woman is mentioned, Mary Webster, Jerome’s late wife.

For four generations now, the Websters have lived on a spacious estate with whispering pine trees, meadows, a rocky ridge and a stream full of trouts, ever since John J. Webster, great-great-grandfather of Jerome, moved there after humans abandoned cities in the twentieth century in favour of what the characters consider gracious living on huge lots of land, served by a small army of robots.

The story follows Jerome through his day, as he retreats into his study to mourn his father, not even bothering to say good-bye to the priest who conducted the funeral service. Instead, Jerome leaves the Websters’ faithful robot butler Jenkins to deal with the priest, just as he leaves him to deal with everything else.

We learn that Jerome never leaves his house, even though he spent several years as a doctor on Mars in his younger days. Nowadays, however, Jerome doesn’t see any need to leave his house. After all, modern technology allows him to speak to anybody, virtually visit any place, attend a concert or play, browse a library and conduct any business he might want to conduct, all from the comfort of his home. This short paragraph is probably the most prescient thing published in Astounding in the entire year of 1944, because the Internet allows us to do all of that from the comfort of our own home as well. Though I hope that most of us react to those possibilities a little differently than Jerome.

Jerome’s contemplations are interrupted by a virtual visit from an old friend, the Martian philosopher Juwain whom Jerome met during his time as a doctor on Mars. Juwain has come to pay his respects to the late Nelson F. Webster and also to ask why Jerome never physically returned to Mars for a visit, even though the Martians owe him a great debt, because Jerome wrote the book on Martian medicine. For we learn that the Martians never really had doctors before the humans arrived. Instead, they simply accepted illnesses as fatal. Meanwhile, Martians have come up with orderly and logical philosophy that may be applied as a practical tool, rather than the fumbling human attempts at philosophy. And Juwain is about to make a further breakthrough in philosophy, a breakthrough that will help both humans and Martians. A. Williams’ interior art depicts Juwain as a being with flimsy tentacle-like limbs and a huge domed head, which certainly suggests a species of philosophers.

This is not the first time in Astounding in the 1940s that different races and species are given different specialisations they are inherently suited for. Something similar can be found in the Jay Score stories by Eric Frank Russell, one of which – “Symbiotica” – was a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo. Though it’s certainly interesting that the superior Martian philosophy is orderly, logical and practically applicable, i.e. it is a type of philosophy that would have appealed to John W. Campbell. Meanwhile, humanity still gets to be superior, if only because medicine is a much more vital field than philosophy for the survival of any species.

The story picks up again at a spaceport, where Jerome sees his son Thomas off to Mars. Jerome can barely keep himself from begging Thomas to stay on Earth. Once the spaceship carrying Thomas to Mars has lifted off, Jerome suffers the mother of all panic attacks. He barely makes it across the open stretch of concrete back to the terminal building, where he huddles on a chair near the wall, terrified of the noise and the strangers all around him.

Jerome is desperate to return home at once, so he can feel safe again. However, the faithful robot butler Jenkins informs him that they can’t leave just yet, because the Websters’ private helicopter is in need of repair. Jerome freaks out even more. “I understand, sir,” Jenkins says, “Your father had it, too.”

Now Jenkins reveals that crippling agoraphobia apparently runs in the Webster family and usually sets in at around fifty. That’s the true reason why Jerome as well as all the Websters before him never leave their estate. Because they cannot.

Being a doctor, Jerome conducts an experiment and invites some two-hundred and fifty men (Simak’s word choice, not mine) to visit him. Only three of those invited actually show up, which suggests to Jerome that more and more of humanity (well, the male half) is succumbing to the same crippling agoraphobia that has affected him. This is, Jerome assumes, the result of humanity’s lifestyle living far away from each other on huge tracts of land, where they feel so comfortable that they simply cannot bear to leave the familiar surroundings, unless they absolutely have to. And maybe not even then.

Jerome’s theory is tested when he gets a call from a man called Clayborne, an old acquaintance from Mars. Clayborne works for the Martian Medical Commission and has contacted Jerome with an urgent request. After all, Jerome is the leading expert on the Martian brain and Clayborne has a patient who urgently needs a brain operation, an operation only Jerome can carry out. And that patient is none other than Jerome’s good friend Juwain who has been asking for Jerome.

“You’ll bring him here?” Jerome asks, only to be informed that Juwain cannot be moved. Jerome will have to go to Mars to operate him, otherwise Juwain will die.

“But I cannot come,” Jerome tells the increasingly (and understandably) irritated Clayborne. Surely he isn’t really needed, surely someone else can carry out the operation. Clayborne, however, won’t have none of that. He’s sending a spaceship straight to the Webster estate.

Soon thereafter, Jerome receives another call, this time from one Henderson, president of the World Committee, which appears to be the global government in Simak’s future. Henderson also insists that Jerome must go to Mars to save Juwain. Because if Juwain dies, the philosophical breakthrough he was about to achieve, a breakthrough which will advance humanity and Martians by a hundred thousand years, dies with him.

To be fair, Jerome is determined to at last try to go to Mars, even though he is utterly terrified. He also realises that even though humanity may have left the cities behind, they have still psychologically chained themselves to their homes. Finally, he realises that he has to break those chains and leave his comfortable home behind, just as humans left the cities behind some two hundred years before. So Jerome forces himself to pack a bag and promptly suffers yet another panic attack.

His panic attack is interrupted by Jenkins who arrives to tell him about a most extraordinary occurrence. A ship landed at the estate and wanted to take Jerome to Mars.

“They are here?” Jerome asks, “Why didn’t you call me?”

Jenkins declares that he did not want to bother Jerome, because the whole thing was just too preposterous. So Jenkins personally told the men to leave and when they refused, he threw out by force.

Poor Juwain is doomed and humanity will never learn the philosophical revelations he had in store for them. And all because of an overzealous robot butler.

City by Clifford D. SimakI enjoyed “Desertion”, the other Clifford D. Simak story I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project, a whole lot and it’s definitely going on my Retro Hugo ballot. I did not like “The Huddling Place” nearly as much. What is more, the story reminded me of what always irritated me about Simak’s stories, when I first read them as a teenager, namely the anti-urbanism.

Now I’m very much a city person and I was even more of a city person, when I was younger. My teenaged self wanted to live in some major international metropolis – London, New York or Paris were my top choices – and literally could not understand that there were people who actually enjoyed living in the countryside or in suburbs or small towns. I always assumed they were forced to live there due to jobs, money issues or families who had the idiotic idea that children should grow up in the countryside. Realising at age fifteen that American suburbs like the ones you always see in horror films were a real thing where real people lived utterly baffled me, because who would choose to live in a horror movie setting?

When I read about city world of Trantor, capital of the Galactic Empire from Isaac Asimov’s stories, I thought Trantor was the coolest place ever and immediately would have moved there, if that had been at all possible. And when I first encountered the City cycle by Clifford D. Simak at around the same time, I thought it was a horrible dystopia where human had abandoned the cities to live on country estates where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere, because there is nowhere to go. Worse, I strongly suspected that Simak was not aware that he was writing about what to me was a horrible dystopia.

My adult self has a more differentiated view of the City stories. Yes, Clifford D. Simak was clearly not a city person and obviously preferred the countryside. Just as he was obviously a dog person. Indeed, I was stunned that there is no dog anywhere in sight in “The Huddling Place”, because dogs are so prominent in Simak’s fiction, including the City stories.

However, even as early as “The Huddling Place” it is very clear that Simak does not view the cityless world he has created as an unalloyed good (and civilisation does eventually break down in the City cycle and humans die out, while dogs and ants take over the world). After all, Jerome A. Webster is a pitiful person, chained to his home and unable to leave even to save the life of his friend. Furthermore, Jerome is utterly dependent on Jenkins and the other robots. It isn’t Jerome himself who makes the fatal final decision, Jenkins makes it for him.

I vaguely remembered that the way the humans treated their robots as slaves to run their oversized estates was one of the things that annoyed me about the City cycle. However, upon rereading the story, I realised that it’s not so much the humans who are enslaving the robots. Instead, it’s the humans who are slaves to their robots. Furthermore, I also remembered Jenkins as wholly positive figure fully in the “robot as pathos” range, to quote Asimov’s classification of science fictional robots. But upon rereading, I found Jenkins an almost sinister figure. Does he truly have the best interests of Jerome and the other Websters at heart or is he slyly making Jerome even more reliant on him? After all, if not for Jenkins, it’s quite possible that Jerome might have managed to overcome his fears and gone to Mars after all.

City by Clifford D. SimakAgoraphobia is another theme that keeps popping up during the golden age, particularly among writers in the orbit of John W. Campbell and Astounding Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov, who suffered from agoraphobia himself, addressed the issue several times, most notably in the Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw novels. Asimov’s 1953 science fiction murder mystery The Caves of Steel is set on a future Earth that is pretty much the opposite of the world from Simak’s City stories. Here, humanity has retreated to huge domed cities and is terrified of any open space. The 1956 sequel The Naked Sun, meanwhile, is set on a world of suburban sprawl that is even more extreme than that of “The Huddling Place”. Here, too, humans live on huge estates tended by robots. But in The Naked Sun, the Solarians not only refuse to leave their palatial homes, they also cannot bear to be in the physical presence of other humans, even members of their own families. Indeed, the similarities between “The Huddling Place” and The Naked Sun are so pronounced that I wonder whether both stories aren’t the result of one of John W. Campbell’s infamous writing prompts.

It’s also interesting to view both “The Huddling Place” and The Naked Sun in the light of the trend towards suburbification after World War II. Because in the 1950s and 1960s, people all over the western world really did turn their back on cities in favour of suburbs built on what had been fields and meadows only a decade before. Of course, those people were far more likely to end up in a Levittown shoebox or a “garden city” housing estate than on a huge multigenerational estate like the Webster home. On the other hand, the McMansions that were popular in the US from the 1980s into the early 2000s do seem to show a trend towards a scaled down version of the Webster home. And while humans post WWII did not actually succumb crippling agoraphobia, people did stop going to cinemas, theatres, restaurants, bars, etc… for a while, preferring to stay at home and watch TV and have dinner parties in the privacy of their own homes. Suburbification is mainly associated with the postwar era, but now I wonder whether those trends were already noticeable in the 1930s and early 1940s and whether stories like “The Huddling Place” and The Naked Sun were a type of “If this goes on…” speculation.

In the real world, the trend towards suburbification and people retreating into the privacy of their homes eventually reversed, as younger people moved back into the cities, once derelict city neighbourhoods became extremely desirable places to live, while some suburbs withered and became places for old people, families and those who can’t afford to live in the city. Just as people started going out again and cinemas, theatres, restaurants, etc… rebounded. Furthermore, the postwar trend towards suburbification was a purely western phenomenon anyway. Beyond the western world, people continue to flock to the cities, because that’s where the jobs, the opportunities and the facilities are.

Indeed, the world Simak describes in “The Huddling Place” and the other City stories is pretty much unsustainable. It’s simply not possible for people to take up so much space, unless the world population has been drastically reduced. And in fact, I always assumed that only a minority of people, mainly in the US, lived like the Websters, while life and cities go on as normal in the rest of the world. And considering how very few women there are in the City stories, I also wonder whether women didn’t continue as normal, maybe even happy that the men had walled themselves up.

In many ways, “The Huddling Place” is a very American story. Now many of the stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project feel very American, but “The Huddling Place” is an extreme example, since the story’s idea of gracious country living is very American phenomenon. “The Huddling Place” is an early example of what Joanna Russ would eventually call galactic suburbia science fiction and one of the comparatively few that was written by a male author.

Since “The Huddling Place” is a Clifford D. Simak story, it is beautifully written. The nature descriptions do their best to make the reader understand just why Jerome loves his plot of land so much. The panic attack scenes are visceral and will bring back unpleasant memories to anybody who ever suffered a panic attack.

In fact, “The Huddling Place” feels more like a work of mid-century literary fiction than like the sort of hard science fiction normally found in the pages of Astounding. Maybe that is why John W. Campbell felt the need to add a blurb announcing that this story is an important extrapolation of social trends. In fact, if Jenkins and the other robots had been replaced by human servants, the spaceport with an airport or train station and if the dying Juwain had resided in a different country rather than on Mars, “The Huddling Place” wouldn’t have felt out of place in a 1940s issue of the Saturday Evening Post or the New Yorker.

A tale about crippling agoraphobia and the dangers of suburbification with rather sinister undertones for such a quiet story.

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