The City and the Stars (Arthur C Clarke)

book coverFrom the moment it begins, with the protagonist playing an immersive, virtual reality, on-line multi-player computer game known as a ‘Saga’, to the famous quotation “No Machine may have any moving parts”, Clarke creates a world that is instantly recognizable to us even though this novel was first published in 1956.

Some books from the Golden Age suffer in the modern age from the technology being antiquated (Asimov’s Vacuum Tube Computers for example), but Clarke avoids this by not getting too technical; machines are benign slaves, built by humans for humans. The computers are massive, yes, but they may well be – in the future. He certainly evokes a sense of brooding power, without going into the detail of how and why a machine works. The machines just work, they get repaired by other machines and they make life easier. Why worry about the internal technical dynamics? Most of you reading this have only a vague idea about how your cellphone works, so why should a character in a book need to know exactly how something operates, unless it is part of the narrative imperative?

This is how Clarke is able to tell a story – his world is just accepted by the reader. So the protagonist, Alvin, can get on with his adventure. I have read this book over and over for decades. Each time I find something new: in one read it was a heartbreaking requiem for Humanity, a sense of emptiness, faded glory and impending extinction pervading the later pages. More recently it became a testament to the human spirit, to adventure and (rather oddly) tolerance. There is little conflict here; no space battles or malignant alien force, so if you’re looking for Star Wars or other Space Westerns, then you’re in the wrong department. This is about being different and not knowing why you’re different.

It’s about having a purpose, but having to find out what that purpose is. It’s about triumph over adversity (such as there is) but it’s not triumphal. It’s about fear and dread (in the story – interestingly – these are mainly false fears and artificial terrors; perhaps a metaphor for the media and social control?) but it’s also about wide-eyed wonder. I can’t help thinking that the whole Faded Empire thing was Clarke’s spin on the British Empire after World War 2: huge machines lying abandoned, empty, ruined. Shattered cities and half-ruined weapons with no clear purpose are all a little reminiscent of Europe in the late 1940’s.

Diaspar could be Washington in the post-war era; an inward-looking population pleasantly decadent from years of peace and tranquility brought by technology. Whereas Lys, a bucolic commune, could be the UK, perhaps post-war Oxford or Cambridge, dedicated to the peaceful search for knowledge. Both communities in need of a shake up, and indeed getting that shake-up from ‘new youth’. As often with Clarke, the sense of coming too late to the party is present. The enigmatic nature of places in direct contrast to the characters within those places. After Childhoods End, this is probably Clarke’s finest work.

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