Every so often, when I know I’ve got a bit of time to kill and don’t want to do any ‘work’ reading, I grab an SF Masterwork off the shelf in the office and give it a go. (A shelf full of SF Masterworks is one of the best things about working at Gollancz). Normally I pick something almost at random, but I do try and make sure it’s something I haven’t read before. This week, though, I was struck by a sudden urge to reread THE CITY AND THE STARS by (Sir) Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve read it more than a couple of times before – it was one of the first SF books I picked up as a kid from the second-hand bookshop – and it’s always cast a spell on me. I even went to the trouble of hunting down AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT (the novella on which CITY was based) and BEYOND THE FALL OF NIGHT (the later novella by Gregory Benford that was a sequel to AGAINST but unrelated to CITY. Confused yet?). But here I’m going to talk about CITY. No spoilers, as such, but if you’ve never read it I might mention a few minor points which, as a reader, you wouldn’t learn for the first few chapters.
I think it’s been at least ten years since the last time I picked it up, so I thought I might as well see if it still worked for me, as of course I’m now all mature and better read and stuff. I took it away with me on a stag do (it was very quiet, walking and board games rather than strippers and costumes – see, mature now etc etc) and, within about ten pages, was at that point where I wanted to press it on my co-stagees and say ‘I know you don’t like SF but you should really read this, it’s great! It’s about this guy, right, who can live almost forever and so can everyone else in the city except he’s brand new he hasn’t been born again like everyone else and he wants to leave and see what is outside the city but they don’t because they’ve sort of been programmed not to and the city is remarkable and some of the writing is really good and apart from the fact that the computers are the sort of futuristic computers people ages ago thought computers would become, I mean they take up whole rooms with processors, but he couldn’t have known about microprocessors, it reads like it was written recently and the main character is a bit of a bastard but he actually learns over the novel and and and…’
I said it was a mature stag do. I didn’t say I hadn’t been drinking.
But you know what, the book is great. Oh, there are flaws, but Diaspar – last jewel in Man’s great history, last city in the universe, never changing and never decaying – is one of the great creations of science fiction. The sense of exploration and wonder – one of the things that Clarke was brilliant at (see RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA and THE GHOST FROM THE GRAND BANKS) – is infectious as Alvin, our hero, begins to question the seemingly-perfect world around him and search for what he knows must exist – a way out of the domed city. None of the characters are hugely sympathetic (they’re not evil, but they feel alien) and you’re never quite sure that Alvin is doing the right thing, but, just as he pulls those around him into the future, so he pulls the reader. In the latter half of the book the scope expands, and (to my mind) loses some of the mystique and enjoyment of the first half, but the scenes within Diaspar are, for me, some of the best SF ever written.
As I write this I still have 50 pages or so to go, and although I can sort-of remember what happens, I’m enjoying filling in the hazy details of the plot that my drink-addled mind has forgotten. But there’s a reason why Clarke was considered one of the best of us, and a reason why both versions of this tale remained in print for so long. CITY seems to have finally supplanted AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT, and I do think it’s the better book, but I’m very tempted to go and dig out my old paperback of the earlier version and read that as well. There aren’t many books I want to read two versions of back-to-back. If you haven’t read this yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough!