The May Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The City and the Stars, published in 1956 and now available from Gollancz
‘Clarke’s masterful evocation of the far future of humanity, considered his finest novel… Men had built cities before, but never such a city as Diaspar; for millennia its protective dome shutout the creeping decay and danger of the world outside. Once, it held powers that rules the stars. But then, as legend had it, The invaders came, driving humanity into this last refuge. It takes one man, A Unique to break through Diaspar’s stifling inertia, to smash the legend and discover the true nature of the Invaders.’
The City and the Stars is a rather unusual book and makes me marvel, yet again, at the breadth of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction vision. While all of the novels (at least the ones that I’ve read) focus on man’s compulsion to explore the stars, man’s relationship to those stars is very different in each. The City and the Stars likewise presents a new perspective but this time it’s mankind that is unfamiliar. In this novel, man’s exploration of space took place billions of years in the past and the universe is now out of bounds – not by force, but by choice. This is a vision of man’s future in which the stars hold no interest for him. Except for that one individual, born ever so rarely, who is a Unique. Uniques question the physical barriers that keep mankind secure and non-changing. They usually vanish. The latest Unique, Alvin, though, decides he wants to take everyone with him.
Diaspar is a perfect, self-contained city on a mostly desert planet that has lost its oceans and much of life over the billions of years since it was the Earth that you and I would recognise. Humans now live for a thousand years or more. They are not born, instead they are downloaded in an organic adult state from vast memory banks that preserve all human life. Each person has lived before, countless times, and as they grow older their memories from past lives are restored to them. Uniques, as the name suggests, are different. They are new. But although the city is perfect and people have evolved into physical perfection (albeit without teeth or body hair) , it still has its troublemakers. Jesters are regularly created with little apparent purpose other than to irritate or spoil. But surely no creation, whether it be a Jester or a Unique, is a mistake?
The legend has it that once mankind explored the stars but this brought the invaders to the planet who gave the people of Earth an ultimatum. In order to survive they must confine themselves, not just to Earth but to one corner of it – Diaspor. However, Alvin is as determined to explore beyond the walls of Diaspor as the people within are to stay there.
What Alvin finds on his journey, on Earth and beyond, takes us into more familiar territory for a Clarke novel. The descriptions are as vivid and enticing as anything else I have read by Clarke. But whereas the environments are fascinating, the character are far less real (or personable) than I’ve become used to in Clarke’s books. These people are simply too odd to relate to! They have superficial relationships and think little about the wider scheme of things because there is nothing left to say. Existence has become indolent. As this novel was written in the fifties, and despite its assertion that sexism no longer existed, Diaspor’s women still seem to have a secondary role to the men that they would seem to spend much of their time fancying, but otherwise, this is a bland society.
The past, so many billions of years ago, seems so much more intriguing. What drove mankind out of the stars? Who were the invaders? What happened to the rest of Earth? Of course, this is probably the point. Alvin, the Unique, wants to know the answers to these questions just as much as we do and it is this curiosity for what lurks outside the walls that drives him on and drives people like me to read science fiction.
Written more than fifty years ago, The City and the Stars is remarkably timeless, even in its descriptions of technology. I was troubled, though, by how the Earth, let alone a city on it, had survived for all these billions of years especially when indolence appears to be the chief personality trait of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, The City and the Stars is an extremely thought-provoking look at the role of mankind in space and the perils of turning one’s back on the stars.