The City and the Stars PDF Print E-mail

Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars (1956)

Reviewed by John Hertz
December 2006

Reprinted from the amateur publication Challenger; copyright remains with the author. Used by permission.

What is a classic? Can we have any in science fiction? I've suggested we can if we make a book, or a painting, or whatever may be s-f, which outlives its own time: in which merit appears even after times have changed, after the currents which may have buoyed up an artwork have passed.

The City and the Stars has been continuously in print for fifty years. The current Gollancz edition has 256 pages, a nice mathematical fillip. In a 2000 introduction Sir Arthur, as he that year became, called it his best-loved work.

It is a work of marvels great and small. As it opens, our hero Alvin is on a far future Earth; the city of Diaspar has been a billion years in the form we meet, a fraction of its age. This immortal city, so encompassing, so big, we rightly suspect is a fraction of this book. There are stars. The story is told so well in so few words as to be another marvel. Clarke never quotes Quantity of labor has nothing to do with art; he does quote No machine may have any moving parts.

Diaspar was the great port city of Earth. Humankind long traveled among the stars — and drew back. That was given up. Advanced science made Diaspar self-sufficient and eternal. The human span became a thousand years, at the end of which by a kind of reincarnation one would dissolve, to return millennia later; a rich and happy life. Alvin questions it. Indeed he keeps asking the next question.

Machines in Diaspar do much that men and women do not care to. The machines are routinely commanded by thought. People in Diaspar cannot read one another's minds. Perhaps they could once, but if so that was given up too, long ago. A great deal has been forgotten in Diaspar. Why not? And outside the oceans have dried, the Moon has gone, and the face of the Earth is sand.

This is a Bildungsroman — one of those unfortunate technical terms long parted from its root meaning, like novel; a story of the growth and maturation of its protagonist. Clarke, the good jeweler, keeps us more with the pearls than the string. They gleam softly. Only the whole is dazzling, as we see how they are graded and matched.

One of my own maxims, I fear, is Behind the received wisdom is the received iconoclasm. I've adventured with folk who were non-conformists like everybody else. That is a theme of this book, if it is fair to say a good book has themes, which I doubt. Alvin meets Khedron the Jester, an office which has been held by others and by Khedron earlier from time to time. He unsettles things. To do this he must know a lot, and get at the hidden ways of Diaspar. His jests may be terrifying, but that is allowed. Alvin learns from him, and frightens him. Khedron has lived through many millions of years. Alvin is twenty years old.

Alvin visits the Tomb of Yarlan Zey, near-legendary founder of Diaspar. Everyone knows the Tomb, it is in the middle of the central park. With Khedron's help Alvin finds the enigmatic instruction Stand where the statue gazes, and remember, Diaspar was not always thus. That was the opening of my senior-year research paper in law school. I called The City and the Stars a novel of triumph and fabrication. I was unsure whether to start with a science fiction novel, but a professor persuaded me to leave it in. For Alvin this thought is really the beginning of the adventure. He has left his parents, his tutor, and a woman who loved him, behind.

Some of Alvin's discoveries are like a door, some are like a dawn. Theodore Sturgeon, to whom I alluded above, liked to remind us "Science fiction is knowledge fiction"; science comes from the Latin word for knowledge. Alvin is a remarkable scientist. He exercises the ability to observe and to compute. There are computing machines in this book — the Central Computer of Diaspar is quite wonderful; other reviewers have noted that, just as Clarke thought up geosynchronous satellites before anyone could build them, he thought up distributed computing before anyone could build it — a meeting between the Central Computer and a lesser strange computer is also wonderful — but I mean the human ability. Alvin thinks — I am not quoting him — These data do not align. What else is there? Where might it be? He does not think, but Clarke does and is alert to it every moment, Why has nobody asked before?

With the other greatnesses in this story there is, eventually, a great religious figure, a galactic teacher. We are invited to a low regard for him. That may be the reality of religion, but like everything in an artwork it must be viewed in the setting the artist has given. Vladimir Nabokov said, "An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth." Who admired this teacher? Do we apply Alvin's own method? As with much else in the story Clarke achieves a consummate and subtle treatment of a recurring theme.

All Alvin's answers are waiting for him to find. Something is unearthed which itself raises a new possibility. If you know the book you will recognize Chapter 17, but Clarke makes moments for themselves and as images. Alvin goes on to follow knowledge, undistracted by threat or promise, uncontent with unreasonable comfort. "At every stage he might have turned aside with unseeing eyes" — I quote his thought now — "any man might have found the path his footsteps had traced"; if no others, fourteen like him in a billion years, whose steps stopped before they swung and soared. Here is a sample of Clarke's subtle poetry: "Nothing is more terrible than movement where no movement should ever be again." We are watching the desert. The single last word of that sentence is not only a sound of fear, but a resonant in this book of history.

To find all he can Alvin travels far. What do the vintners buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell? What truth — in an artwork, a fiction — is stranger than fiction — which its wise men and their yet more complacent guardians so permanently maintained? If To bring home the wealth of the Indies, you must carry the wealth of the Indies with you, he does not quite have it, so he does not quite get it, but enough. He learns to make friends, and they help. The great goes with the small, and the small with the great, humility with hugeness. As one story ends, another may begin, and a note that rang in fear may sound in hope, but as the author promised this is his last word on the immortal city of Diaspar, in the long twilight of Earth.

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