The City and the Stars

by Arthur C. Clarke

Cover image

Publisher: Signet
Copyright: 1953, 1956
Printing: December 1957
Format: Mass market
Pages: 191

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Diaspar is the last city of man, a self-enclosed and self-perpetuating utopia one billion years into the future, surviving on the desert remains of Earth. Men are born nearly fully-grown from the central matter replicators, live lives of thousands of years, and then, when they feel the time is right, return to storage to be reborn on a schedule known only to Daispar's central computer. There is little strife, no poverty or need, and life is devoted to art, creativity, and exploration of ever more subtle nuances of well-understood fields. Diaspar is apparently the culmination and final twilight of mankind.

Into this closed, static, and complacent world comes Alvin, a boy with no previous lives in the city, an explorer's wandering impulse, and none of the fear that stops his fellow citizens from thinking of leaving the city. The rough outlines of the story from there could be written by any widely-read SF fan: Alvin upsets the social order, ventures where no one has gone before, discovers the truth of humanity's past and turning away from the stars, and finds wonders and secrets all others have forgotten.

It's odd to read an early SF classic like The City and the Stars after reading mostly current writing. The narrative tone and storytelling technique is so different that it takes some time to remember how to approach the book. Gone is the tight emotional focus on a single character (frequently first-person), in medias res openings, or unexplained background that the reader is expected to puzzle through on his own. Instead, the omniscient narrator sets the scene like a documentary, tries to convey a sense of wonder through camera lens description, and tells the reader what's going on and what's motivating the characters. The story immediately feels slower, less puzzling, and also less vibrant and surprising. Clarke is describing a setting and history as much as telling a story, and one is expected to read it for the vision of the far future as much as for the narrative thread.

Within that limited style, though, Clarke does a decent job at character. Alvin is a stock figure in his role as the young outsider and fated hero with special powers, but in this case the special power is as mundane as the ability to leave a city. He has one abnormal character trait: a relentless, driving curiosity and willingness to improvise on the spot to learn more. With that, he makes a good stand-in for the reader. If you find Clarke's future world is at all interesting, Alvin will do what's necessary for you to see the good parts. Despite the slow pace, I found myself caught up in the early parts of the book where Alvin discovers his role in the city and then a way to leave it.

I thought the rest of the book was less successful. Clarke creates a beautiful setting in Diaspar rich with potential conflict, and while Alvin's initial adventures outside the city undermine that setting somewhat, having a second external anchor for the story could have made that conflict richer. But rather than drawing the theme back to its beginnings and thereby complicating the story, Clarke takes us farther and farther outward into what eventually feels like a disconnected litany of discovery. The story of mankind's history is intriguing and I felt could have been powerful if meshed with conflict, but instead it's shown largely in flashback and in such safe surroundings that it's hard to feel anything other than mild intellectual curiosity. All that omniscient narration and passive discovery take the punch out of the story and turn it into little but an invented history book.

This disappointment is linked to Alvin's shift from actor to observer over the course of the book. At the start, he's rebelling; shortly thereafter, he's in real peril. But by the middle of the book, he's comfortably outwitting anyone who tries to resist him, and for all the concluding discoveries he's merely watching. The book ends entirely without either conflict or drama, not helped by the remarkably small cast. I approve of keeping the reader focused, but Alvin's world seems strangely deserted. The narrator tells us there are people about, but few of them make any impression on the camera lens and the rest feel like intangible ghosts.

Clarke's vision of the far future is best appreciated, I believe, as an early forerunner to many subsequent novels about an old Earth, life amidst the ruins of older civilizations, and slow rediscovery of the past. Those elements are present here in a primitive form and without the elaborations and psychological decadance of, say, Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. Clarke takes the leap of projecting a future mankind that falls back on itself and stops striving, an approach still rare in SF and worth admiring for its more subtle and pessimistic view of human nature. Alvin is still the intrepid hero of stock pulp SF, but the background against which he acts has more subtlety. I wish, though, that subtlety had been further explored in the story. Clarke's specific scientific extrapolations and gadgets are far-enough removed from present technology that there's little to succeed or fail, although I noted with amusement the influence of modernism in rooms where all objects disappear unless currently needed and where human form has taken on a similar streamlined and simplified appearance. But there to, while there's potential for an explicit clash between the modernism of Diaspar and the naturalism of Lys, it remains latent and unremarked.

For those who didn't find it at the right moment of childhood, I think this is a book one reads more for a sense of the history of the field than for a captivating literary experience. Clarke pulls off some memorable images (I love the tower at the edge of Disapar), but I found mostly missed opportunities and paths not taken in the narrative. I wanted more of the jester, more exploration of the psychology of Diaspar after the conflict starts, more conflict in general, fewer space creatures, fewer benevolent computers, and more thematic tightness. The book I wanted to read would have climaxed in a struggle for the soul of Diaspar and the personal decision between utopian survival and perilous growth. The story starts in that direction but veers away, and the result is sadly less interesting.

Readers exploring classic SF should note that, as stated in Clarke's introduction, The City and the Stars is a substantial reworking of an earlier novel entitled Against the Fall of Night. The earlier novel was also published and is still available, and confusingly some sites claim that it's an alternate title for the same novel. This is not the case. Clarke says in the introduction that they only share about 25% of the material.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21