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The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
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The City and the Stars (original 1953; edition 2001)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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Waldstein's review
Arthur C. Clarke

The City and the Stars

Gollancz, Paperback, 2001.

8vo. 255 pp. SF Masterworks #39. Cover art based on illustration by Chris Moore.

First published, 1956.

===========================

The City and the Stars shares most of the defects of Childhood's End (1953), another rather famous early novel by Arthur Clarke. Sometimes the background of the story is rather sketchy, leaving certain ends a little too loose to be engaging, and sometimes the narrative degenerates from science fiction to mere fantasy. Typical examples are a ship travelling at speed way above the sluggish one of the light and a talking monster, in this case a giant polyp, which fortunately appears but once. Contrary to the earlier novel, which is sometimes perfunctory, there are few episodes in this one which, equally untypically, are rather verbose.

However, two points of great importance must be stressed. First, whatever drawbacks the novel may have, they pale into insignificance in comparison with its merits. Second, its faults are in fact more excusable than in the case of the earlier book, for the scope of this one is far larger. So far as I know, The City and the Stars is the first of only two novels (the other one being The Songs of Distant Earth, 1986) in which Clarke deals with the human civilisation in the very distant future (at least a thousand years ahead, often a great deal more). Also important, this is perhaps the closest to dystopian world Arthur ever came to in his fiction. Let's have a good look at the City, and from time to time to the stars as well, without dealing too much with spoilers.

Diaspar is the city to end all cities, the city to defy the stars and all worlds they may or may not contain. It has been there for a billion years, providing the whole universe for its ten million inhabitants, apparently the last survivors of the once mighty human race. Outside there is nothing, at any rate nothing worth bothering about. The mankind has progressed - or regressed, it depends on your point of view - a great deal since almost forgotten eras like the Dawn Ages or the Transition Centuries. Personality has been transferred with the utmost accuracy into electric impulses and thus death has been virtually completely abolished: all you are, have ever been, or will ever be, is stored in the all-knowing memory banks; and you can choose which of your memories to retain and which not. Physical life has also approached immortality, being extended to something like a thousand years. Not that it matters. You have numerous such lives. Mundane matters like parenthood and love have been reduced, respectively, to mild obligation and mere necessity. But there are numerous ways to fill your centuries: from variety of sports and the so called Sagas, so popular among the youngsters, to abstract art and complex social life for those who have already passed the few centuries of their adolescence.

Alvin, the protagonist - unlike most of Arthur's novels, this one does have a protagonist - is one such fellow on the verge of his adulthood. But he is a great deal more than that. He is one of the Uniques, of which only fourteen have (dis)graced the history of Diaspar so far. What is absolutely unique about Alvin - and the word is by no means too strong - is that he is constantly bothered by questions to which everybody else is supremely, and rather condescendingly, indifferent. What is there outside the majestic dome of Diaspar? What is up there, among the stars? A slight anxiety in the beginning, it grows into an obsession and finally leads Alvin on a personal odyssey beyond his wildest imagination. I don't wish to spoil the pleasure of those who haven't read the novel yet, and that's why I will only say that the whole philosophy of Diaspar is challenged profoundly. Deep philosophical questions abound, and these I intend to address below, but what I want to make clear right away is that they are coupled with a very exciting story, full of surprises until the last chapters, and several characters of wonderful vividness and compelling complexity.

The basic premise of the novel Arthur has expressed time and again in his non-fiction: a closed culture, no matter how stable, will eventually stagnate and perish. Yet Diaspar is very well-equipped to defy eternity without the benefit of the Outside. The supreme geniuses who designed and built it, including the Great Computer that has masterminded its existence ever since, knew well how dangerous monotony can be. Among the more subtle inventions of the original designers was the so-called Jester, a man whose job was to create the right dose of disturbance. The great question is this: were Alvin and his fourteen predecessors designed for the same purpose? Fascinatingly enough, only in the end of the book is there a hint about that, and it's never made really clear. It is up to the reader to decide how revolutionary the change really is.

The characterisation throughout the novel is generally superb. Alvin's earnings for the Outside, sentiments essentially beyond words, are powerfully conveyed with the simplest of means. He had many strange surprises, he didn't see them coming and nor did I, and his personality goes through a profound transformation. The same may be said about his tutor, Jeserac, or his best friend, Hilvar. Despite being altogether different mentalities than Alvin, both are drawn with compelling verisimilitude; and both undergo shattering experiences which change their whole worlds. In the end it is difficult not to be moved by Alvin's adventures. He reaches the stars only to discover that the great age of exploration has long since passed; so great exhilaration is substituted for something very much like desperation. On his home planet Alvin is the trigger of colossal changes but what the outcome of these would be, no one could tell. The only certain thing is that, for better or for worse, there is no turning back. Unlike many sympathetic characters, Alvin is never dull, predictable or saintly. It's a pleasure to be in his head and it's impossible not to sympathize with his sentiments; here are a few appetizers to begin with:

The sense of loneliness, which for a little while had lifted from Alvin's soul, pressed down upon him once more. But this was no time for melancholy; there was too much to do.

Alvin looked at his old tutor with a new respect. He no longer discounted the power of suggestion, nor underestimated the forces which could compel a man to act in defiance of logic. He could not help comparing Jeserac's calm courage with Khedron's panic flight into the future - though with his new understanding of human nature he no longer cared to condemned the Jester for what he had done.

There was no place for him here; when the inquiry was finished, he would be told the answers. He had opened the gates of infinity, and now felt awe - even fear - for all that he had done. For his own peace of mind, he must return to the tiny, familiar world of Diaspar, seeking his shelter while he came to grips with his dreams and his ambition. There was irony here; the one who had spurned the city to venture out among the stars was coming home as a frightened child back to its mother.

The dominant emotion seemed to be curiosity - in itself something new in Diaspar. Mingled with that was apprehension, while here and there were unmistakable signs of fear. No one, Alvin thought a little wistfully, seemed glad to see him back...

There are many other such pieces that gradually build Alvin's character and its remarkable development. It is worth nothing by the way that even minor characters like Khedron, the Jester, and Alystra, Alvin's girlfriend, both of whom play important roles but appear only in the first half of the novel, enjoy the same perceptive characterisation in Arthur's typically economical - not to be mistaken with superficial - style:

Sympathy, for one whose loneliness must be even greater than his own; an ennui produced by ages of repetition; and an impish sense of fun - these were the discordant factors which prompted Khedron to act.

Yet perhaps her motives were not entirely selfish, and were maternal rather than sexual. Though birth had been forgotten, the feminine instincts of protection and sympathy still remained. Alvin might appear to be stubborn and self-reliant and determined to have his own way, yet Alystra could sense his inner loneliness.

Looking at the bigger picture, perhaps the best thing about the novel is the curious ambiguity that surrounds Alvin's attitude to Diaspar. It is this, I think, that makes great dystopian visions, such as Huxley's classic Brave New World (1932), believable and fascinating. Diaspar's Olympian indifference must be challenged all right, yet the ultimate goal for the city is not to be destroyed but to be enriched by its contact with outer cultures. Alvin is the Chosen One - chosen by whom? - to bridge the vast gulf between the self-imposed isolation and the cultivation of adventurous spirit. This must be the loneliest occupation in the Solar System, if not in the whole Galaxy, as Alvin came to realise. He is one of those characters, as should be obvious from the above quotes, in whom the urge to explore is constantly mingled with the fear of what he might discover, still more with the unpredictable consequences that are bound to follow. Unlike Diaspar, however, Alvin never allows his fear to get the upper hand. That's why he far surpasses the achievements of the previous 14 Uniques. Whether the new world - or, to be precise, the new eclectic culture - has a future, and whether this future is worthwhile, is for the reader to decide. It's a most disturbing subject of contemplation.

The scope of the book is so vast that it's difficult to outline even the broadest strokes of Arthur's vision. Some perceptive critics have spoken of the "Clarke Paradox" and I daresay, if I may borrow the term, this is as fine a description of The City and the Stars as any yet given. On the one hand, we have a glorious past in which Man had taken a prominent part into the shaping of the Empire. That was a confederacy of unimaginable vastness and complexity, as it spanned the whole Galaxy and included numerous races, yet Man was one of the leading factors. This boundless optimism in our future as a space race is one of the most characteristic qualities of Arthur's writings, both fiction and non-fiction, but I have seldom seen it expressed with such grandeur. In other of his novels it is usually mysterious alien civilization who perform this role - but not here, where Man is worthy of the capital "M". On the other hand, however, there are some much less admirable sides of Man. These are the contemptible superstitious fears that led to doomed cultures like that of Diaspar. It's rather often, indeed, that uncovered secrets about the history and the structure of the universe are more than Alvin, not to mention more conservative members of Diaspar, had bargained for.

Another compelling aspect of the novel is something Arthur used fairly often in his early books but later dispensed altogether with: paranormal forces. The scale here is even more staggering than the one in Childhood's End - which is impressive enough, to say the least. Vanamonde may not be regarded as a character in the ordinary sense of the word, but he/she/it (take your pick) is a most fascinating creature none the less for that. The idea of disembodied intelligence on a cosmic scale is enough to make some people suspicious, myself included. I am happy to say that Arthur has managed the issue in a most persuasive manner. The appearance of Vanamonde is indeed critical for the story as well as the source of some of the most thought-provoking moments in the book. It should be noted that psychic forces are used on a smaller scale, but with equally great effect, throughout a great part of the narrative.

On a more mundane level, the novel is also brimming with stimulating ideas still way beyond our time. How they must have sounded in 1956 I cannot even imagine. Occasionally, and no doubt accidentally, Arthur has predicted some modern evils with devilish accuracy. Consider his description of the Sagas, the most popular form of entertainment among the young Diasparans. They came to play a far more important role in the story than suggested in the first few pages of Chapter 1 and the tedious action in "the Cave of the White Worms". Yet the similarity with the addiction-causing computer games of today is, to say the least, uncanny.

They were the inevitable end-product of that striving for realism which began when men started to reproduce moving images and to record sounds, and then to use these techniques to enact scenes from real of imaginary life. In the Sagas, the illusion was perfect because all the sense-impressions involved were fed directly into the mind and any conflicting sensations were diverted. The entranced spectator was cut off from reality as long as the adventure lasted; it was as if he lived a dream, yet believed he was awake.

If there is a novel that puts Man on a truly cosmic scale, this is it. That so fine a story, full of dramatic moments and unexpected twists, should be so subtly intertwined with issues so much larger than ourselves is in itself a superb example of craftsmanship. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The more I read and re-read many passages, the more I wonder at the infinite range of Arthur's imagination. It's a laughable understatement to call the novel extremely thought-provoking and mind-stretching - but I can't think of anything better. That it does have a few dull pages and several unconvincing moments hardly matters. The City and the Stars is a tribute to Man's might and power, qualities that may make him a leading figure in the history of our universe; maybe of other universes as well. But it is also a warning about Man's dark and sick sides, his superstitious fears and his innate desire for seeking oblivion that hinder understanding and progress. The book's like its protagonist. Unique. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Mar 21, 2012 |
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A grand leap forward. One billion years. ( )
  jefware | Mar 4, 2014 |
A billion years into the future, a young man is born in the only remaining city on Earth, which ha been completely closed off to the outside, and feels the urge to explore.

This is Arthur C. Clarke's first novel, the fifth novel of his that I have read, and now I feel like I don't have to read any more by him. I get him, I think. Clarke's fiction tackles very big ideas and very big timescales, ranging from the dawn of humanity in 2001 to the far, far future in this novel. He is concerned with the future evolution of mankind, which is tied to getting off the planet and even out of the galaxy. Without such evolution, we stagnate.

His ideas are so big, they become remote, and it becomes difficult for this reader to relate to his characters, who often seem to function as mouthpieces, or engage with his stories. Once again, Clarke fails to produce any realistic female characters, and for a visionary who can imagine humankind's far future, he seems incapable of placing a woman in a role other than secretary or concubine. This quality doesn't endear him to me. But as concerned as he is with humanity, the human element seems to be missing from his novels. His ideas are fascinating, but his people seem lacking.

My favorite novel by Clarke is 2001. The rest were interesting and thought-provoking, but I'm not sure I'd call them required reads.

Reading science fiction classics; available for free loan to Amazon Prime members on Kindle. (2013) ( )
  sturlington | Aug 6, 2013 |
*note to self. Copy from A.
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Oh wow. This is one brilliant SF book. Its scope begins narrow (and slightly confusing) and becomes so wide it's almost overwhelming. From one city on a very distant future Earth, you travel (as the title suggests) to the stars and back and then piece together the history of humankind that spans billions of years. It reads as an adventure (Alvin's, the main character of the book), but woven into it a lot of issues are tackled such as religion, the stagnation of the human race (with two completely opposite examples), the achievement of scientific perfection, mortality vs immortality and most of all, fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of being discovered.
The only thing I can complain about is that the science in it is at best iffy and most of the technology used is considered so advanced that it just works and we don't care how or if it makes any sense - or is regarded almost as being magic. It might annoy some people, but it is not the focus of the book and I accepted it as such.

I recommend this book to anyone, be it a fan of science fiction or not. ( )
5 vote trueneutral | Dec 6, 2012 |
An ambitious epic set in humanity's distant future, addressing cultural stagnation and the human need to grow and transform. The first two-thirds (the Earth-based sections), are the more interesting; after that, it feels like it becomes unbalanced, as all sorts of new ideas and revelations come crowding in thick and fast, without time for the story to properly absorb them. While it is set against a backdrop of uncounted millennia, it's actually very hard to feel the weight of all that time (and not just because the city of Diaspar is a closed system), and on top of that, I find the characterisation to be fairly thin. Having said that, it is absolutely *chock-full* of ideas that have echoed so strongly through the SF that came afterwards (e.g. the control over matter and space, the seamless communications, non-corporeal intelligence being a goal for human evolution, the computer-run city, and what we'd now call virtual reality), and that certainly made it worth reading. ( )
2 vote salimbol | Nov 23, 2012 |
This is one of my favorite Clarke novels. It centers on Alvin, the first child born in ten million years in Diaspar, the city of the title, the last city on Earth. He's a "unique" rather than someone reborn from the Hall of Creation, and unique in wanting to go beyond the bounds of the city. Diaspar is a completely enclosed and stagnant culture, on an Earth so old the oceans are gone and there's no longer a moon. This is a slim, fast reading book of 196 pages, well-written, thought-provoking and makes a good introduction to Clarke. It deals with a lot of his trademark themes of transcendence, immortality and exploration and is interesting and unusual in treating of a far future Earth. I actually prefer this book to more famous Clarke novels such as Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Nov 1, 2012 |
Some reactions upon reading this book in 1990. Spoilers follow.

Like Clarke’s Childhood’s End, this book uses the metaphor of childhood to weave a story of loss and gain, the poignancy of innocence lost, and adventure. Protagonist Alvin’s adventures propel man from the fearful adolescent of Diaspar’s and stagnation in Lys to its place -- again -- among the stars. Clarke builds, block upon block, a suspenseful story that moves ever outward.

We start the narrative in a cave (at least the image of one) and end with the stars, with the illusion and threat of white worms to the reality of Vanemonde’s pure mentality and the threat of the Mad Mind which will be freed one day. The people of Earth, locked in decadence, are the new children of the cosmos. The other intelligences of the cosmos and Man have left the universe.

As in Childhood’s End, transcendence is a theme. It is also, as critics have noted, a “what’s over the next hill” story. The novel obviously owes its lyrical, sweeping, poignaint, grandiose tone not only to John W. Campbell’s “Night” and “Twilight”, but also Clarke’s reading of Olaf Stapledon’s and his uniquely sweeping vistas. Clarke may not have been the first to address some typically sf themes in this novel, but they seem early examples of the treatments: specifically I’m talking about the dichotomy of the contrasting societies of Diaspar and its physical sciences and Lys with its mental and biological sciences society. Clarke, in this novel, seems to have been one of the first to think of the computer as a tool for social administration. Diaspar, though a stagnant place, has some interesting features: storing popular, well-liked art, the simulations (Clarke was quick to grasp this feature of computerized information processing -- in essence, what we would today call virtual reality), its twisted byways.

This novel is also interesting for its religious themes. There is a rationalized form of reincarnation with the Hall of Creation. Man -- with the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanemonde -- assumes the role of Creator God and transcends the universe, and there is a prophet and his last disciple who faithfully awaits his return over millions of years and the Master’s robot servant -- compelled to silence least he reveal the truth of the Master. Clarke chides religions who insist they alone are true, calls the religious impulse a uniquely human aspect. Yet the Master’s message appeals to alien and human, and Clarke takes a ecumenical viewpoint in saying a religion that appealed to so many must have had much that was true and noble, even if the master’s evangelical message of miracles and prophecies was false and eventually deluded even its speaker.

There is also the interesting biology of the polyp patiently awaiting his master and the robot who -- at story’s end -- becomes a messanger to the galaxy of man’s rebirth. I liked many other elments of scenes of this novel: Vanemonde’s childlike state, Clarke’s use of immortality and the Halls of Creation though I’m not sure I agee with Clarke’s ideas about immortality leading to cultural stagnation and the necessity of ending. He sees immortality destroying personal intimacy by eliminating the need for the family and procreation and dulling life by taking the cutting, driving edge of death away. I also liked the legend of Shalmirane which turns out to be a myth to cover up Man’s cowardly retreat to Earthly isolation and stagnation, the starship buried in the sand, Alvin eventually questioning whether or not he’s just been obsessively selfish, and, of course, the eerie city of Diaspar at the end of time. Lastly, I liked Alvin being a rogue agent, a sport in the social planning of the closed system of Diaspar specifically intended to revolutionize, abolish, and change that system. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Aug 26, 2012 |
In this timeless, classic dystopia we can travel from a closed, isolated city-world to the vast, unknown universe. An early masterpiece from Clarke... ( )
  TheCrow2 | Aug 21, 2012 |
Arthur C. Clarke

The City and the Stars

Gollancz, Paperback, 2001.

8vo. 255 pp. SF Masterworks #39. Cover art based on illustration by Chris Moore.

First published, 1956.

===========================

The City and the Stars shares most of the defects of Childhood's End (1953), another rather famous early novel by Arthur Clarke. Sometimes the background of the story is rather sketchy, leaving certain ends a little too loose to be engaging, and sometimes the narrative degenerates from science fiction to mere fantasy. Typical examples are a ship travelling at speed way above the sluggish one of the light and a talking monster, in this case a giant polyp, which fortunately appears but once. Contrary to the earlier novel, which is sometimes perfunctory, there are few episodes in this one which, equally untypically, are rather verbose.

However, two points of great importance must be stressed. First, whatever drawbacks the novel may have, they pale into insignificance in comparison with its merits. Second, its faults are in fact more excusable than in the case of the earlier book, for the scope of this one is far larger. So far as I know, The City and the Stars is the first of only two novels (the other one being The Songs of Distant Earth, 1986) in which Clarke deals with the human civilisation in the very distant future (at least a thousand years ahead, often a great deal more). Also important, this is perhaps the closest to dystopian world Arthur ever came to in his fiction. Let's have a good look at the City, and from time to time to the stars as well, without dealing too much with spoilers.

Diaspar is the city to end all cities, the city to defy the stars and all worlds they may or may not contain. It has been there for a billion years, providing the whole universe for its ten million inhabitants, apparently the last survivors of the once mighty human race. Outside there is nothing, at any rate nothing worth bothering about. The mankind has progressed - or regressed, it depends on your point of view - a great deal since almost forgotten eras like the Dawn Ages or the Transition Centuries. Personality has been transferred with the utmost accuracy into electric impulses and thus death has been virtually completely abolished: all you are, have ever been, or will ever be, is stored in the all-knowing memory banks; and you can choose which of your memories to retain and which not. Physical life has also approached immortality, being extended to something like a thousand years. Not that it matters. You have numerous such lives. Mundane matters like parenthood and love have been reduced, respectively, to mild obligation and mere necessity. But there are numerous ways to fill your centuries: from variety of sports and the so called Sagas, so popular among the youngsters, to abstract art and complex social life for those who have already passed the few centuries of their adolescence.

Alvin, the protagonist - unlike most of Arthur's novels, this one does have a protagonist - is one such fellow on the verge of his adulthood. But he is a great deal more than that. He is one of the Uniques, of which only fourteen have (dis)graced the history of Diaspar so far. What is absolutely unique about Alvin - and the word is by no means too strong - is that he is constantly bothered by questions to which everybody else is supremely, and rather condescendingly, indifferent. What is there outside the majestic dome of Diaspar? What is up there, among the stars? A slight anxiety in the beginning, it grows into an obsession and finally leads Alvin on a personal odyssey beyond his wildest imagination. I don't wish to spoil the pleasure of those who haven't read the novel yet, and that's why I will only say that the whole philosophy of Diaspar is challenged profoundly. Deep philosophical questions abound, and these I intend to address below, but what I want to make clear right away is that they are coupled with a very exciting story, full of surprises until the last chapters, and several characters of wonderful vividness and compelling complexity.

The basic premise of the novel Arthur has expressed time and again in his non-fiction: a closed culture, no matter how stable, will eventually stagnate and perish. Yet Diaspar is very well-equipped to defy eternity without the benefit of the Outside. The supreme geniuses who designed and built it, including the Great Computer that has masterminded its existence ever since, knew well how dangerous monotony can be. Among the more subtle inventions of the original designers was the so-called Jester, a man whose job was to create the right dose of disturbance. The great question is this: were Alvin and his fourteen predecessors designed for the same purpose? Fascinatingly enough, only in the end of the book is there a hint about that, and it's never made really clear. It is up to the reader to decide how revolutionary the change really is.

The characterisation throughout the novel is generally superb. Alvin's earnings for the Outside, sentiments essentially beyond words, are powerfully conveyed with the simplest of means. He had many strange surprises, he didn't see them coming and nor did I, and his personality goes through a profound transformation. The same may be said about his tutor, Jeserac, or his best friend, Hilvar. Despite being altogether different mentalities than Alvin, both are drawn with compelling verisimilitude; and both undergo shattering experiences which change their whole worlds. In the end it is difficult not to be moved by Alvin's adventures. He reaches the stars only to discover that the great age of exploration has long since passed; so great exhilaration is substituted for something very much like desperation. On his home planet Alvin is the trigger of colossal changes but what the outcome of these would be, no one could tell. The only certain thing is that, for better or for worse, there is no turning back. Unlike many sympathetic characters, Alvin is never dull, predictable or saintly. It's a pleasure to be in his head and it's impossible not to sympathize with his sentiments; here are a few appetizers to begin with:

The sense of loneliness, which for a little while had lifted from Alvin's soul, pressed down upon him once more. But this was no time for melancholy; there was too much to do.

Alvin looked at his old tutor with a new respect. He no longer discounted the power of suggestion, nor underestimated the forces which could compel a man to act in defiance of logic. He could not help comparing Jeserac's calm courage with Khedron's panic flight into the future - though with his new understanding of human nature he no longer cared to condemned the Jester for what he had done.

There was no place for him here; when the inquiry was finished, he would be told the answers. He had opened the gates of infinity, and now felt awe - even fear - for all that he had done. For his own peace of mind, he must return to the tiny, familiar world of Diaspar, seeking his shelter while he came to grips with his dreams and his ambition. There was irony here; the one who had spurned the city to venture out among the stars was coming home as a frightened child back to its mother.

The dominant emotion seemed to be curiosity - in itself something new in Diaspar. Mingled with that was apprehension, while here and there were unmistakable signs of fear. No one, Alvin thought a little wistfully, seemed glad to see him back...

There are many other such pieces that gradually build Alvin's character and its remarkable development. It is worth nothing by the way that even minor characters like Khedron, the Jester, and Alystra, Alvin's girlfriend, both of whom play important roles but appear only in the first half of the novel, enjoy the same perceptive characterisation in Arthur's typically economical - not to be mistaken with superficial - style:

Sympathy, for one whose loneliness must be even greater than his own; an ennui produced by ages of repetition; and an impish sense of fun - these were the discordant factors which prompted Khedron to act.

Yet perhaps her motives were not entirely selfish, and were maternal rather than sexual. Though birth had been forgotten, the feminine instincts of protection and sympathy still remained. Alvin might appear to be stubborn and self-reliant and determined to have his own way, yet Alystra could sense his inner loneliness.

Looking at the bigger picture, perhaps the best thing about the novel is the curious ambiguity that surrounds Alvin's attitude to Diaspar. It is this, I think, that makes great dystopian visions, such as Huxley's classic Brave New World (1932), believable and fascinating. Diaspar's Olympian indifference must be challenged all right, yet the ultimate goal for the city is not to be destroyed but to be enriched by its contact with outer cultures. Alvin is the Chosen One - chosen by whom? - to bridge the vast gulf between the self-imposed isolation and the cultivation of adventurous spirit. This must be the loneliest occupation in the Solar System, if not in the whole Galaxy, as Alvin came to realise. He is one of those characters, as should be obvious from the above quotes, in whom the urge to explore is constantly mingled with the fear of what he might discover, still more with the unpredictable consequences that are bound to follow. Unlike Diaspar, however, Alvin never allows his fear to get the upper hand. That's why he far surpasses the achievements of the previous 14 Uniques. Whether the new world - or, to be precise, the new eclectic culture - has a future, and whether this future is worthwhile, is for the reader to decide. It's a most disturbing subject of contemplation.

The scope of the book is so vast that it's difficult to outline even the broadest strokes of Arthur's vision. Some perceptive critics have spoken of the "Clarke Paradox" and I daresay, if I may borrow the term, this is as fine a description of The City and the Stars as any yet given. On the one hand, we have a glorious past in which Man had taken a prominent part into the shaping of the Empire. That was a confederacy of unimaginable vastness and complexity, as it spanned the whole Galaxy and included numerous races, yet Man was one of the leading factors. This boundless optimism in our future as a space race is one of the most characteristic qualities of Arthur's writings, both fiction and non-fiction, but I have seldom seen it expressed with such grandeur. In other of his novels it is usually mysterious alien civilization who perform this role - but not here, where Man is worthy of the capital "M". On the other hand, however, there are some much less admirable sides of Man. These are the contemptible superstitious fears that led to doomed cultures like that of Diaspar. It's rather often, indeed, that uncovered secrets about the history and the structure of the universe are more than Alvin, not to mention more conservative members of Diaspar, had bargained for.

Another compelling aspect of the novel is something Arthur used fairly often in his early books but later dispensed altogether with: paranormal forces. The scale here is even more staggering than the one in Childhood's End - which is impressive enough, to say the least. Vanamonde may not be regarded as a character in the ordinary sense of the word, but he/she/it (take your pick) is a most fascinating creature none the less for that. The idea of disembodied intelligence on a cosmic scale is enough to make some people suspicious, myself included. I am happy to say that Arthur has managed the issue in a most persuasive manner. The appearance of Vanamonde is indeed critical for the story as well as the source of some of the most thought-provoking moments in the book. It should be noted that psychic forces are used on a smaller scale, but with equally great effect, throughout a great part of the narrative.

On a more mundane level, the novel is also brimming with stimulating ideas still way beyond our time. How they must have sounded in 1956 I cannot even imagine. Occasionally, and no doubt accidentally, Arthur has predicted some modern evils with devilish accuracy. Consider his description of the Sagas, the most popular form of entertainment among the young Diasparans. They came to play a far more important role in the story than suggested in the first few pages of Chapter 1 and the tedious action in "the Cave of the White Worms". Yet the similarity with the addiction-causing computer games of today is, to say the least, uncanny.

They were the inevitable end-product of that striving for realism which began when men started to reproduce moving images and to record sounds, and then to use these techniques to enact scenes from real of imaginary life. In the Sagas, the illusion was perfect because all the sense-impressions involved were fed directly into the mind and any conflicting sensations were diverted. The entranced spectator was cut off from reality as long as the adventure lasted; it was as if he lived a dream, yet believed he was awake.

If there is a novel that puts Man on a truly cosmic scale, this is it. That so fine a story, full of dramatic moments and unexpected twists, should be so subtly intertwined with issues so much larger than ourselves is in itself a superb example of craftsmanship. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The more I read and re-read many passages, the more I wonder at the infinite range of Arthur's imagination. It's a laughable understatement to call the novel extremely thought-provoking and mind-stretching - but I can't think of anything better. That it does have a few dull pages and several unconvincing moments hardly matters. The City and the Stars is a tribute to Man's might and power, qualities that may make him a leading figure in the history of our universe; maybe of other universes as well. But it is also a warning about Man's dark and sick sides, his superstitious fears and his innate desire for seeking oblivion that hinder understanding and progress. The book's like its protagonist. Unique. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Mar 21, 2012 |
Another classic science fiction story, this one from my dad's collection. Even though I have only read 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke before, he is already on my list of science fiction writers I like and want to read more from.
This is the story of Diaspar, a city on Earth a billion years into the future. The city is huge and completely self-containing, in fact, the rest of Earth is nothing but a desert. The people in Diaspar live completely reliant on the Central Computer. Everything in the city, including furniture and food is created on the fly by this computer from patterns stored in its vast memory-banks. The people live a thousand years, after which they are stored in the memory-banks to be reborn in the future. The people have an immense fear of outside Diaspar, because of the threat of the invaders which drove humanity into Diaspar, and leaves them alone on the condition they never venture out again. In this city, Alvin is "born". Alvin is unique, he has no previous lives, and no fear of the outside. His curiosity and refusal to accept things as they are mean big changes for the future of Diaspar.
Because Alvin is unique, we discover the city and the world along with him. He is close to us in his manners and way of thinking, which makes the story very accessible. Slowly we discover Earth, and the history of Earth, and the way forward for humankind. I loved the sense of mystery and discovery in this book, and the pace which is fast, even though there is not much action going on. A great what-if science fiction book, five out of five stars. ( )
  divinenanny | Jan 25, 2012 |
The best part of The City and the Stars is the city of Diaspar, home to the eternal civilization in whose midst we find ourselves as the story begins. I quickly fell in love with Diaspar's immortality, and knew that this novel was a keeper. I was, however, somewhat disappointed with the way things played out. Clarke, evidently less enamored with his own creation than I am with it, has his protagonist (Alvin) come to view Diaspar as an unsatisfactory society hemmed in by its need for stasis. Unfortunately for us, Alvin's increasingly far-fetched journeys never seem to lead him anywhere as interesting as the place he started from. Still, in the end the fantastic opening makes up for the lackluster finale. ( )
1 vote Audacity88 | Apr 27, 2011 |
One of the classics of the genre, first published in 1956, but a chilly read withal. It is set in the far distant future, in the city of Diaspar -- a city that its residents believe to be the last home of humankind, and a place they can never leave. One person is born with a unique personality; unlike the other residents, he is not living a long series of lives, one after the other, but has appeared de novo. Of course, he sets forth to solve the mysteries around Diaspar, the fate of human kind, the stars, etc. etc. Interesting, but the people in it don't seem very human. ( )
  annbury | Sep 26, 2010 |
I started The City and the Stars with low expectations, but willing to be pleasantly surprised: unfortunately, I wasn't. I already read Childhood's End in the 1950s and retain little memory of its contents, but my impression was very negative. The City and the Stars was published a couple of years after Childhood's End and I either missed seeing it at the time or, perhaps more likely, shunned it because of the earlier book. When Rama was published, some of my friends were impressed by it so I read it, it was OK. Then in a series of acts of increasing folly, I read the tripe which Clarke put his name to in the sequels.
At some point I acquired a second-hand copy The City and the Stars, but not surprisingly, I have only just got round to reading it. It is science fiction without the science, and what little mention of science there is tends to be wrong even by the standards of the mid-twentieth century.

The City and the Stars is set in the very distant future. The city of the title, Diaspar, has existed as a totally enclosed city already for a billion years (meaning a thousand million). Previously, and over some apparently even longer period, mankind had first built up and then lost a galactic empire. The inhabitants of the city never see anything of the outside world, no sky, no sun and no stars and not the desert that surrounds the city, though they do know of the desert and believe that it covers the whole Earth. They all have a strong aversion to any sight of or contact with the outside. The city is maintained and controlled by the Central Computer, which actually seems more like a lot of networked lesser computers, so Clarke was looking in the right sort of direction there. The computer uses advanced technology, more like magic really (Clarke's Third Law), to create and destroy matter according to patterns stored in its memory banks. The inhabitants of the city are created and destroyed in the same way. With extremely rare exceptions, there are no new people. The computer has records of a hundred million or so personalities and healthy young bodies to go with them, though it has made some improvements to the original design, such as no navel and no dangly bits. The computer pops up one of these often enough to maintain an optimal population with each incarnation living for a thousand years or so; as the end approaches, the person decides which memories to retain for the next time round and the computer makes it so.

Our protagonist, Alvin, is one of the very rare exceptions, a new person, the fifteenth such Unique since the city's enclosure. He lacks the normal aversion to all outside the city, rather, he is intrigued by it.

So far so good, we may well say. We have a picture of this static society of recycled people who nonetheless live out satisfied lives together with ever different combinations of companions, and naturally we have a misfit, since without such, there would be no story.

The book is called the city and the stars, so it's not giving much away to say yes, he does find a way out of the city and yes, he gets into space. When he leaves the city, among the things he encounters is an Amazing Plot Device which enables him to figure out how to get a spaceship. Out in the universe, he encounters a rather similar Amazing Plot Device which enables cleverer people than him to figure out the true history of humanity and make grandiose plans for the future.

-------------------------------------------------​

Some silly bits.

"When, in the tug of war between the tides and gravity, the Moon at last began to fall, it became necessary to destroy it." (Sample explanation)

Alvin looks out of the city from a ventilation grill in a lighted tunnel. As dusk falls, he sees a striking group of seven stars, a regular hexagon with a central brighter star. To see them in these conditions, they aren't far away in galactic terms. However, when he and his companion visit the system (yes, they really are close together, not at greatly different distances from Earth), "All the stars they had known, all the familiar constellations, had gone. The Milky Way was no longer a faint band of mist far to one side of the heavens; they were now at the centre of creation, and its great circle divided the universe in twain.". They can also instantly tell which spots of light are planets and which distant stars.

"The ship was now above the Pole, and the planet beneath them was a perfect hemisphere. Looking down upon the belt of twilight, Jeserac and Hilvar could see at one instant both sunrise and sunset on opposite sides of the world." The Pole is not relevant.

(Edited 2009.06.22 for clarity after helpful suggestions here.)
3 vote jimroberts | Jun 21, 2009 |
As with the majority of A. C. Clarke's work, the idea is excellent, but also as with a lot of his work, the book itself reads like a film. This is not to say it is a bad thing, just a little odd once you realise it.

As for the story you have your post `incident' society that has adapted into something alien but perceivable to ourselves, and of course the lead character is the agent of change. The world Clarke has constructed in this environment is interesting, and provides a reflection of a fundamentally protectionist society with an all powerful but benevolent Big Brother. The characterisation unfortunately is lacking substance, though the ancillary characters of the book are interesting and diverse enough, the protagonist `every-individual' is to put it simply, a bit boring. This is not to say the book itself is boring, there is more than enough to guarantee reading through to the end, it is just a little disappointing and idealistic. ( )
  oybon | Nov 24, 2008 |
Its a good story. It can be a little long winded at times, and the lead character, Alvin, isn't very developed beyond a need to find something new. ( )
  TheDivineOomba | Oct 15, 2008 |
When Clarke passed away earlier this year, I decided to read a book of his I hadn't read before as a tribute. I chose "The City and the Stars". What is most remarkable about this book, is that it was published in 1955, and Diaspar still feels very much like a city of the future. Without giving away any fun surprises, I can assure the potential reader that they won't be encountering clunky examples of now defunct technology, and they will be treated to more than a few examples of technology that have you wondering if Clarke had himself a time machine hidden away in Sri Lanka for research expeditions to the future.

While the city of Diaspar and its inner workings are well developed, the characters are a bit underdeveloped, but adequte for the purpose. Clarke's novel is really a novel of ideas - reflections on culture, progress, and synergy. It's what Clarke does best, and he leaves the rounding out of the characters, even the city's most unique citizen Alvin, to the reader.

To get a sense of the far future from words penned over half a century ago is a testimony to Clarke's wonderful imagination. A most fitting tribute and highly recommended if you are in the mood for contemplating the passage of vast expanses of time. ( )
2 vote GwenH | Jul 28, 2008 |
The City and the Stars is the story of humanity's last city, and the one man who wants nothing more than to leave it. The city, Diaspar, is a huge, enclosed environment, where the last vestiges of mankind has retreated after leaving the stars. Maintained by incredible and infallible machines, Diaspar has stood for a billion years, its immortal inhabitants living life after life, with periods of rest in the great memory banks of the city in between. Outside of the great barriers Earth has died, become nothing but a giant desert. Safe in the city, humans have lost their natural curiosity and cannot bear the thought of leaving the safety of their city. So it goes on, in stasis, until a man who has never lived before is suddenly brought forth by the computers, without the mental barriers, who goes about attempting to leave.

This story was a good enough read, but it never truly gripped me. Mankind has apparently edited out all the traits it found undesirable, so the characters all seem to be paragons of patience and understanding. While this is all well and good from the perspective of future society, it makes it harder to identify properly with most of them. The only flaw they seem to have retained is fear.

Clarke is masterful when it comes to describing the society of the future, however. The insights into the structure and machinery behind the city is inspired. I did at one point think that the insistence on the infallibility of the computers and machines was a bit too much, especially as the expectation was never reversed by a breakdown, but that's nitpicking. The glimpses into the great forgotten past are the most interesting of all. As Alvin, the main character, finally gets out and about and stumbles over the remains of galactic civilisation, we are at Clarke's greatest strength; the incomprehensible artefacts that clearly have much story behind them, but whose true purpose are never revealed to us. No one but Clarke can write mystery like this so masterfully, and I could easily get lost in the speculation.

Of course, this is also the most frustrating part of Clarke's writing, knowing that the answers I so want will not come.

Overall, it is a good book, especially if your tastes lean towards the "science" part of science fiction. Clarke is a artisan at world building, but the characters leave something to be wanted. ( )
  ErlendSkjelten | Jun 22, 2008 |
"Diaspar is not merely a machine, you know -- it is a living organism, and an immortal one. We are so accustomed to our society that we can't appreciate how strange it would have seemed to our first ancestors. Here we have a tiny, closed world which never changes except in its minor details, and yet which is perfectly stable, age after age. It has probably lasted longer than the rest of human history."

Alvin is a young man coming of age in a static society, in an enormous city, far, far in the future. Once, humanity had reached the stars. But something had happened to cause a retreat. At the expense of growth, we achieved stability. Alvin, uniquely, is not satisfied with this. He feels a need to explore, to discover what else might be out there, to learn about the past and find a new future.

Like many of Clarke's novels, this is primarily about a big idea, rather than characters. But what an idea! Mere survival, let alone stability, on the time-scale depicted here, is a towering achievement. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have been little more than a story of rebellion against stultification. It's easy to support the lone hero against the forces that would have him conform. But Clarke manages to put both sides of the case. Is Alvin right to risk so much, for such uncertain rewards?

Recommended for Clarke fans, or those who like thinking about deep time. ( )
  RoboSchro | Apr 15, 2008 |
The city and the stars starts being a novel of mystery and investigation in a decadent and futuristic surrounding to evolve gradually into a history about human superation. The events' development imbues the reader with an inquisitive point of view through which, in Clarke's opinion, religions and myths should vanish. The book could well have been written by Ursula K. Le Guin although sometimes it's splashed by ideas which appeared in other books of the same author (Rama) or others like Asimov
(Foundation). ( )
  tsanchezt | Jul 19, 2007 |
I found this to be one of the slowest and least-engaging of Clarke's great works, but stil an outstanding book. ( )
  stpnwlf | Jul 16, 2007 |
This is a reworking of Clarke's own Against the fall of night. The original was in many ways better.
  ari.joki | Mar 13, 2007 |
Dystopean city millions of years in the future. Amazing vision, great story. Considering when it was written ideas well ahead of its time. ( )
  pgimmo | Mar 8, 2007 |
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