I have such a big backlog of books to blog about — even though I’ve been struggling to focus on reading for fun! But there are so many good books that I’ve read, from a variety of eras and writers, that I am determined to get through some commentary on each of them.
One of those is another classic that I picked up as part of the SF Masterworks series, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars.
As I’ve noted before, I have been playing “catch-up” with science fiction, as horror is my usual area of interest, so I am not extremely familiar with the great works of a lot of the classic authors. As far as Arthur C. Clarke is concerned, I had read his novels Childhood’s End and the sublime Rendezvous with Rama, as well as many of his short stories, and of course I had seen the film versions of 2001 and 2010. But I had not read any of his other novels, so The City and the Stars seemed like a great opportunity to remedy this.
The novel is set in an unfathomably distant future, a billion years from today, in the domed city of Diaspar, the last refuge of humanity. The world outside the home is a desert wasteland, as the oceans have evaporated long ago. But the city itself is a technological marvel, managed by a Central Computer that can control and repair the structure of the city at an atomic level. The people are manufactured, as well: everyone in Diaspar is effectively immortal: their bodies are fabricated by machines and their minds are stored at the end of their lifetime, to be reincarnated at a future time. Many people are stored in the computer’s memory banks, but only a small fraction of these are alive at any time. When alive, the people while away their time in luxury and simulated adventure, their every need catered for by the Central Computer.
The citizens of Diaspar have no desire to venture outside the city walls, with good reason. Ages ago, it is told, mankind fought a brutal and deadly war with alien invaders — and lost. As condition for their continuing survival, humanity agreed to remain on Earth forevermore, and surrender any right to the stars.
But one citizen has a greater ambition. Alvin is the first person “born” in ages that is unique, and has no past history — this is his first life. As Alvin becomes an adult, he begins to question whether there is truly nothing left outside of the city, and seeks to find a way out. This is no easy task, because both the remnants of humanity and the Central Computer have worked hard over the eons to keep the city sealed. Once he gets out at last, he finds that the story of Earth’s fall and the rise of Diaspar is more complicated — and unusual — than he or anyone else could ever have imagined. Is humanity doomed to spend its existence in twilight, or can it rise again into a new and greater destiny?
There is much, much more to The City and the Stars, but it is difficult to share details without giving away much of the charm and many of the twists of the story. Alvin will make strange new friends, unusual enemies, and find that he has a major role in humanity’s ultimate fate. The book is a continual barrage of ideas, from artificial intelligence, to future entertainment, to space travel, to extra-sensory perception, to rules of robotics (not Asimov’s), to the clash of cultures in a society.
The topic of ESP is worth following up on, because it draws natural comparisons to Clarke’s earlier 1953 novel Childhood’s End, in which psychic powers also featured heavily. Clarke was going through a phase in which he was really convinced of the reality of ESP, and it seemed like it would be the next step of humanity’s evolution: he soon dropped this belief due to lack of evidence. But it features in both Childhood’s End and The City and The Stars because both books are about the fate of humanity in the incredibly distant future. Whereas I find Childhood’s End to be a rather bleak and disappointing view, The City and The Stars ends up being cautiously optimistic, even inspiring. For that reason, I find the latter book far, far more enjoyable.
When I was planning to write this blog post, I was going to write that this change represented a natural evolution of Clarke towards optimism, but I was wrong! The City and The Stars is in fact a complete rewrite of his first novel, Against the Fall of Night, which first appeared in novella form in 1948 and was expanded into a novel for publication in 1953. Though some of the details changed in the rewrite, the broad strokes and ideas remain the same, making The City and the Stars effectively his first full-length story. So did Clarke have a hopeful or bleak view of humanity’s ultimate fate? I don’t know — further research required!
The City and the Stars reminds me of a couple of other novels, which are interesting to contrast. The first of these is William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 novel The Night Land, also about a future where the Earth has become uninhabitable and humanity is hiding within a final refuge, known as The Last Redoubt in Hodgson’s novel. The Night Land is a very dark novel, where humans are seeking shelter from a variety of proto-Lovecraftian horrors that have come into power with the dying of the stars. I can’t help but wonder if Clarke was influenced by Hodgson’s work, possibly unconsciously, after reading it years earlier. By the way, The Night Land is the very first book I blogged about, in 2007; the link above leads to it!
The other novel that I am reminded of is Henry Kuttner’s Destination Infinity, originally published as Fury in 1947, just as Clarke would have been writing Against the Fall of Night. Destination Infinity also features humanity in decline, trapped beneath the surface of Venus and lacking the ambition to challenge themselves. Into this stagnant situation is born an anomaly, like Alvin in The City and The Stars, who possesses a unique drive to explore and may be the salvation of humanity. Again, one wonders if Clarke was familiar with this earlier work; even if he was, Clarke’s novel is unique both in the details of the future society as well as the overall point and theme of the book — though both of them focus on the necessity for humanity to never stop fighting in order to survive and thrive.
In summary: The City and The Stars is an amazing classic, a really cool novel of big ideas and awe-inspiring implications, and it is well-worth reading.