On My Shelves: The City and the Stars



     It seems appropriate to finish this week's postings with one on a novel by the third of the classic triad of the Golden Age – Arthur C. Clarke.


     The City and the Stars is a revised, expanded version of an earlier Clarke story, Against the Fall of Night. It is one of the most far-future stories told, set one billion years in the future. The story begins in the beautiful and apparently eternal, self-renewing city of Diaspar, a city which has endured for most of that billion years, ever new, ever perfect.


     Into Diaspar is … well, not born, because in Diaspar people aren't born, but given bodies by the great Central Computer; say, perhaps, that into Diaspar comes a young man named Alvin, who discovers that he is, quite literally, unique. The Central Computer stores the minds and experiences of uncounted numbers of human beings, but because of the limited size of Diaspar, only a relative few of these can be active and alive in the City at any one time. Thus, over the thousands and millions of years, each person is given a body, lives out a long (very long) life, and then returns to the Computer, to wait with perfect memory and patience until it is their turn again. Thus, all inhabitants of Diaspar have lived many, many lives.


     Except for Alvin. This is his first appearance in Diaspar. Where he comes from, no one is quite sure; perhaps the Computer has a small group of such people that it gradually releases,or perhaps it merely creates a new person by random combinations of those stored within, but in any event he is the first Unique to be seen in at least ten million years. And, alone of all people in Diaspar, he feels an urge to go outside, to explore, to see things beyond Diaspar itself.


     I won't spoiler the rest of the book, at least not directly, though I must touch on other aspects of it in order to discuss some of the most interesting features of The City and the Stars.


     Clarke tries very hard – and mostly succeeds – in the creation of a world that is both human, and yet alien, where even the people are not exactly the people we know today; physically they are similar, yet changed – without fingernails or body hair or – as they are replicated as near-adults – even navels. Mentally they are generally equal or superior, but with strange limitations of imagination and drive that would be instantly apparent to any human of our time.


The City itself is one of the great images of science fiction, the perfect and incorruptible jewel of a city standing, untouched and untouchable, in the desert ruins of an Earth so old that it is nigh uninhabitable across most of its surface. Diaspar has challenged Eternity and won, a triumph of the ultimate engineer's adage: "A machine may have no moving parts". Diaspar is maintained by "eternity circuits" which can in effect create or destroy matter by drawing on the data and patterns stored in the great Central Computer; this is one of the earliest examples of the concepts which are currently used most commonly in Doctor Who under the guise of the "block-transfer computation" manifestation of matter through computation. Diaspar has endured a billion years without flaw; it will endure until there is no more power in the Universe to sustain it.


     I recall seeing the movie "Logan's Run" and thinking that the city there echoed in some aspects the image of Diaspar – a city of endless pleasures, of no dangers, of perfect symmetry and eternal endurance, sustained by some central computer which directed all operations. But Diaspar doesn't wipe out its people, nor limit them to a mere thirty years. A citizen of Diaspar lives a thousand years and then returns to the storage banks… to live again and regain all his or her memories in a few million years.


     One of the most prescient elements of Diaspar, though, are the "sagas" – full-immersion VR games which are so clearly descendants of our own primitive attempts at such things, like World of Warcraft, that it's almost impossible to believe that Clarke wrote this for the first time before WWII. The one we see comes complete with a dungeon adventure, underground with monsters, and even demonstrates the disruption of a game by a rules-lawyer poking at the boundaries of the game in a way they shouldn't be poked at. Alvin's interest in going "beyond" manifests even in his games, so he's constantly violating the saga's planned limits.


     It should not be too much of a spoiler to say that Alvin does in fact find his way out of Diaspar and discovers many answers – and new questions. There are many incidents and images which have stuck with me for many, many years; the great "polyp", an alien jellyfish-like colony creature like a gargantuan complex siphonophore, remembering and surviving for a billion years; the journey to an impossible pattern of suns; the chilling legend of the Mad Mind, and the childlike being with the power of a god Vanamonde.


     The City and the Stars is a wondrous book. It has relatively little action in the sense of normal action-adventure, and yet I found it very gripping indeed even today, many years after the last time I read it. Alvin is an interesting protagonist, a seeker after truth who eventually finds an answer that is good enough for him, even though many questions remain, and who manages to turn his whole world upside down without destroying it. In the meantime, he has shown us wonders that we could never have imagined.


     If you've never read it, you should.






Your comments or questions welcomed!