September 21, 2011


by Arthur C Clarke
255 pages, Gollancz

Review by Pat Black

Think about the future.

In his classic sci-fi The City and the Stars, Arthur C Clarke creates a far-flung setting where the last remaining humans are concentrated in Earth’s last great city, Diaspar. We’ve conquered ageing, illness and even death within its walls, and with machines and computers to cater for our every whim, there’s not a lot to do except party.

And most people have no problem with that.

But what’s out there, beyond the walls of the city? We can’t help but wonder.

Neither can Alvin. He’s a regular young guy, having fun with his pals, chasing girls and playing video games – but he’s a bit different to everyone else. Whereas humans on Diaspar have long since forgone biological reproduction for a kind of downloadable immortality, Alvin is a Unique. He’s never lived before, a brand new creation, one of only a handful ever to have existed in Diaspar. And Alvin has a strange desire which no-one else on Diaspar has; to leave the mother-city and journey out into the wastelands outside, and from there, to see the stars.

Sir Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the far future was written in 1955, and in its depiction of computers handling everything for us, especially leisure, he seems to have been on the right lines. Like most of Clarke’s novels, this book’s not strong on character, but it more than makes up for it in concepts, a sense of scale and pure wonderment.

In detailing Alvin’s escape from Diaspar to the other city on Earth – the oasis of Lys – The City and the Stars becomes a bildungsroman. We share Alvin’s sense of adventure as he takes an underground carriage to the forgotten sister city, and his joy at discovering fellow humans outside Diaspar – although they have taken a different evolutionary path from their long-lost relatives, having developed telepathic powers.

From there, Alvin hits the road, with his new chum Hilvar, starting a journey on foot that will lead to encounters with strange alien beings and robots from the stars, and the discovery of a spacecraft that will change what the remaining humans of Earth think they know of their own history – as well as outlining the truth of what happened when humanity first tried to conquer space.

This novel displays Clarke’s gift for imbuing his prose with a sense of scale. He was so very, very good at putting single human beings in their proper context, whether that’s in comparing them to the might of a gigantic city of hundreds of millions of people, or placing them out in the stars and travelling at unimaginable speeds in between them. Although we’re less than specks out in the firmament, we are all part of one cosmic whole, and Clarke has a joy at this communing with the immensity of space.

I also liked the outer space travelogue near the end, as Alvin and Hilvar go to other planets and encounter some weird plant life and bug-eyed monsters. I get the impression Clarke might have had these ideas in mind as a young man; although the scenarios and biodiversity outlined are sophisticated, there’s almost something of a playground game in the concept of two lads taking off in their spaceship and having big adventures among the aliens. In this, it’s telling that the book came out in the middle of the outer space invaders from Mars craze of the 1950s. Although to be honest, one monster which wraps its whip-like tentacles round the ship, with its “pulsing scarlet orifice”, did make me think of a theory I once read about HP Lovecraft and ladies’ bits.

At its very best, the City and the Stars is a novel of hope, and a reminder that as a species we simply have to keep breaking barriers (whether scientific or social), accepting what we’ve done in the past and striving to progress at all turns.

It can be a scary thing to take the leap into the unknown, Clarke reminds us – but great things can come of it.

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