Over the last year or so I’ve started reading more science fiction again, as I’ve discovered old genre classics in handy ebook format at reasonable prices.
I thought I’d read most of Arthur C Clarke’s novels as a teenager, but “The City and the Stars”— an early effort, from 1956— slipped the net. Spoilers follow.
It’s very much a novel of two halves. The second half is a flowing adventure, and while it’s easy to read and serves its purpose in drawing together the plot threads introduced in the first half, it feels very much like 1950s pulp science fiction. Telepathy, alien blobs, beings of ‘pure mentality’, spaceships and mysterious robots all feature heavily.
The first half, however, is something different and quite visionary.
It describes the city of Diaspar— Earth’s last city— over a billion years into the future. The population of the city has remained constant for millions of years (actually, probably modern billions— given that this was a British author writing in the 1950s). The ten million humans in the city live their allotted one thousand year lifespans engaging in various introverted intellectual and creative pursuits, which include art, mathematics, and non-reproductive sex. They are content but hold a deeply ingrained fear of anything outside the city limits. Many more individuals are stored in the city’s memory banks, their memories and personalities periodically reborn in new bodies in the ‘Hall of Creation’. As new individuals are created, physically healthy but numerically ageing millenarians surrender their bodies and enter the memory banks for another stint in cyberstorage: it’s a sort of endlessly cycling one-in, one-out system of reincarnation. Matter can be manipulated at will, so that furniture, food, and bodies can be produced and destroyed as needed. An intelligent central computer oversees these processes and coordinates the life of the city.
The protagonist, Alvin, seeks to break out of this claustrophobic world. These efforts form the main driver for the story. Alvin’s yearning to break free, and his sense of not belonging to this rigid society— while remaining obviously loyal to it— represents unusually authentic characterisation for Arthur C. Clarke, famed for his usually ‘hard’ SF writing style. Perhaps, in this early work, more of Clarke’s personality comes through in the protagonist: it’s worth noting that as the novel progresses, Alvin abandons his female lover, leaves the land of his birth, and transfers his attention to space travel, visionary speculation about man’s place in the universe, and a close male friendship.
The fact that Diaspar has stood in one place for millions of years with transport links and a nearby buried spaceship intact tells us that the story was written before the discovery of plate tectonics (although if Diaspar was founded over a billion years hence, Clarke’s initial portrayal would still work- if plate tectonics had already stopped by then). But perhaps nitpicking the timescales is unfair, given the breathtaking vision of the setting and the city’s tightly imagined structure and physiology. Think of Olaf Stapledon and Iain Banks with some William Gibson thrown in. Diaspar is a sort of transhuman utopia, described thirty years ahead of its science fictional time.
There’s a scene where two of the characters view a “monitor” showing a representation of Diaspar’s history being wound back through time. For me, this is a spine tingling scene that really drives home the premonitory power of Arthur C Clarke’s imagination:
The monitor was now recalling its memories at a far higher rate; the image of Diaspar was receding into the past at millions of years a minute… Alvin noticed that the alterations to the city appeared to come in cycles; there would be a long period of stasis, then a whole rash of rebuilding would break out, followed by another pause. It was almost as if Diaspar were a living organism, that had to regain its strength after each explosion of growth.
The idea of city as a living organism may not originate with Arthur C Clarke, but the analogy becomes much more powerful in the context of Diaspar’s closed, endlessly cycling system. The cycles of destruction and renewal described here reminded me of the ecologist Buzz Holling’s idea of “panarchy”:
Panarchy is the structure in which systems… are interlinked in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal.
There are also echoes of this in economics of course— Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’— but the impression is that Diaspar’s cycles are milder and less disruptive than those envisaged by Holling and Schumpeter. It all seems much nicer, though at the cost of being more rigid. At this stage it’s not entirely clear how change and adaptation are introduced into the system.
This is made clear in a later description of two features of Diaspar that also strongly reminded me of Holling’s ideas. One of the intermittently reincarnated humans in the city takes on the role of the “Joker”: his role in Diaspar is to play practical jokes and cause low level disruption in the city’s functioning, as a way to keep the population on its toes and limit its descent into irreversible stagnation. On a much longer timescale, the city also produces brand new individuals who have no prior memories of previous incarnations, and seem to lack the introversion and “fear of the outside” that characterises the vast majority of the population. Alvin, of course, is one of these “Uniques.” Although Uniques are much rarer than the recurrent Jokers, they perform the same function on a much larger scale. Free of the preconceptions of the majority of the population, they have the ability to enact the sort of real and significant changes to the city system which are hinted at in the final stages of the novel.
Of course the novel does not talk about nested cycles, or fast and slow variables, or use any of the language of complex dynamical system theory, but it seems fairly obvious that this is what Arthur C Clarke is describing, several decades ahead of its time. He recognises that for Diaspar to have endured many millions of years, it must have had at least something of the property we might now describe as “social-ecological resilience”. But perhaps not enough. The novel can be read as a description of Diaspar’s transition from a closed to an open and more resilient system, and perhaps a more fulfilling future for its inhabitants.