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.
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.