The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clarke Collection: Vanamonde) Kindle Edition
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Clarke’s story is set in the far distant future, when the Earth has turned primarily to desert. The story begins in an isolated, self-contained city, Diaspar. In this distant future, social structures, political structures, and even the biology of the characters has long disconnected from our own. Life is all too stable and idyllic in Diaspar. The people of Diaspar know little to nothing of the Earth outside the city, and, in fact, show little curiosity about it or even their own history. Their lives are cyclic, being electronically infused into new (fully grown) bodies in life after life, with a kind of hamster-wheel feel.
The plot involves the threat of destabilization. And here I liked very much the inherent monkey wrench that Clarke threw into the carefully planned life of Diaspar. Two elements — the role of a “Jester” and the role of “Uniques” assure that stability isn’t absolute, and that adaptation and change, while facing formidable barriers, can happen.
The distance in time, the artificiality of life, and the unfamiliar but neatly drawn social structures give the book a kind of fantasy feel that i didn’t expect from Clarke. By contrast with the books I’m more familiar with, like Childhood’s End or Rendezvous with Rama, as well as 2001 itself, there’s less continuity between our own current lives and the characters’ lives here. There are technological elements, as in those other books, that are prophetic — virtual presence is a prominent feature — but even there, this is farther from “hard science fiction” than what I associate with Clarke.
This is not my favorite of Clarke’s books. It ages well, but it doesn’t rate with the others I’ve mentioned — Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, 2001. The fantasy feel isn’t my thing, I have to admit. And there is, for Clarke, I think, an odd compression of the end of the story. The story really takes on an impressive galactic scale, but that vastly enlarging scale isn’t enacted or shown — it is actually told through one character’s speech. The speech outlines a story I would have liked to have read, as played out in a novel itself.
It's a billion years into the future, but people are still surprised when speech recognition works. I think that the billion years into the future thing is what I have the hardest time accepting, it's mentioned over and over again, but at the same time there is no reflection on how much would have had to happen over that time period. Mountains would have eroded and new continents would have formed, but it's as if everything has been on pause. A thousand years would have been enough to convey to the reader that a long time had passed, but instead it had to be the ludicrous number a billion.
In the end everyone blindly trusts the words of a stranger and decides to over night rewrite their history and change their way of life, they've only cemented it over a billion years, but whatever.
"The City..." is a major expansion published in 1956 of "Against the Fall of Night", which was published serially in 1948 and in book form in 1953. The former version has a very tightly focused plot dealing mainly with two aspects of the distant future: 1) description of the nature of technology and society in Clarke's vision of the distant future and 2) the explorations of its 20-year-old protagonist, Alvin, and the consequent disruptions that will apparently lead to renewed vigor and growth of humanity. This earlier version is a compelling story in its own right, and I have reviewed it separately at http://www.amazon.com/review/RV8G92FK092Y2/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm . "The City..." expands the earlier version while retaining the central plot line in nearly unchanged form, with greater depth in handling the two original themes, plus a number of additional themes. This version adds significantly in areas of psychology, sociology, and philosophy. This expansion elaborates on the motivations of the main characters and the cultures and increases the amount of food for thought.
"The City..." sacrifices the concise, driving style of "Against..." as an inevitable consequence of the additional themes, and the relative advantages of the different approaches will depend on your reading preferences. My recommendation is that "Against..." would be more fun for young readers (pre- and young-teen), while "The City..." would be the more enjoyable for most of the older crowd. One surprising thing occurred as I read the two novels back-to-back: as a scientist, I wasn't burdened by concerns of realism while reading "Against..."; oddly, perhaps because of its efforts towards greater realism, I was frequently inclined to evaluate ideas and events in "The City..." on a scale of ultimate likelihood!
I recommend "The City and the Stars" for SciFi and Arthur C. Clarke fans. Given its far-future setting, wide-ranging ideas, and intriguing story, it should have continued appeal for the next 50 years.
Clarke's best work, I think, is "Rendevous with Rama". Don't miss it. I'd also recommend Isaac Asimov's Foundation series; the original Foundation trilogy is roughly contemporary in writing with the early Clarke SciFi novels and most of the early and later Foundation books are compelling.