a classic? Can
we have any in science fiction? I've suggested we can if we make
a book, or a painting, or whatever may be s-f, which outlives
its own time: in which merit appears even after times have changed,
after the currents which may have buoyed up an artwork have passed.
The City and the Stars (1956) has been continuously in
print for fifty years. The current Gollancz edition has 256 pages,
a nice mathematical fillip. In a 2000 introduction Sir Arthur,
as he that year became, called it his best-loved work.
It is a work of marvels great and
small. As it opens our hero Alvin is on a far future Earth; the
city of Diaspar has been a billion years in the form we meet,
a fraction of its age. This immortal city, so encompassing, so
big, we rightly suspect is a fraction of this book. There are
stars. The story is told so well in so few words as to be another
marvel. Clarke never quotes Quantity of labor has nothing
to do with art; he does quote No machine may have any
Diaspar was the great port city of
Earth. Humankind long traveled among the stars -- and drew back.
That was given up. Advanced science made Diaspar self-sufficient
and eternal. The human span became a thousand years, at the end
of which by a kind of reincarnation one would dissolve, to return
millennia later; a rich and happy life. Alvin questions it. Indeed
he keeps asking the next question.
Machines in Diaspar do much that
men and women do not care to. The machines are routinely commanded
by thought. People in Diaspar cannot read one another's minds.
Perhaps they could once, but if so that was given up too, long
ago. A great deal has been forgotten in Diaspar. Why not? And
outside the oceans have dried, the Moon has gone, and the face
of the Earth is sand.
This is a Bildungsroman --
one of those unfortunate technical terms long parted from its
root meaning, like novel; a story of the growth and maturation
of its protagonist. Clarke, the good jeweler, keeps us more with
the pearls than the string. They gleam softly. Only the whole
is dazzling, as we see how they are graded and matched.
One of my own maxims, I fear, is
Behind the received wisdom is the received iconoclasm.
I've adventured with folk who were non-conformists like everybody
else. That is a theme of this book, if it is fair to say a good
book has themes, which I doubt. Alvin meets Khedron the Jester,
an office which has been held by others and by Khedron earlier
from time to time. He unsettles things. To do this he must know
a lot, and get at the hidden ways of Diaspar. His jests may be
terrifying, but that is allowed. Alvin learns from him, and frightens
him. Khedron has lived through many millions of years. Alvin
is twenty years old.
Alvin visits the Tomb of Yarlan Zey,
near-legendary founder of Diaspar. Everyone knows the Tomb, it
is in the middle of the central park. With Khedron's help Alvin
finds the enigmatic instruction Stand where the statue gazes,
and remember, Diaspar was not always thus. That was the opening
of my senior-year research paper in law school. I called The
City and the Stars a novel of triumph and fabrication. I
was unsure whether to start with a science fiction novel, but
a professor persuaded me to leave it in. For Alvin this thought
is really the beginning of the adventure. He has left his parents,
his tutor, and a woman who loves him, behind.
Some of Alvin's discoveries are like
a door, some are like a dawn. Theodore Sturgeon, to whom I alluded
above, liked to remind us "Science fiction is knowledge
fiction"; science comes from the Latin word for knowledge.
Alvin is a remarkable scientist. He exercises the ability to
observe and to compute. There are computing machines in this
book -- the Central Computer of Diaspar is quite wonderful; other
reviewers have noted that, just as Clarke thought up geosynchronous
satellites before anyone could build them, he thought up distributed
computing before anyone could build it -- a meeting between the
Central Computer and a lesser strange computer is also wonderful
-- but I mean the human ability. Alvin thinks -- I am not quoting
him -- These data do not align. What else is there? Where
might it be? He does not think, but Clarke does and is alert
to it every moment, Why has nobody asked before?
With the other greatnesses in this
story there is, eventually, a great religious figure, a galactic
teacher. We are invited to a low regard for him. That may be
the reality of religion, but like everything in an artwork it
must be viewed in the setting the artist has given. Vladimir
Nabokov said, "An original author always invents an original
world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern
of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic
truth." Who admired this teacher? Do we apply Alvin's own
method? As with much else in the story Clarke achieves a consummate
and subtle treatment of a recurring theme.
All Alvin's answers are waiting for
him to find. Something is unearthed which itself raises a new
possibility. If you know the book you will recognize Chapter
17, but Clarke makes moments for themselves and as images. Alvin
goes on to follow knowledge, undistracted by threat or promise,
uncontent with unreasonable comfort. "At every stage he
might have turned aside with unseeing eyes" -- I quote his
thought now -- "any man might have found the path his footsteps
had traced"; if no others, fourteen like him in a billion
years, whose steps stopped before they swung and soared. Here
is a sample of Clarke's subtle poetry: "Nothing is more
terrible than movement where no movement should ever be again."
We are watching the desert. The single last word of that sentence
is not only a sound of fear, but a resonant in this book of history.
To find all he can Alvin travels
far. What do the vintners buy one half so precious as the stuff
they sell? What truth -- in an artwork, a fiction -- is stranger
than fiction -- which its wise men and their yet more complacent
guardians so permanently maintained? If To bring home the
wealth of the Indies, you must carry the wealth of the Indies
with you, he does not quite have it, so he does not quite
get it, but enough. He learns to make friends, and they help.
The great goes with the small, and the small with the great,
humility with hugeness. As one story ends, another may begin,
and a note that rang in fear may sound in hope, but as the author
promised this is his last word on the immortal city of Diaspar,
in the long twilight of Earth.