Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE CITY AND THE STARS

A novel by Arthur C. Clarke (2001, Aspect Science Fiction [original copyright: 1953)

A young man, billions of years in the future, abandons his home to reunite the human race.

 

 

1+ stars+

Read October 2nd to 7th, 2004  
    Maybe it's just Clarke's style, but aside from a couple of true classics, like Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001, I just can't get into his books. This book was stylistically simple, with no real logic guiding it, only the main character's twisted belief in his fate. So much of the plot is written in absolute terms, so that Alvin knew he couldn't be harmed, that there must be a way out of the City. Why should anything be so absolute?

The book started out reasonably well, with the depiction of Diaspar. I kept hoping for more, but more of what, I couldn't say. The society that Clarke describes in Diaspar was very interesting, and is one of the few successful descriptions of a very advanced culture -at least at the beginning of the book. As it progressed, the society seemed to devolve until it was not really any different from our own.

The story takes place billions of years in the future, after Man had retreated from the stars to take shelter in the few cities that remained on Earth. Although the history that is "remembered" by these people is wrong (and we get a complete and accurate history near the end of the book), some strange things require explanation. Why, for example, did Earth's oceans disappear, and the planet turn to desert? I assumed that it was because of the loss of the Moon, but if Alvin knows that they can reseed the planet, and bring the oceans back, then that isn't a viable explanation.

In terms of style, I disliked the way the author compared everything in Diaspar to the way life is today. If thousands of generations have passed without navels (because they are downloaded from the central computer), then why is Alvin so consumed by thoughts of them? Why would he know about the difference at all? The narrator compares ideologies such as gallantry to how things are done, but because the whole society is so sterile, with a lack of passions, the comparisons are meaningless. Better to just describe the society, and not say how much "better" or "worse" it is. The readers don't need to have a literal comparison. The narrator seems to be very distant from the drama, which makes the reader distant, as well. It is a strange concept, defining people by what they are not, instead of what they are.

The high-technology world and the way it was presented here reminded me of 3001. The two books have very similar styles. In both of them, nothing really happens. In both of them, the author simply uses the novel form to illustrate some ideas of cool (or not so cool) futures. Unfortunately, a cool setting isn't enough. We also need interesting characters, and some sort of story. Exploration isn't enough when it is simply reporting. We see Alvin's wonder at all of the "natural" things he sees, but it is not very interesting. I needed more -a lot more.

People in Diaspar, however, seemed really truly equal. I wondered at first if there was any leadership at all, and what they would do, as everybody seemed to know their place. No leadership was needed. There was no imposing somebody's will on anybody else. We heard of friendly arguments, but there seemed to be jealousy. Alvin's girlfriend (who disappeared from the story after her job in the plot was done) showed that there was some passion left somewhere. I guess there wasn't enough. Democracy seems to be in fashion after all this time -at least in terms of the small stuff. A majority vote allows new art, for example, to be stored forever in the central computer. The people don't really have a say in their lives, however. What if they don't want to become parents? The computer is the one who decides what people will become born, and regain their past memories from previous lives. The computer has commands to create the Jester, who seems like the inspiration for the jack-in-the-box holosuite program in Deep Space Nine. The computer decides when to create a Unique like Alvin to try to break the cycle. The city of Diaspar, actually, seems like part of the inspiration for The Matrix.

The thing that I enjoyed most about Diaspar was the ability to communicate with the Central Computer and create anything, from a couch to lunch, with just a thought. That was the cool part about the far-future technology.

There is another human city on Earth, however. Lys was less interesting than Diaspar, for the people there lived like we do, except with less technology (sometimes), and true telepathy. It is the beginning of his journey, and the inexplicable fate he brings to the two cities. Instead of finding useful information on his field trip to the site of the "last big battle" (actually the weapon that destroyed the falling Moon), he simply finds an immortal alien religious fanatic and a robot. He uses the robot as a cool means of escape from Lys when they try to remove his memories of that city, wishing for their isolation. I suppose the people of Lys could have altered his memory as he was in flight, but didn't have the moral strength to do it.

From the robot, Alvin gains a starship, with which he and a friend from Lys travel to the artificial star system of Seven Suns (which lies at the center of the galaxy!). They find remnants of civilization, and some very mild adventures, but most importantly, they discover a being of pure consciousness, which humanity apparently had a large part in creating, along with other alien civilizations. All of those civilizations disappeared, responding to some distant call from other galaxies. Somehow, not even a devolved culture remained on any of the planets that Alvin visited. I don't mind mysteries beyond our comprehension (I loved it in Rendezvous with Rama), but this didn't make any sense at all.

As for humanity, for some reason, they just can't forget about each other. Even so, I'm sure they could go on ignoring each other for generations more. Lys knew about Diaspar, after all. But I don't understand why the two had to come together into a unified culture, and take back the planet for humanity. Nothing said or done in this book pointed to this being inevitable. It was simply said that it had to happen, thus it did. There was no reason beyond fate, which makes for very poor storytelling.

There were a few things that I enjoyed about this book, however. The idea of Diaspar as a higher civilization, as described in the first few chapters, was very interesting. It seemed rather boring, but that's only because I'm "unenlightened", and need a bit of stimulation and passion in life. What people would do with their lives billions of years hence is something we can't even conjecture (though the author does, with math puzzles and artwork), let alone understand. With menial labor taken care of by machines and robots, only mental exercises are left. It must be very different, and potentially difficult, to find real fulfillment in that kind of life (especially if your artwork is rejected by the majority of the citizens!).

I also liked the Jester. Although his conception is a random element in the city, permitted to commit crime so that society is not too utopian (like the first "Matrix" as described by Agent Smith to Morpheus), he is more of a hindrance than a criminal element. Even he admits that he hasn't done anything unexpected in 50 years. However, his character was reasonably developed, in the few pages he had. Most notable was his cowardice, in retreating back to the memory banks instead of sticking around to see what kind of changes Alvin will cause.

Somewhat interesting was the discrepancy between the actual and the commonly taught history. Everything in the taught history had its root in actual fact, but mostly was twisted so that it was barely recognizable.

People seem to think this book is a classic. I disagree. It is more of a bore, a showcase for some type of society that the author sees, but refused to do anything with. Sure, he predicted virtual reality and so on, as he seems proud to point out in the introduction. So what? If the book is simply exposition, it is not interesting. Something should be done with the high society he presents. Not here.

 
   

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