Uniques and Reborns, Computers and Telepaths – more of why I love sf/f
I had never heard of this particular novel, but the description on the back cover was intriguing, and since he had such a reputation, I felt almost obligated to read more of his work.
The story is set a billion years in the future, in the city of Diaspar, which is the last home of mankind. Humans are effectively immortal. Individuals are “born” nearly full grown in essentially replicators, and they live in the perfect unchanging city creating art and exploring philosophy or literature or poetry for hundreds or even thousands of years, until they decide to rest, at which point their memories are transferred back to the central memory banks and their bodies un-replicated. Until some random interval later when the computer will determine they need to be reborn again.
Into this world is born our protagonist, Alvin, who has no memory of a past life…
Alvin has to be taught about the city and then try to figure out his place in it. As you may guess, he doesn’t really fit in. He is driven by a restlessness and curiosity no one else feels, and he is increasingly frustrated that no one seems to know why he is a unique person, rather than reborn.
There is conflict and tension, because he wants to know parts of human history that the computer will not reveal. He wants to know what is outside the city. And of course, he wants to know who he is. Until about the middle of the book it progresses more or less as you might guess if you are at all familiar with science fiction or fantasy stories at all. He faces various obstacles, braves danger, and figures out how to escape the city.
And he eventually finds another community completely unlike Diaspar, an agrarian society in an isolated valley called Lys. The humans live, have babies the old fashioned way, grow old, and die. They are also telepaths, and they are willing to explain to Alvin how humanity had reached great pinnacles of technology, but then had devastated the environment and nearly destroyed themselves. All of humanity split into the two last surviving societies of Lys and Diaspar. Alvin also learns that every now and then the Diaspar computer will create a Unique, such as himself. The purpose of the Unique isn’t to try to keep humanity from stagnating, as you might expect, but rather to test the cities social and defense structures to make sure they can withstand disruption. There have been Uniques before Alvin, and each escaped Diaspar, found Lys, and decided to stay there, living a natural lifespan.
Alvin isn’t satisfied. He thinks that Lys is just as much a dead end as Diaspar, so he convinces one friend from Lys to pursue a clue he’s found. They go out into the wasteland, and eventually find a strange person who claims to be an extraterrestrial, who came to Earth from the stars as part of some sort of religious pilgrimage. The extraterrestrial is either insane or merely suffering from some form of severe memory loss. Alvin and his friend persuade the alien to let them take his robot back to Diaspar. The robot is programmed not to reveal any significant information to humans, but the computer at Diaspar is able to get around that block.
And this opens up some new discoveries about a Galactic Empire which humans were once a part of, and that the survivors on Earth are actually humans who retreated from the Empire when an artificial intelligence went mad and tried to destroy all life in the galaxy. Most inhabitants of the Empire have left our galaxy on some mysterious mission, having left behind another artifical intelligence whose mission is to learn and survive until the end of time, when the insane AI is expected to escape from a black hole where the empire imprisoned it.
Alvin winds up sending the robot and the repaired spaceship off into intergalactic space to try to contact the rest of the empire, while he intends to return to Earth and try to make some changes.
I was extremely disappointed and confused. The first half of the book had been so interesting, and then the second read almost like a documentary. And a not terribly plausible one, at that. So I re-read the book, trying to figure out what I had missed. This was supposed to be a classic, after all!
The second read didn’t help much. But by this point I’d learned that The City and the Stars was a rewrite of an earlier novella. Clarke’s first novella, in fact, Against the Fall of Night. He had written the first story in 1953, then was disappointed when John W. Campbell rejected it, but eventually sold it to another publisher. A few years later Clarke decided that computer technology had already made the central archive with its librarian robots seem obsolete, so he decided to rewrite the story.
I found a copy of Against the Fall of Night, and gave it a try. I decided, after reading it, that I liked some parts of it better. In the first version, Alvin is not a planned Unique, instead he is the first naturally conceived baby to be born in Diaspar after thousands of years. Alvin goes through a very similar series of adventures, brings the truth mankind’s history to the people of Diaspar. Then they decide to leave the city, travel to Lys, and try to find a way for the two societies to work together, and try to restore the rest of Earth’s environment. Which was a bit of a pat ending.
The second version ends with more than half the population of Diaspar trying to get the central computer to upload their memory into storage and disintegrate their bodies, certain this mad notion of leaving the city will be just a passing fad and when they are reborn some time in the future, everything will be back to normal. That seemed more realistic than everyone just deciding to go out into the dangerous world. But it was also unsatisfying because the central computer refuses to let them. Which I realized on the second reading was more evidence that the entire plot of the story—Alvin figuring out the missing pieces of history, sending a message across the universe, et cetera—was planned by the central computer.
Which I also found less than satisfying.
Yet there was a lot about both versions of the story that I liked. I know I found the sweeping galaxy-wide history that Clarke hinted at fascinating. I also enjoyed the first half of the book with Alvin struggling to escape. There were also so many interesting little details of life in Diaspar that just made sense of what you would have to do to have a city last for a billion years or more, and what humanity would become without conflict or ambition.
But things just didn’t proceed in a satisfying way during the second half. The second half of both versions, in my opinion, are missing a spark of life. It was as if Clarke had a full story to tell us, but something was preventing him from revealing a vital piece of information.
It was years later that I learned that Clarke was gay. And though modern articles about him say that “everyone knew” and “he made no secret of it,” that’s hardly accurate. He never, for instance, mentioned his partner except to describe him as a friend, even as late in his life as 2007, when societal attitudes toward homosexuality had considerably liberalized.
Once I learned that, I thought back on my early impressions of The City and the Stars, and how many of things in Alvin’s early life resonated with my own very closeted fears and anxieties. Maybe it is reading too much into the book to think that Clarke’s internalized homophobia prevented him from revealing too much. Why is it that halfway through the book Alvin stops being a protagonist with agency, and just becomes a spectator who going from place to place, learning what needs to be told next to the reader?
In any case, analyzing the apparent contradictions and gaps in the second half of the book when I was sixteen years old and knew nothing about Clarke’s personal life had done quite a lot toward furthering my own growing unwillingness to accept the worldview of the church I was raised in. The central computer’s plot—the implication that Alvin’s unlikely misadventures had all been planned for the purpose of revitalizing Earth—wasn’t any less farfetched nor pleasant to accept than the fundamentalist Christian idea of a god who knows the future and inerringly knows what each of us will do before we do it, yet still insists that we all have free will and any mistakes we make are our own fault.
The City and the Stars made me think. It made me question many of my assumptions. The subsequent re-readings and comparing it to the earlier version made me think a lot about how stories are structured, and the different ways one can approach a literary notion.
So while it isn’t my favorite Clarke book by any means, very few books taught me more than it did.