Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

In this cover, they've chosen to illustrate, well, it kind of looks like a weird hybrid of the two cities in this book. The city part looks like Diaspar, which is hidden solely underground, and although it has parks, would have no open spaces like you see here. That would be Lys, which would not have the skyscrapers.

This is actually a tale of two cities, but I guess that title might not have been available, for some reason. (No French Revolution, though.) They are the last human cities in existence, founded in the wake of a withdrawal from the stars caused by the Invaders, a now almost-legendary alien force that took the stars away from humanity.

At first, all we know is Diaspar. It has existed as a city in almost stasis for thousands and thousands of years. It is self-repairing. It is populated by people who have incredibly long lives, and are born again and again, editing their memories down to a manageable size every thousand years or so, existing only in the memory banks for more time, then born again as young adults. It is a city without children, without substantial change.

Superficial change, yes, in art, in reexperiencing life. But without anyone to kick over the traces. Even the Fool is there to shake things up just enough but never too much. Then Alvin is born. Like 8 (or 12?) others before him, he is entirely new. There has never been an Alvin before. He is able to break the conditioning that the city is all there is, and believe that the sky is something other than fearsome and terrifying. He travels to Lys, the only other human city, which survives with short-lived humans, lots of children and a focus on mental powers instead of technological ones.

In Lys, Alvin learns of the cultural differences, and ends up deciding, of course, that what the cities need is each other. But more than that, and the parts that I'm not going to get into in the review, is that he discovers what really happened out there when the remnants of humanity retreated from the stars.

For all this, The City and the Stars is a fairly slow-paced book. There is a digression into religious mania, and the leftover converts of a long-dead messiah. There is a trip out into space that has little tension, but lots of atmosphere.

Alvin is largely a cipher, and none of the characters really stand out, but that's not often the strong point of Clarke's books. The ideas on the different ways human civilization could endure are interesting, but I am disappointed, yet again, in the idea that longevity could never be a good thing. I'm willing to admit that it would have unintended consequences, and yet, other than Heinlein in his Howard families stories, most science fiction writers jump right to immortality as the worst thing ever. Some more complexity around the issue, please?

At any rate, The City and the Stars is not arresting, but it is entertaining enough. I don't think I'd bother to read it again, though.

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