Friday, 17 June 2011
The City And The Stars
I always struggle when writing titles containing lots of 'ands' and 'thes'. I'm never sure whether to capitalise them or not. In this case, I've gone for the 'yes' option. No doubt before too long I'll be opting in favour of 'no' for a while.
What I'm trying to say is that the title of Arthur C. Clarke's 1955 novel annoys me.
The book focuses on the city of Diaspar, a city apparently existing in perpetuity through the ages. Even by SF standards the setting is a long way in the future, taking place over a billion years in the future. Throughout the preceding billion years Diaspar has sat on 'the breast of the desert' (loved that phrasing) of an otherwise deserted Earth. It's apparently changeless, with even its population recycling itself. The city itself is run by a central computer, into which the city's founders have programmed a plan, the precise details of which are unknown by any of the human characters. In the previous billion years various stories have been passed down about the empire of humanity in the stars, and how the mysterious Invaders ended the empire.
As the population of Diaspar recycles itself, a new person is 'born' only once every deciaeon. This is someone with none of the pre-programmed fears and superstitions of perhaps twenty thousand years of life (each of the recycled people rediscovers all the memories of previous incarnations after 20 years). And the book follows one of these 'Uniques' on his journey beyond Diaspar.
If I had to liken The City And The Stars to another novel, it would have to be Asimov's Foundation. There's something analogous between them, right down to the whole galactic empire thing. Thematically they differ, but the two plots are comparable.
Of all of Clarke's works I've read to date, this is the best-written. The example above included, the use of language is somehow more lyrical than later works such as Rendezvous With Rama. However, it greatly differs from Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey et al. TCATS is more character-driven, relying on characters to influence events. By contrast, those it's being compared to were written in reaction to the latter part of the Space Race and the later, post-Stalin Cold War. They also had far more emphasis on the hard science of the here and now (relatively speaking).
That being said, there are a few Clarke staples to be had. Unfortunately, I can't say what these are without spoiling the book.
There are weaknesses in the book. For one thing, it takes far too long to get going. Only once our protagonist, Alvin, get out of Diaspar does the pace start to pick up. Of the 256 pages, over 100 feel plodding. As a result, it's not easy to get into. Once it does get going the book flies by (I read the final 150 pages in a sitting), but readers will be put off by the slow start. The book also struggles with one or two loose ends, and would perhaps have benefited from losing one character completely.
However, I enjoyed The City And The Stars. It may not be Arthur C. Clarke's best-ever work (at least, not for my money), but it is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.