The Science Fiction of Arthur C. Clarke

A friend recently gave me Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The City and the Stars. On the first page, he wrote the dedication: May your path also transcend the cycles that stifle progress.

The novel is about how we can trap ourselves into cycles of repetition, doing what we have always done, feeding our old habits, and losing our curiosity for the world. We are shaped by our memories, but those memories have a way of taking over our future. We travel down the same roads, over the same bridges, to get to the same places we have always been to.

But what if one day we took a different turn? What if, down a new road, we discovered something new, something we did not know we were looking for to begin with? This is the future according to Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke was one of the most visionary science fiction writers of the late twentieth century. He had an intuitive sense of the future – the ability to predict where we were heading in terms of technology and human progress. In 1974, he predicted the rise of personal computers, and his books still feel futuristic, fifty years later.

In 1956, Clarke finished his masterpiece, The City and the Stars. It was a rewrite of his first novel. He had been working on it for years.

The book begins in Diasper, a city where people live forever, by being reborn with memories of their past lives intact from a city-wide “Memory Bank”. No one ever leaves and nothing ever changes.

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of earth congealed – but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.

Into this complacency is born Alvin, a boy with no memories and no past lives. He is unique, and as he grows up, he experiences life, unlike everyone else around him, for the first time. He is curious and adventurous, and like a child, he longs to see beyond the city walls.

Thousands of feet below, the sunlight was taking leave of the desert. The almost horizontal rays struck through the grating and threw a weird pattern of gold and shadow far down the tunnel. Alvin shaded his eyes against the glare and peered down at the land upon which no man had walked for unknown ages.

There is nothing beyond the walls, his mentors insist. And even if there is, physical travel is no longer necessary. The city is a utopia, so why ever leave? The people of Diaspar travel through art: creating imaginative places and walking amongst them in rooms of glowing walls that shift and move like films.

To emphasize this, Clarke does something very clever here. He introduces the idea of intentional disruption. Think of it like this. How do we get stuck doing the same things every day in our lives? Why don’t we get so bored that we make radical changes? Typically, we have enough variation to keep things just interesting enough, just stable enough, to keep doing the same thing we have always done. Complacency is not built off repetition, but stable variation.

In Diaspar, there is a character called the Jester, whose role is to disrupt things just enough to keep the city stable. When a sculptor becomes too famous, The Jester destroys his artworks, restoring balance to the city.

This is something lacking in a lot of utopian fiction. We tend to think utopias are too perfect, and what we mean by that, is that flaws and faults are what make something real. Humans have an innate suspicion of perfection – Clarke saw this and built it into his world.

But Alvin’s curiosity cannot be satiated.

According to Clarke, it is human to want to escape our confines, to explore and adventure beyond the known world.

Alvin escapes the city and finds another city, Lys, filled with people who value nature and who live a mortal life, and can read each other’s minds.

The two cities: Diaspar and Lys are placed on a collision course. Mortality and immortality; nature and manmade – the two cities are diametrically opposed. Conflict is inevitable on some level. But they also can learn something from each other.

Here, there are two important questions to ask.

Should progress always come at the expense of tradition? Is truth always worth pursuing? Alvin, in bringing the cities together, creates conflict, he overturns millions of years of history overnight and he fractures each city’s way of life. In his childish adventurous ways, Alvin can come across as selfish even, in not respecting the things that came before. Without memory, he has no allegiance to the past, and selfishly longs for a future that only he wants.

Beneath the dim light of the falling stars… Alvin wrestled with his thoughts and presently made his decision. Nothing had changed; the mountains resumed their watch over the sleeping land. But a turning point in history had come and gone, and the human race was moving towards a strange new future.

The book can be read in two ways. On the one hand, as a cautionary tale of the dangers of tradition and the status quo. On the other hand, as a cautionary tale of the dangers of change and disruption.

Clarke is heavy handed in saying that change is always a good thing, that we need to escape the confines of our lives and find new paths, new adventures, and new stars to chase. He makes his case with beautiful language, depicting worlds beyond our worlds and stars beyond our stars.

But there is always a fear of change, a fear of where the new path will lead.

It takes a lot of bravery to go beyond the city walls.

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