No machine may contain any moving parts.

The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

As a teenager I loved Arthur C. Clarke’s novels. Nobody quite did sense of wonder like he did. I read pretty much all his major works multiple times, and most of the lesser ones too. It’s years though since I revisited any of them.

Laid up recently with my slipped disc I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything too complex; too stylistically dense. I turned therefore to an old friend, one I remembered as having lucid prose and grand visions. I went back to the stars, where in literary terms at least I grew up.

City and the Stars

The City and the Stars has always been high among my favourite Clarkes (The Songs of Distant Earth, The City and the Stars, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001, Imperial Earth, Childhood’s End, 2010, not that you asked). That means I’ve read it at least four or five times, though the last time would probably have been around twenty years ago or so. Coming back to Clarke now, fresh from authors such as Proust, Krasznahorkai, Szerb, two things struck me: technically he’s not actually a very good writer, but somehow despite that he remains a good read.

What’s The City and the Stars about? Well, here’s the first paragraph:

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of Earth congealed— but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.

Humanity, which once had the stars, is now restricted to a single city which dwells in Earth’s long twilight. Our empires have fallen, the mountains themselves have crumbled, but humanity continues; carried down the ages in a city which represents our greatest technological achievement. As Clarke goes on to say:

[Humanity] had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

To put that in perspective, the history of multicellular life on Earth so far is only a billion years old.

The citizens of Diaspar have access to every comfort. Machines create whatever they wish, as they wish it. They have access to a vaster array of art, science, sport and new undreamt of pursuits (well, MMORPGs, but they were pretty undreamt of when this was written) than a million lifetimes could exhaust. They need those distractions – they’re immortal. They never go outside. They don’t even wish to go outside, or at least nobody normal does. Nobody except Alvin, a young man who is the first child in a million years and who through some freak of chance or long-buried design has been born with the desire to explore.

The power of The City and the Stars lies in its elegaic sense of vast oceans of time. Clarke conjures a persuasive image of an exhausted Earth and a humanity retreated to a form of eternal retirement home, its passion spent. In a sense this is a tale of generational conflict, of the only youth in a society of the ancient. Equally it is an exploration of utopia, and of the compromises that utopia requires. More than anything though it’s epic SF and a tremendous piece of storytelling.

It’s also about 250 pages of exposition and leaden dialogue. Here Alvin’s mentor, Jeserac, explains how the society of immortals prevents itself from becoming stale:

“In a little while, Alvin, I shall prepare to leave this life. I shall go back through my memories, editing them and canceling those I do not wish to keep. Then I shall walk into the Hall of Creation, but through a door which you have never seen. This old body will cease to exist, and so will consciousness itself. Nothing will be left of Jeserac but a galaxy of electrons frozen in the heart of a crystal. “I shall sleep, Alvin, and without dreams. Then one day, perhaps a hundred thousand years from now, I shall find myself in a new body, meeting those who have been chosen to be my guardians. They will look after me as Eriston and Etania have guided you, for at first I will know nothing of Diaspar and will have no memories of what I was before. Those memories will slowly return, at the end of my infancy, and I will build upon them as I move forward into my new cycle of existence. “That is the pattern of our lives, Alvin. We have all been here many, many times before, though as the intervals of nonexistence vary according to apparently random laws this present population will never repeat itself again. The new Jeserac will have new and different friends and interests, but the old Jeserac— as much of him as I wish to save— will still exist. “That is not all. At any moment, Alvin, only a hundredth of the citizens of Diaspar live and walk its streets. The vast majority slumber in the Memory Banks, waiting for the signal that will call them forth onto the stage of existence once again. So we have continuity, yet change— immortality, but not stagnation.

It’s fascinating stuff and a marvellous piece of worldbuilding. I could believe in Diaspar; it made sense to me. It’s not though particularly electrifying. Jeserac may be a great tutor, but he ain’t a great conversationalist.

The City and the Stars shares here a fault common to much of Clarke’s fiction. Everyone is essentially decent and sensible. Where Alvin meets opposition in the novel it’s due to encountering conservative thinking; ignorance; fear of the unknown. Alvin faces obstacles in his quest to rediscover what lies beyond Diaspar, but none that can’t be overcome by good sense, a bit of forward planning and reasoned debate. Like most of Clarke’s work this is a novel entirely without violence. It’s a hugely optimistic vision, but it’s not a dramatic one.

None of the characters aspire to more than two dimensions. There is no psychological depth here, but then there isn’t meant to be. The point of the novel is the idea, the vision. Alvin is a delivery mechanism to take us inside Clarke’s imagination, to allow us to see the cathedral of wonder he’s created and in that context rounded characters would be a distraction.

Perhaps too that’s why Clarke’s flat prose isn’t a problem. Clarke is a functional writer – he doesn’t let any hooptedoodle get mixed in with the story. Here’s one more example:

Such unnecessary appurtenances as nails and teeth had vanished. Hair was confined to the head; not a trace was left on the body. The feature that would most have surprised a man of the Dawn Ages was, perhaps, the disappearance of the navel. Its inexplicable absence would have given him much food for thought, and at first sight he would also have been baffled by the problem of distinguishing male from female. He might even have been tempted to assume that there was no longer any difference, which would have been a grave error. In the appropriate circumstances, there was no doubt about the masculinity of any male in Diaspar. It was merely that his equipment was now more neatly packaged when not required; internal stowage had vastly improved upon Nature’s original inelegant and indeed downright hazardous arrangements.

Again, it’s all about the worldbuilding, the idea. From the perspective of understanding Alvin’s future this is important and interesting. As prose it’s dry as the deserts that surround Diaspar. This is why SF shouldn’t be in the Booker. The metrics of what makes great literary fiction aren’t just different to those that make great SF, they’re frequently in direct opposition. Only a tiny handful of writers (M John Harrison say) can successfully write great SF which should also be read for its prose. For most SF novels the characters are a means to explore the imagined world, the language a vehicle to carry the story (and the story ultimately is merely another means to explore the imagined world).

It’s equally incorrect incidentally to think that science fiction is about predicting the future. Occasionally it aims for that, but only occasionally. Here Clarke is imagining not the future, but a future. Much other SF of course isn’t about any future at all, but about our own present seen as through a scanner darkly. A novel about an interstellar war which takes place over periods so long the soldiers find society transformed every time they return home may really be about the Vietnam war. I’m digressing badly though. Exposition is infectious.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Alvin does of course find a way to escape Diaspar. How he does so, and what he finds when he does, well for those you’ll just have to read the novel. I was more conscious of its weaknesses this time than in the past, but the strengths were still there. The vision burns as brightly as it ever did.

One last note. I remember when I first read this book one part seeming just too incredible to me to be believed. It wasn’t the society of immortals, the billion year old city, faster than light travel (actually impossible we know now), telepathy or any of that. It was the existence in the book of machines with no moving parts. How ludicrous, I thought, how could that ever be possible?

Back in the 1950s when he wrote this Clarke thought such machines were in the long distant future. I have an iPhone and an iPad. It turns out they weren’t as far off as he thought, or as impossible as I did. So it goes.

The cover above is pretty much the one I have, but I thought I’d share one other cover with you that I found online. I actually think this fits the book better than any other cover I’ve seen for it. It’s a scene from the book – Alvin, having found a remote air vent, seeing the stars for the first time:


Edit: Tomcat of Tomcat in the red room also wrote about The City and the Stars, contrasting it with Miéville’s The City and the City, here. As ever, his thoughts are well worth reading.


Filed under Clarke, Arthur C., SF

26 responses to “No machine may contain any moving parts.

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ve always loved Clarke’s work – “Childhood’s End”, “Rendezvous with Rama” and “The Songs of Distant Earth” are my particular favourites, but I haven’t read this one yet. While I agree with you that he isn’t the best of *writers*, I did think that The Songs of Distant Earth was quite lyrically written, at times.

    It’s quite true that science fiction stands and falls with its premise and its vision, but I’m not sure if that is necessarily opposed to great writing. It’s true of Clarke, it’s true of Asimov, certainly; and it’s true of a brilliant book I’m reading right now – Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel – but I don’t think it’s a necessary truth. Harrison’s an exception, as you pointed out, but he’s not the only one. James Blish is, I think, a notable stand-out – “Cities in Flight” is an absolutely beautifully written book. Alfred Bester’s sense of dialogue is outstanding, in “The Stars My Destination”, “The Demolished Man”, and the short story “Adam and No Eve”. Perhaps it’s simply harder to combine startling premises, that necessarily must be at the heart of the novel, and great writing, but I do think that the best writers can manage it.

  2. The Songs of Distant Earth is probably my overall favourite. It feels almost wistful at times.

    I think where I’m going on the oppositional point is that prose style and communication of vision are in tension. They can be reconciled, but it’s hard to do (and many SF fans may not like the result – there are those who find MJ Harrison too focused on style though obviously I’m not one of them). I also don’t think it’s always desirable – I wouldn’t want Alistair Reynolds to focus more on style than he already does say, or Clarke really were he still writing.

    I’ll come back on Blish and Bester tomorrow. They’re potentially good counter-examples and its late here so I wouldn’t do them justice now. I’m a huge fan of both those Bester novels, though A Case of Conscience for me is Blish’s best (from memory, it’s a long time since I read him).

  3. I love TC&TS too – and you’re right, nobody does sensawunda quite like AC.C: ‘Childhood’s End’ is a particular fav of mine.

    Couldn’t agree more with this review (I wrote about it on my own blog a coupla years ago in a kind of ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with Mieville’s ‘The City and The City’ (I took for my starting point the probably erroneous but nonetheless fruitful idea that Mieville was riffing off Clarke’s title)); there’s *is* indeed lotsa expositional dialogue and a few too many conveniently placed characters.

    Also: what is it with the new look SF Masterwork covers? Don’t get me wrong, I like the colour yellow as much as the next person, but sheesh, some of the covers really don’t look good re-cast in that yellowy tint.
    *walks off ranting…*

  4. Max: This is a coincidence as I am reading Sc Fi from the 50s too. I read Arthur C Clarke back in the day. Sounds as though you enjoyed this–perhaps even more than you expected.

  5. Agh, I forgot about your piece Tomcat, I’d have linked to it. I’ll edit and add it in. I do note that you also mention stilted language, functional characterisation and lots of expositional speeches.

    Guy, I did expect to enjoy it, it’s more that I was surprised at how flat the language and characters were and at the sheer level of exposition (this is definitely a tell, don’t show, novel). Given all that the fact that it still worked, that was the real surprise. It is I think a good book, which raises interesting questions about how a book can have weak characters, flat prose and stilted dialogue and yet still be a success.

  6. Returning to Blish and Bester: Blish is an interesting case. Much of his work is straightforward old fashioned SF, but some is also ambitious and clever (and even his straightforward old fashioned stuff is often a lot of fun, just not particularly ambitious fun).

    So, he wrote a novel in which a mode of interstellar radio is used that is instantaneous. At the start of every message there’s a peculiar beep, nobody knows why. Then a scientist realises that the messaging system is atemporal, every message that ever has been made or will be made is picked up simultaneously, so many of them therefore that they compress into a beep. Unpack the beep and you have every message that will ever be transmitted via the network.

    It’s a great concept, and a solid novel, but it suffered from terrible characterisation of the female characters and a certain boy’s own adventure quality to the male ones.

    By contrast, A Case of Conscious explores Catholic theology insofar as it deals with the concepts of alien life (real world Catholic theology, the Church has a position on aliens), and a moral crisis as a priest finds his faith called into question when humanity encounters an alien race that appears to be Christian in conduct but with no concept of god. I don’t recall now how well it was written, but I think fairly so and the exploration of issues of faith and character are stunning.

    Bester I love, but I do tend to think of him as having a pulp sensibility. The Demolished Man has a certain experimental quality in places, where conversations between telepaths lead to layered text on the page simulating in print their silent and overlapping communications. Otherwise though it’s inspired in concept (in a world in which there is a large population of telepaths, a man who isn’t wants to commit a murder) but I’m not sure I’d call it literary.

    The Stars My Destination, leaving aside its distinctly unfortunate characterisation of women including as I recall an extremely problematic rape scene, remains among my favourite works of SF ever. It reworks The Count of Monte Cristo, couples it with high concept SF (a society in which everyone can teleport, save a few people with brain damage or psychological problems) and pacing that Edgar Rice Burroughs wouldn’t be ashamed of. Again, not sure I’d quite call it literary in style, but then again perhaps it does have a certain Bukowski-esque quality. Whatever, I love it. The small boxes we may place it in, in terms of category, ultimately mean nothing to the quality of the work.

    Gully Foyle is my name,
    And Terra is my Nation,
    Deep Space is my Dwelling Place,
    The Stars my Destination.

    According to Wikipedia, William Gibson described it as “perfectly surefooted, elegantly pulpy,” which I think is pretty much spot on actually. It’s incredibly influential of course. Bugger, now I want to reread the thing again.

  7. Agree with almost everything, especially the points about Bester, and the elegant pulpiness of The Stars My Destination. I just re-read it two months ago. And you know, that line:

    “But when dawn came, she saw his face.”

    I think, is sheer (non-pulpy) brilliance.

    Just one small point – the particular Blish book I had in mind was Cities in Flight. That, for me, uses two great scientific premises (the anti-ageing drug and city-levitation) to ask the classically “cosmic” questions (about the nature of the universe, time, death, immortality and so on), and does so in almost lyrical prose.

    (An interesting aside – Blish is buried about twenty yards from where I live. I’ve often been to his grave.)

  8. That is an excellent line, you’re quite right.

    I was talking more about A Case of Conscience because I remember it well. I’ve read Cities in Flight, but I barely remember anything beyond the concept so it’s not one I can talk to much anymore.

  9. leroyhunter

    Interesting Max. I’ve never been much of a sci-fi reader, I guess I just prefer the hooptedoodle.

    Am sure I mentioned before that a friend of mine was a neighbour of Clarke in Sri Lanka. I used to see him sometimes when calling over to play Elite on his state-of-the-art BBC computer.

  10. termitespeaker

    Lots of ideas here. I always say I got into SF through the back door of fantasy; consequently I never read a lot of the “classic” SF like Clarke and Heinlein. I read only one Clarke and I can’t recall the title of it (It’s not on my shelf so I must have read it from a library). It was about a moon base and what it was like to live there. There was all this technical stuff, which never appeals to me. To go out, you drove some kind of rover and I seem to recall that one of these broke down and the people had to find a way to get rescued. There was absolutely no characterization and very little plot and the prose was just so flat. I was bored to tears and absolutely hated the book. Now the difference may be that I wasn’t reading it as a teenager – I was in my thirties and was not a stranger to literary fiction. I read a Heinlein once that affected me the same way, so I gave up on the “classics.”
    I want my “science fiction” to have as little science as possible and especially not overdo the technology at the expense of a great story. I’ve read Blish’s “A Case of Conscience.” I can’t recall much about it at the moment, but I remember liking it. I also like Philip K. Dick and Samuel Delany and one particular Orson Scott Card called “Song Master” (I’ve never read “Ender’s Game.”) But my favorite SF author of all time is Ursula K. LeGuin – nobody mentioned her. I like the anthropological approach – the use of what I call “soft sciences.” And I’ve become very fond of Mary Doria Russell. I like my books to revolve around humanity and their problems, both external and psychological. Maybe that shouldn’t be called science fiction. Maybe we should make up a new category.
    Amd just a parenthesis on your implication that drama requires violence. I think you’re right, although psychological conflict can work, too. Vol. 1 of my “Termite Queen” has only a tiny bit of violence, and I always tell people that v.2 is more exciting because it has more action. Action implies more violence. True enough in the case of my book, I have to say! But my books also contain a lot of psychological conflict.

  11. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are absolutely brilliant books, in my opinion. I think the point Max was making though, was that a certain kind of science-fiction – that is, the kind written by Clarke, Asimov and broadly the John W. Campbell group, that often relies upon hard science premises – is antagonistic to great writing.

  12. termitespeaker

    Yes, I agree with that entirely! Actually, thought, I’ve read Asimov’s Foundation series and I liked that.

  13. A Fall of Moondust I suspect Lorinda, not you’ll note on my list of favourites. Will respond properly tomorrow – using an app right now which isn’t great for lengthy comments.

  14. Many thanks for the link, Max – I’m touched.

  15. In a very sheepish tone: “Dare I say that I’ve never heard of Clarke before? That says a lot about my knowledge of SF.”

    I see he’s the one from A Space Odyssey. Is the book anything like the film?

  16. Hi all,

    LeGuin is definitely a huge talent, a major writer however one might wish to classify her. Your interest I think is much more on the social SF side than the more hard/techy/cosmological SF side, and the social side does require much more investigation of character I think.

    See also in that regard the wonderful Octavia Butler.

    Great writing is a tricky phrase. What I was getting at more was prose style. Most SF, including I think most social SF (see John Brunner’s best known works for example) tends towards transparent prose which communicates the ideas and story but which isn’t a focus of attention in and of itself. In much literary fiction the prose is in large part the point, which is where there can be a tension combining the two. This is true of most genre works actually, always of course with some exceptions (and hardboiled and noir fiction often blurs at the edges with literary).

    That tension is easier to reconcile with social SF, because the concerns of social SF are human concerns. It’s harder with the more cosmological stuff or the more plot driven works (space opera, cyberpunk, we could carry on all day naming subgenres) because their concerns are less about the psychological or social impact of whatever is happening in the book.

    Exceptions are of course numerous.

    Violence of course is not required for drama, and to the extent I implied that I was sloppy. I’m not even sure conflict is required, but definitely not violence. Most novels I read don’t really contain any, and if they do it’s generally not the driver. Psychological conflict is plenty dramatic in real life, and in fiction too.

    The Foundation series, much as I loved much of it back in the day, I would not remotely call good prose style. Good writing is a more interesting question.

    I’m an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. I would say that there is a very real sense in which ERB is a great writer. His prose style however is not why I would say that, nor his frankly shallow characterisation. It’s his mastery of pace and storytelling. Being a great writer isn’t just great prose technique, I think it’s even possible without great prose technique. If you’re seeking to write a great thriller, beautiful prose may actually get in the way. That’s what I’m getting at.

    Emma, that’s the guy. He’s so famous in the English language world that even if you hadn’t read a word of SF you’d know him, like a more recent Jules Verne for France perhaps. The film is based pretty closely on the book, and both are classics of their respective media, but I think the imagery and use of music in the film ultimately lifts it to a different level than the book. The book I think is an SF classic, which any SF fan should probably read. The film is a classic of cinema which any film fan should probably watch, including those who aren’t SF fans.

    Were I to recommend an SF book to you Emma it probably wouldn’t be written by Clarke.

  17. Tomcat, I like your blog. It’s pretty much that simple.

  18. acommonreaderuk

    Interesting. I am not all that into SF but am an occasional dabbler. It seems to have developed into a very lively genre as is shown by blogs like

    Machines with no moving parts? I suppose it all depends on your definition of a machine – e.g. “An apparatus using or applying mechanical power to perform a particular task”.

  19. SF has long been incredibly lively. One of the oddities of the annual “why isn’t SF in the Booker?” debate is that SF is vastly more successful in terms of sales and reader enthusiasm than literary fiction. That doesn’t of course make it better, but in book terms it’s a behemoth.

    Good point on machines. Here though to be fair to Clarke it’s vast computers with extraordinary processing power.

  20. termitespeaker

    Max, as usual you have the ability to summarize exactly what I think about such things! I’m definitely in the social SF camp, where a lot of the action grows out of the psychology of the characters. You keep mentioning Octavia Butler. Since I haven’t read any of her books, could you recommend a good place to start? I’ve already got quite a “to-read” list, but I can add it on.
    As for the violence-equals-action thing, in my Termite Queen, there is psychological drama on both sides of my double plot, until the two plots clash together and erupt briefly in violence. In my Ki’shto’ba series, I’m retelling Greek myth, as well as some medieval myths (notably Beowulf and Le chanson de Roland). All epic literature contains violent action and traditional adventure – warfare, single combat, champions fighting monsters, etc. But even though my characters are giant termites, they also have psychological conflicts – sibling rivalry, questions of proper behavior, honor and morality, love for your comrades, etc. That’s my kind of SF/F – a combination of interior and overt action!

  21. There are a lot of stylists/ literary writers in the SF field, from Wells, Ballard and Vonnegut to Iain M. Banks (especially the first three Culture novels, great works of post-Singularity ennui), Philip k. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson (the early, lyrical Cyberpunk). Dick is interesting here because his works are hit and miss but even many of his misses are far more ambitious than a lot of Booker contenders (and winners). He’s really too far out for a lot of mainstream readers but hugely influential on other writers. But he’s also a kind of naive artist, he can be clunky one moment, sublime the next.

  22. I’d query Wells in that list, and Ballard I’d potentially query as SF at all in the usual sense (much as I love him, it’s really only the disaster trilogy at the start which fit the genre well). Vonnegut is clearly SFnal, but his work has long been accepted by the literary crowd (who get comfortable with time travel in his works, but not elsewhere, odd).

    Banks is interesting, in my view a far better SF author than he is literary. His SF has more heart.

    That said, it’s a vast field. A tiny proportion who square the circle will always exist and in a field this wide a tiny number is still a fair few people, I’m not saying it’s impossible at all, just that there are tensions which most will either not be able to resolve or will not wish to resolve (as doing so would detract from other goals for their book – Baxter with literary prose and deep characterisation would I’d argue actually be a lesser writer than Baxter with his present frankly functional prose and thin characterisation).

    More ambitious than most Booker contenders isn’t hard. I wouldn’t call Alistair Reynolds literary (though I rate him very highly), but his Chasm City is easily more ambitious than the average run of the mill literary novel (and how sad that there should be such a thing as a run of the mill literary novel).

    Totally agree on Dick.

    Incidentally, that’s close to a list of my favourite SF writers. I’d add in Baxter, Reynolds, Richard Morgan, George Alec Effinger and of course Alfred Bester, plus I have a great love for the now less well remembered Wilson Tucker.

  23. love retro cover ,as someone who isn’t a sci fi fan I only know him from his tv series in early eighties the one with the glass skull in the titles ,knew he wrote a lot thanks for the intro Max ,all the best stu

  24. Great isn’t it Stu? It’s actually a scene in the book, and if that pattern of suns looks suspiciously regular (seven in a circle, each a different colour), that’s intentional because it’s one of the mysteries Alvin sets out to solve.

    If you ever do feel like reading him, this isn’t a bad choice, though 2001 and Rendesvouz with Rama are also excellent options. Don’t do as poor Lorinda did and read (if I’m right) A Fall of Moondust – it’s deathly dull.

  25. It’s some time since I read Burroughts (Edgar Rice, that is), and then mostly the Tarzan and the odd Pellucidar novels, but I’d second your praise of the pace of his writing and the sheer storytelling, though his habit of ending pretty much all his chapters on a cliffhanger (perhaps the novels were initially serialised?) can be a little wearing.

    Le Guin is also one of my favourite fiction authors. More than fantasy, more than even social SF, I like her for stimulating ideas; and if the mark of a good author is that you look forward to re-reading them, then for me she is in that category.

    As always with your blog I’m all too aware of terra incognita in my reading experience and how much pleasure still awaits me if the years allow, so thanks!

  26. Love the Pellucidar stuff. Haven’t read Tarzan oddly enough, though I’m sure I’d enjoy it. He’s not perfect as you note, but few authors have such a mastery of pacing (and breakneck pacing at that).

    Your Le Guin comment reminded me that I hadn’t answered Lorinda about where to start with Butler. Her Lilith’s Brood trilogy, the first of which is Dawn, is where I started:

    And may we all have many more years for many more discoveries!

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