A billion years after the fall of the galactic empire, the city of Diaspar alone survives on the desert of a world that Earth has become. Its people are all but immortal, their every need catered for by the city’s mysterious central computer. Living untroubled, decadent lives of leisure for hundreds of years, they then rest for hundreds more in the computer banks, until they are called forth again from the Halls of Creation. These people fear only one thing and that is the possibility of leaving the city.
Alvin is one of only a handful of “Uniques” to emerge from the Halls of Creation, a new being with no past life in Diaspar. He differs from his peers in one other crucial way; he’s desperate to find a way out of the city. Alvin’s friends are appalled, but he gains some assistance from the city’s Jester, Khedron, a person created by the computer to keep the city from becoming too stagnant.
When he does eventually find the way out, Alvin discovers that Diaspar is not entirely alone on Earth after all. There are humans living outside the city in a place called Lys. These people have a very different life to the one he knows and insist on keeping their existence secret from Diaspar.
Alvin becomes determined to discover the reason for Earth’s isolation and the nature of the ancient enemy that is supposed to have wiped out the intergalactic empire so long ago. He and his new friend from Lys, Hilvar, set out on a voyage of discovery that will take them far away from Earth to the mysterious seven suns where they encounter a life form that may hold the key to the past and the future of humanity.
The strength of The City and the Stars lies in its imaginative power and sense of mystery, but it lacks character development and emotional depth. Although I loved the City of Diaspar and the eerie planets of the Seven Suns, I felt no emotional engagement with the characters. I looked the book up on Wikipedia after I finished it and found out that it was developed from an earlier novella and was intended to showcase what Clarke had learned about writing. Unfortunately, this is exactly how the book feels to read – more like a writing showcase than a story. There’s little tension and I was never in any fear for Alvin’s safety.
I could tell that Clarke was trying to represent his protagonist as an arrogant and egotistical person whose flaws are tempered by experience and friendship, but I didn’t find him interesting enough to be either likeable or dislikeable. There are only three women with speaking roles in the book and Clarke seems rather uncomfortable writing women at this stage in his career, but in the character of Seranis at least he has a go at representing a female leader.
The character that haunted me the most was the giant polyp, an alien being made up of a colony of far smaller creatures that are able to join and act as one. When Alvin and Hilvar come across the Polyp, it has been waiting in a lake for thousands of years for the return of a long dead prophet it calls master. I found it the most moving thing in the book.
The City and the Stars reflects the experience of someone who feels very different to everyone else around them. I can see how it would have appealed to disaffected adolescents in the 1950s. Alvin is not like anyone else on Earth, no one understands him, and he doesn’t share their fears. He has to leave his supposed home to find his true home. I generally try and avoid making simplistic autobiographical links between stories and their writers, but as I read, I did find myself wondering if Arthur C. Clarke might have been gay. So when I looked him up on Wikipedia, I was interested to find out that he almost certainly was. Something about Alvin’s subject position reminded me of being a gay adolescent myself – that feeling of being different to everyone else, wanting something they don’t want, not to mention his inability to relate to his girlfriend and his close bond with Hilvar. I did find this undertone quite interesting and wondered if it might have contributed to the sense of emotional distancing in the novel.
The City and the Stars does have wonderful ideas. For me, it fell down a bit in the execution of the narrative, but it is a very early novel and I look forward to seeing how he developed.