BY SEAN CLARK

[I’ve been making an effort to catch up on classic genre writing that I probably should have read as a kid, but for whatever reason didn’t. There’s not much use in writing reviews of 60 year old books, so I’ll write them up under this column instead.]


Published in 1956, The City and the Stars is actually a substantial revision of Clarke’s very first novel, Against the Fall of Night. This is the first of Clarke’s books that I’ve ever read–though I love Kubrick’s 2001, which is based on a Clarke novel). What I loved about this book, and what has drawn me toward reading classic genre novels in general, is the balance between sheer creativity and devotion to scientific plausibility.

Clarke’s ideas flirt with the edge of possibility. And he was acutely aware of this. Take a look at his now somewhat famous Three Laws of science fiction:

Clarke’s Three Laws

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The first two are astute and hard to argue. But the third really puts a finger on good science fiction, though the phenomenon depends wholly on who or what is observing the magical technology. (E.g. we know there’s no sorcery involved in television, but ever seen a dog run behind a TV looking for the tiny horses that just ran off-screen?)

By definition, magic betokens the supernatural, while science and technology relate the natural, observable, and empirical. With some exceptions, good science fiction blurs the line between the possible and the impossible, technology and “magic,” while taking care to keep both feet squarely in the plausible and explainable.

The chances that the human race will still be around in a billion years are incredibly small, but it’s not impossible. What would we have to do to live that long? Would we leave the planet? Would we evolve? These are the questions Clarke asks with this book, and what he delivers are not concrete answers but instead possibilities. 

The City and the Stars tells the story of Alvin, born a “Unique” in the city of Diaspar, roughly 1 billion years from now. He is unique–though he was born with an adult’s body and mind (and without reproductive capabilities or a navel) just like all the other residents of Diaspar–because he does not have the compound memories of a thousand lifetimes. Diaspar is a time capsule of sorts, humanity’s last bastion, a “bubble” suspended in time.

Mankind nearly reached the pinnacle of civilization before its decline. Humans conquered the stars, took control of their own physical and intellectual evolution, and proliferated throughout the universe. It is nearly all forgotten though. At some point humanity was struck down, pushed to the brink of extinction by a force known as the Invaders, and remembered in name alone. All that remains of a once vast empire is Diaspar, a self-sufficient city encapsulated in an otherwise dead and barren Earth. Its inhabitants wake up, live a few hundred years, then return to sleep for a few thousand, before returning anew in the future. The whole system is automated by a central supercomputer, and maintained by robots. Humans live a comfortable, but stagnant existence.

At least, that’s what the people of Diaspar believe. No one has ventured outside the city for millions of years, the fear of doing so programmed directly into their DNA. Except not Alvin’s. Alvin’s curiosity leads him away from the city, where he discovers a second surviving human civilization. The people of Lys do not have the same sort of immortality as those of Diaspar. Their lifespan is still long, but they give birth and they die. Their bodies are different; they are telepathic. But they are still human.

I won’t say much more about the plot, because the greatness of this book is the creativity with which Clarke envisions the future. Suffice to say, Alvin sets out on a quest to reunite these two branches of humanity, to rekindle man’s ambition, and to learn the truth of humanity’s past. It’s a fascinating and fun read. Unlikely, sure, but plausible.

If his aim was to obscure the line between magic and science, Clarke came up short. There’s nothing like magic in this book, nothing you can’t sit down and ratiocinate out step by step. But where’s the fun in that anyway? Clarke brings his sci-fi right to that edge of possibility, but never lets it tip over into pure fantasy. Such a tightrope walk is not easy to do, but when done right you get something worth writing about sixty years later.

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