Arthur C. Clarke's
The City and the Stars

First published: New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1956)

See also:
- List of characters and settings in The City and the Stars

Review of Arthur C. Clarke's
The City and the Stars

February 2001

First published in 1956, Clarke's The City and the Stars is nearly fifty years old. While many books of any genre might be unreadable, or at least less enjoyable, after so long a time, this one holds up wonderfully. It's still fresh, still bold, still unusual, and deserves to be better known.

Clarke's prominence among 20th century science fiction writers is matched (but not exceeded) only by Asimov and Heinlein. Because The City and the Stars was written by one of the genre's universally acclaimed Masters, it will probably never be forgotten. But this novel is eclipsed by better known masterpieces such as Childhood's End; Rendezvous with Rama; The Fountains of Paradise and of course 2001: A Space Oddysey. I might not go so far as to rank The City and the Stars with those works in terms of overall excellence. But it is a great novel, and on some levels it surpasses Clark's better known works. Specifically, this book imparts a sense of wonder and magnificent scope. The novel is full of HUGE distances, HUGE spans of time, and truly BIG ideas. It takes place mostly on Earth, literally one billion years in the future. (Not one million. A billion.) Taken out of context, this might just seem silly. But it works.

The novel's main character is Alvin, a denizen of the city of Diaspar. Diaspar is technologically advanced. Eternally-running machinery provides everything the people need. The people of Diaspar live for one thousand years, before their essence is absorbed back into the city's Memory Banks. Many years later they will emerge again, with a fully formed adult body, but with twenty years of "childhood" during which their previous memories gradually return to them. The people are essentially immortal. But the utopian place has become vaguely stagnant, and Alvin wonders if it is true that there are no other people left on Earth outside the city. He alone, it seems, unafraid of venturing out of the safe confines of Diaspar.

When he finally succeeds in leaving Diaspar, Alvin learns that there is one other community left on Earth: Lys. The people of Lys have not forgotten how to create and maintain advanced technology, but they generally prefer to live close to nature, in small, separate villages surrounded by grasslands and wildlife. They have no Memory Banks to endlessly perpetuate their minds and bodies. They have children normally, live normal lifespans, and die permanently. They are also telepathic, and enjoy a sense of community unheard of in Diaspar.

Lys and Diaspar are obviously very different, yet the fascinating exploration of their differences is only one portion of what this book has to offer. This isn't just another tired "Compare Two Different Societies" s.f. novel. The book also presents a grand and sweeping history of the galaxy. It confronts issues such as technology, culture and creativity.

Alvin also learns much about the long-departed founder of the last great galactic religion: the Master, who is strikingly familiar in many regards to a certain well-known prophet from Sharon, Vermont. (Mike Stone has addressed this topic in an article in Irreantum.) Clarke writes insightfully, even reverently, about the Master and his religion, and the Master's two remaining followers. This is typical of Clarke's writing, which often includes balanced, three-dimensional and often positive portrayals of religious adherents, along with interesting observations on religion, philosophy, ethics, and so many other topics.

It just wouldn't be an Arthur C. Clarke Classic without some god-like entities, and, sure enough, Alvin encounters one: Vanamonde, whose origin is particularly interesting.

The novel is ceaselessly surprising, not just in its awesome far-future settings, but also with its surprisingly complex and human characters. Other than Alvin and Hilvar, there are only a few characters of any significance. But the supporting players shatter the stereotypical roles one originally thinks they might fall into. Clarke respects humanity and respects his characters, and he avoids numerous traps that lesser writers fall into. Clarke deftly handles Jeserac, Alvin's tutor, and other necessary authority figures such as Diaspar's ruling council and the leaders of Lys. Rather than painting these characters with broad, careless strokes, Clarke treats them as individuals. The results are sometimes surprising, but more believable. Little details like these enhance an already great novel.

Other highlights of The City and the Stars are Alvin's friendship with Hilvar, the engaging Jester, the Master's cooler-than-spit starship, the awe-inspiring Central Computer, and the long-abandoned Seven Suns, once the headquarters of Galactic civilization.

Any Arthur C. Clarke fan should make The City and the Stars a priority if they haven't already read it. It is exciting and imaginative, as well as thought-provoking and intellectually challenging. You won't encounter any issues du jour here. Nothing seems obviously attached to any contemporary triviality. This is a timeless classic in the truest sense of the word. Whatever your tastes, I can't think of any type of reader who won't enjoy this novel.

Who should read this: Everybody should enjoy this. Nothing offensive or particularly technical.
Rated: G
Rating: ****

Web page created 8 February 2001.