The reading has been running far ahead of the blogging this summer. I’m working on a long series of related posts, and I’m not putting them up until they’re all done.
Since this book will come up in one of them, I thought I’d post this.
Raw Feed (1990): The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953, 1956.
This was one of those sf classics I didn’t know much about and really wasn’t too interested in reading till I read Clarke’s comments on it in his Astounding Days. However, I really enjoyed this book.
Like Clarke’s Childhood’s End, this book uses the metaphor of childhood to weave a story of loss, gain poignancy, innocence, and adventure. Hero Alvin’s adventures propel man from the fearful adolescence of Diaspar’s and Lys’ stagnation to its place — again — among the stars.
Clarke builds, block upon block, a suspenseful story that moves ever outward. We start the narrative in a cave (at least the image of one) and end with the stars, with the illusion and threat of white worms to the reality of Vanemonde’s pure mentality and the threat of the Mad Mind which will be freed one day. The people of Earth, locked in decadence, are the new children of the cosmos. The other intelligences of the cosmos and Man have left the universe.
As in Childhood’s End, transcendence is a theme. It is also, as critics have noted, a “what’s over the next hill” story.
The novel obviously owes its lyrical, sweeping, poignant, grandiose tone not only to John W. Campbell’s “Night” and “Twilight”, but also Clarke’s reading of Olaf Stapledon and his uniquely sweeping vistas. Clarke may not have been the first to address some typically sf themes in this novel, but they seem early examples of the treatments. Specifically I’m talking about the dichotomy of the Diaspar/physical sciences and Lys/mental and biological sciences society and the central question of illusion via the Central Computer being indistinguishable from reality.
Clarke, in this novel, seems to have been one of the first to think of the computer as a tool for social administration. Diaspar, though a stagnant place, has some interesting features: storing popular, well-liked art, the simulations (Clarke was quick to grasp this feature of computerized information processing), its twisted byways.
This novel is also interesting for its religious (typical of Clarke) themes: there is a rationalized form of reincarnation with the Hall of Creation. Man — with the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanemonde — assumes the role of Creator God and transcends the universe. There is a prophet (I really liked this idea) and his last disciple who faithfully awaits his return over millions of years and the Master’s robot servant — compelled to silence least he reveal the truth of the Master.
Clarke’s ruminations on religion are interesting, and I wonder if they’re personal. He chides religions who insist they alone are true, calls the religious impulse a uniquely human aspect. Yet the Master’s message appeals to alien and human, and Clarke takes a ecumenical viewpoint in saying a religion that appealed to so many must have had much that was true and noble even if the master’s evangelical message of miracles and prophecies was false and eventually deluded even its speaker.
I liked the polyp (interesting biology) patiently awaiting his master and the robot who — at story’s end — becomes a messenger to the galaxy of man’s rebirth.
I liked many other elements of scenes of this novel: Vanemonde’s childlike state, and Clarke’s use of immortality and the Halls of Creation. (I’m not sure I agree with Clarke’s ideas about immortality leading to cultural stagnation and the necessity of ending the process at novel’s end. But Clarke seems to see immortality destroying personal intimacy by eliminating the need for the family and procreation and dulling life by taking the cutting, driving edge of death away.
Also interesting was the legend of Shalmirane which turns out to be a myth to cover up Man’s cowardly retreat to Earthly isolation and stagnation, epitomized by the starship buried in the sand. Alvin eventually questions whether or not he’s just been obsessively selfish> The city of Diaspar, at the end of time, was eerie.
Lastly, I liked Alvin being a rogue agent, a sport in the social planning of the closed system of Diaspar (sounds, probably intentionally, like Diaspora) specifically intended to revolutionize, abolish, and change that system.