Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review of The City & the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

Published in 1948, Against the Fall of Night is Arthur C. Clarke’s first ever novel.  Dissatisfied with the outcome, a few years later Clarke returned to the story and extensively revised it.  Warranting a new title, he took the original concept and tweaked, expanded, and plugged gaps, producing The City & the Stars in 1956.  (It should be of interest to readers that the initial Against the Fall of Night was not replaced by the revised version but has remained in print in parallel, and is perhaps worth looking into if the general idea is interesting.)

Some may say science fiction, some may say fantasy, but the bottom line is that categorization of The City & the Stars is unimportant.  No matter the forces at play—magic or technology—the story is one that is ideological and independent of the details.  Of greater focus are the time scales at work, the history that has lead to the Earth being in the situation it is, the value of avoiding stagnation through forward thinking, and man’s relationship with the great beyond.  The spec-fic candy is all there, it just takes a backseat to the questions Alvin is attempting to answer.  Who is Alvin?  Well…

Alvin is a young man ready for transition to being a recognized adult of Diaspar. Diaspar a city millions of eons in perpetual existence, the circular perimeter is enclosed in impenetrable glass and its ten million citizens live a post-scarcity existence.  They invest their time in art, research, or whatever hobby they desire before the completion of their lives, and are eventually placed back into the Central Computer to await “resurrection” in a new body at some time in the future decided upon by the city’s overarching artificial intelligence.  His friends and family distantly aware of their past existences, Alvin lacks this former knowledge and seeks, most often through his tutor Jeserac, to discover his roots.  Despite the wealth of knowledge and the perfection of life surrounding him, the truth, however, remains maddeningly distant.  In order to find it, Alvin, along with the Jester Khedron, dares to challenge the system.

As might be intuited, The City & the Stars contains elements of a bildungsroman.  But there is much more.  Alvin’s quest for knowledge, and the places it takes him, both past and present, showcase mankind’s unquenchable desire to further themselves; to know the underlying reason for the phenomena that is life, no matter the form.  All men look at the stars in wonder, but getting there requires more than individual effort.  It is thus possible to read the novel as a voice in support of such cooperation and humaneness.  Clarke may ignore the indelicate side of humanity, but he does strikes upon something fundamental to our existence. (For its confirmation of the belief humanity will continually evolve in a positive direction to space, The City & the Stars can be considered a prelude to 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  

Clarke also plays with religion in the novel—at least, perhaps.  In many ways Diaspar is a version of Christian heaven.  Existence eternal and perpetually unchanged, there are no ugly people, a person may indulge themselves in whatever manner they please, and the worst fate awaiting anyone is to be taken from the populace, uploaded into mainframe, and manifested at some time in the future.  By presenting a young man who wants more than material perfection, it’s possible The City & the Stars is one of Clarke’s more subversive novels. 

If there are faults to the novel, one would certainly be the simplistic presentation of character.  But that The City & the Stars is more mythic rather than human in tone, it’s also possible to forgive.  Clarke was aiming at something fundamental and only the b-movie dialogue betrays him.  All else regarding style is typical of Clarke: he will not win any awards for prosaic beauty, but you do get a narrative that unravels effortlessly and does all the little things right.  

Continuing with the complaint department, as with most societies Clarke envisions, things are always a little too perfect.  The people of Diaspar take their existence for granted, nary a rebel among the 10 million.  In communities elsewhere, science and pastoral life mix harmoniously, not a drop of unaccepted poverty or dissent in the group. Alvin himself is the hero’s hero, not a step taken out of place, and luck, par for the course. While such presentation can be overlooked given the other details Clarke provides, something remains lost.

In the end The City & the Stars is rather atypical Clarke (but not wholly) that is well worth a read.  For its anthropological forays, the book bears comparison to the works of Ursula Le Guin.  For the discussion on what lies beyond, perhaps the works of H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, or Stanislaw Lem might float to mind.  But for its optimistic presentation of man’s relationship with things beyond Earth and the need to reconcile the past and present for the future, it is all Clarke.  Just shy of being as good as some of his other novels, The City & the Stars is nevertheless one of the best the writer produced.


  1. "Clarke may ignore the indelicate side of humanity ... its confirmation of the belief humanity will continually evolve in a positive direction to space ..."

    In order to be optimistic about mankind evolving into a space-faring species, it may, perhaps, be necessary to overlook mankind's "indelicacies." I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's objection (voiced in his Space Trilogy) to our becoming a space-faring race: we will fill the Deep Heavens with the same evils we've filled the Earth with.

    1. For lack of a better idiom, there indeed is more than one way to skin a cat. Some works, like Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants foreground mankind's foibles as obstacles necessary to overcome before the stars can be achieved, while others, like Clarke, prefer to present it carrot and stick style, forever dangling the dream of space right in front of our noses so we don't lose sight. Interestingly, there is a third: Kim Stanley Robinson's approach. His Mars trilogy presents both the virtues and vices of humanity intertwined on its road to life beyond Earth. If I thought harder, perhaps there are more...

      I have not read the Space Trilogy. What's its hook, if any?

  2. I'd say its hook is its cosmology. Though set in Lewis' own time, it's a deliberate throwback to the medieval thought-world where all things have both a natural and a supernatural aspect. Fascinating.