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Clarke at 100: The City and the Stars

By / June 22, 2017 / no comments

There was a habit that was popular with novelists for quite a long while, though you don’t see it very much these days: they would sign off the last page of the novel with the date and place they began and finished the writing. It was not a habit that Arthur C. Clarke followed much, but he chose to do it for The City and the Stars, and what he wrote is instructive:

London, September 1954 –
S.S. Himalaya –
Sydney, March 1955

The journey by sea between Britain and Australia, then as now, would have taken him through the Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It would have taken several weeks, probably a significant proportion of the time he spent writing this novel. It is tempting to imagine the young Clarke (he was in his mid-30s at the time) travelling between the British autumn and the Australian autumn by way of the heat and light of the equator and the vast open spaces of the Pacific, and all the time writing a story that takes us from an enclosed society out into the vastness of space and back again, though the return is to a place that is the same but different. Though based on an earlier novella, “Against the Fall of Night“, the novel still feels like a metaphorical recapitulation of the journey taken during its writing.

The City and the Stars (Signet S1464)By the time The City and the Stars appeared in 1956, Clarke had already made a name for himself with Childhood’s End, which many consider his best book, and he would later go on to capture the popular imagination with 2001, A Space Odyssey, and win awards for Rendezvous with RamaThe City and the Stars, therefore, tends to be overshadowed by these other works; yet I can’t help feeling that in many ways it is his most important and influential novel. And by this I don’t just mean important in terms of his career, although the early version, “Against the Fall of Night”, had been, in 1948, what first marked Clarke out as a science fiction writer to be noticed.

Let’s admit, for a start, that The City and the Stars is not a perfect novel. It’s not as well-structured as the other three major novels, for instance. The most interesting scenes are the early ones set in the city of Diaspar, but we leave the city too quickly and the deep and fascinating exploration of the society of Diaspar is replaced by an often hurried travelogue through a sudden rush of new scenarios. And yet, there is much here that seems to prefigure and even shape not only Clarke’s own subsequent career, but much else that has become familiar in science fiction.

The City and the Stars - Audio BookAs I have said, the trajectory of the novel is from enclosure outwards, so it is entirely appropriate that it should begin literally underground, as our hero, Alvin, and his companions fight horrible monsters while trying to escape from a dark and oppressive cave system. Then the scene shifts abruptly, and we realise that this is not real but part of a massive, multi-person, computer-generated role playing game (called in the novel a “saga”), possibly the first such in science fiction. This, remember, was written barely ten years after the end of the Second World War and Alan Turing’s still-secret work at Bletchley Park. Computers were new, hardly understood, and very limited in their functions. It represents an extraordinary leap of the imagination to suggest that they might generate and sustain a detailed and convincing environment within which any number of people might all operate independently. More than ten years later, for instance, a very similar scenario would provide the setting for Harlan Ellison’s perverse science fiction horror, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, yet even here the computer would be more limited than Clarke’s creation.

And this game-shaping creation is not just an insignificant portion of the computer’s function, it is no more than an aside, soon forgotten, in Clarke’s evocation of Diaspar. One of the more interesting ways in which the computer (they did not have the concept of artificial intelligence in those days, but that is effectively what this computer is) controls life in Diaspar is in terms of controlling the population. People in this distant future have achieved immortality: they live for a thousand years or so, then their being is absorbed into the “memory banks”, and perhaps a million years in the future they will be reborn. Aside from being a novel take on immortality, this strikes me as perhaps the first occasion in science fiction in which a human being is identified as pure information, so that body, memories and identity can be stored indefinitely in a computer and reproduced whenever required. In the posthuman fiction of writers as varied as Greg Egan and Charles Stross, such ideas have become commonplace, but they were not commonplace when Clarke wrote The City and the Stars, and they would not become commonplace for perhaps half a century after that.

One of the interesting things that Clarke explores in this novel is the way that such a form of immortality leads inevitably to a static society. Nothing changes, because nothing can change, and though Diaspar is presented as being big enough and complex enough to provide a satisfying life for most people even over such an extended lifespan, there is still the recognition that some grit is needed in the system to keep people interested and mentally alert. In part this is provided by the sagas, though these seem to be primarily aimed at younger people; but it is also provided by the Jester. This is someone whose role in life is to play pranks, to upset the smooth running of things. Just as I see echoes of this novel in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, I would lay odds that Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man” also owes something to this novel.

Diaspar is the last city on Earth, another motif that would become more common in later science fiction (as, for instance, in Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time). Billions of years before, humanity had been a thriving culture that had pushed its way into space and built a great space Empire. But then they had encountered the Invaders, who had destroyed the Empire and forced humanity back to its home world, where now they were limited to just this one enclosed city. Here humanity cowered, fearful of everything beyond its walls. It is possible to read this as a reference to the British Empire, just at this point beginning to lose its control over vast swathes of the globe. But although we are clearly meant to detect echoes (despite the fact that loss of Empire would only really gain pace and become widely noticeable later in the decade), I think it would be over-stating the case to read the novel in this light. But one thing that is noticeable, and that would become a feature of practically all of his later science fiction, is a mood of melancholy, a sense of the past slipping away, that clearly distinguishes Clarke’s work from his contemporary American science fiction writers.

Alvin, our hero, is unique, literally so, one of a handful of individuals born over the long life of Diaspar who is not a previous citizen reborn from the memory banks. His role, which it turns out has been planned from the very origins of the city, is to stand at odds to the narrow, fearful, inward-looking nature of every other citizen. He, alone, climbs to the highest tower to look out at the surrounding desert; he, alone, interrogates the computer to find a way out of the city. Of course, he finds such a way out; of course, he takes it. Which brings him to Lys, a small rural community; for although Diaspar may be the last city on Earth, it is not the last refuge of humanity. Though the people of Lys are shorter lived than the people of Diaspar, they have other talents (telepathy), and a more vibrant, creative culture, which means they have much to offer Diaspar. However, the two communities hate and fear each other.

In Lys, Alvin acquires a robot that has survived since the days of space travel, and, through this robot, access to a still-working spaceship. Here, also, the novel takes on another of the features that would become characteristic of Clarke’s work. The robot had once belonged to a travelling preacher, which gives Clarke, through Alvin, the opportunity to give voice to an anti-religious message, arguing that science superceded superstition. Yet at the same time the novel acquires a tone of spirituality that would be an inescapable part of just about everything that Clarke would write thereafter. Science may be the only way to interpret the world around us, yet at the same time the only way to appreciate what it is to be human and the vast expanse of space is with awe and wonder. There may not be a god, but Clarke still approaches the heavens as if in worship.

There follows a rapid and, to my mind, deeply unsatisfactory tour of a selection of worlds set within a clearly artificial system, each of which has some particular peculiarity and each of which has long since been abandoned. For a time we are led to the conclusion that the remnants of humanity in Diaspar and Lys are all that remain of intelligent life throughout the universe (that mood of melancholy again). Then Alvin encounters a peculiar alien who reveals, among other things, that everything we have been led to understand about the Empire, the Invaders, the retreat to Earth, is false. It remains only for Alvin to return to Earth, bring the peoples of Diaspar and Lys together, and start time moving forwards once more.

As with so many science fiction novels, the mysteries we are presented with early in the novel are more satisfying than their resolution, And the novel’s final gallop really does not work as well as the earlier passages within the confines of Diaspar. Yet for all that, I cannot help feeling that this is one of the most important of Clarke’s novels, the one that is, perhaps, most central to everything he wrote.

Buy The City and the Stars on Amazon.

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