Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

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“Alvin was an explorer, and all explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest.” — The City and the Stars

Ah, Diaspar! The city shimmered as a jewel amid a sea of desert.

It was the last surviving human habitat in a world ravaged by severe drought and climate change. The last 100 million or so people left alive had sought refuge in this fortified utopia, where they lived lifespans of thousands of years in peace and security. The citizens of Diaspar had willingly handed over any and all control of their lives to the all-knowing Central Computer. Their lives were carefree, peaceful and, mostly, uneventful. It was to be this way for a billion years.

And then one day, Alvin emerged from the Design Center. As all inhabitants of this great city were genetically engineered to fear the outside world–for legends warned them never to set foot outside its walls, and not even to wonder about what lay beyond–Alvin by contrast was a Unique. He’d been designed to be different and for what purpose no one knew. As all citizens lived multiple lives, regenerating every few thousand years from the Memory Banks to walk the city streets again, Alvin was different. He was on his first life, and what a strange life it was. Why strange? Well, because Alvin would often gaze at the stars and wonder what lay beyond.

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It hadn’t always been this way, however. Long ago, humankind had once traversed the stars and forged a galactic empire. But the legends of the city told of how that earlier race of humans had overextended themselves and run across a foul enemy they dubbed the Invaders. A vicious war was fought and humankind had lost. Pushed back to its home planet, the human race was forbidden to ever leave their planet again. And so it was for a billion years.

Until Alvin got to wondering.

Change, however, wasn’t welcome in Diaspar. As Clarke writes:

They had forgotten much, but they did not know it. They were as perfectly fitted to their environment as it was to them—for both had been designed together. What was beyond the walls of the city was no concern of theirs; it was something that had been shut out of their minds. Diaspar was all that existed, all that they needed, all that they could imagine. It mattered nothing to them that Man had once possessed the stars.

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Alvin doesn’t let this stop him. He has a calling and he’s determined to find a way out of the city walls. He must know what is beyond. He must know, because he’s convinced his destiny lies somewhere in those forbidden stars above.

Thus Arthur C. Clarke, that genius technologist and author, blasts us into the future aboard one awesome rocket ship of a story. We accompany Alvin as he experiences what it’s like to explore a world unknown by humankind for a billion years. We are right beside him as he staggers under the revelations that the legends and myths that have been fed to his fellow citizens in Diaspar by the Central Computer are lies.

What Alvin discovers beyond will rock the city of Diaspar to its foundations.

If there’s one science fiction book out there that you need to read, it’s The City and the Stars.

This book is a masterpiece, no kidding. It’s up there with Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All books, by the way, that I’ve read from Clarke and also thought wonderful. This book holds its own when standing among that amazing pantheon. Truth.

Clarke, as I believe is justly due, is one the best science fiction writers to ever have walked the Earth. I mean, I just don’t know how the guy did it? Not only was he a beautiful writer–with clear, concise prose–he was a hard science fiction writer. And not only that, he was also an inventor. I mean, the guy was an absolute expert in two things: technology and storytelling.

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I don’t want to give too much away about the story because I myself barely knew anything. I just picked it up and started reading. And honestly, I enjoyed it more that way. So I will pass this gift on to you. Just read it. Trust me.

Who knows, this story is so good it could very well be read by inhabitants of some far off future society a billion years from now. Let’s hope so, because this story is one for the ages.

–Charles Moritz

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