SF Masterwork of the Week: The City and the Stars

2014’s first SF Masterwork of the Week is Sir Arthur C. Clarke‘s magnificent 1956 epic, The City and the Stars, a novel expanded from the novella-length story ‘Against the Fall of Night’, which originally appeared in Startling Stories in 1948. And thanks to our good friends at SFX, we’re delighted to offer you the opportunity to tour the wonders of this far-future Earth in the expert company of Clarke-collaborator, current BSFA president and science fiction author par excellenceStephen Baxter . . .


Earth’s last city, Diaspar, gleams like a jewel on the desert, closed on itself and tremendously old:

[Its inhabitants] had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets while more than a thousand million years had worn away.

Alvin, 20 years old, has a problem. Diaspar is a technological miracle, its very substance created as needed from the Memory Banks of its Central Computer (like Star Trek’s holodecks, 30 years later). Even the people slumber in electronic memory, before being reborn as fully-grown adults. But Alvin has never lived before; he is “the first child to be born on Earth for at least ten million years”. And he doesn’t share everybody else’s agoraphobic fear of the outside. Defying legends of the Invaders who long ago drove mankind back from the stars, Alvin follows a thread of opportunity out of the city…

Arthur C Clarke is remembered for his ideas, and this book drips with them. But Alvin’s journey also brings us a rich series of images: the window through Diaspar’s walls, looking out at the stars; the empty subway station with the single glowing map line leading to one destination, “LYS”; and Lys itself, a secret second community, as verdant as Diaspar is mechanical. Throughout, Clarke delivers fine elegiac touches: when he first sees the children of Lys, Alvin understands how “Diaspar had paid, and paid in full, the price of immortality”. At last Alvin reaches the stars – and learns that everything humanity believes about itself is a lie.

This book of eternity itself had a long conception. Clarke’s first title, Against The Fall Of Night, was taken from an A.E. Housman poem. Suitably enough for a book dominated by striking images, the opening scene of that early version, of a last cloud evaporating over a desert city, came to Clarke “out of nowhere” in 1936, at age 19 – the same age, roughly, as Alvin. “Because it was my firstborn,” he wrote in a 1990 introduction, “[the book] has always had a special place in my affections, yet I was never satisfied with it.” He wrote several drafts before his war service, but a 1946 draft was rejected by John Campbell at Astounding Stories. It was finally accepted for serialisation from 1948. Nearly 20 years after that first flash of inspiration, Clarke produced the final longer form in 1955 during a long sea voyage.

Clarke was wise to keep working at this material. City is much the better version. In the hectic compression of Against Alvin opens doors too easily; City has much more the feel of a genuine quest.

And with his repeated reworking Clarke also showed a sound creative instinct. Clarke’s strongest influence was Olaf Stapledon, and City reads like a sequel to the titanic events of Stapledon’s Last And First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), in which a much-evolved mankind joins in a galactic quest to create a cosmic consciousness. In City, as Alvin finally learns, this sort of project resulted in a “Mad Mind” who shattered the Galactic Empire, and Diaspar’s long history is actually no more than a “belated and trivial epilogue”. A writer’s early works can be a richer expression of his or her deepest influences and subconscious yearnings than later material; by returning in his thirties to the inspiration of his 19-year-old self Clarke was revisiting the wellspring of his own creativity.

But City is also a better novel than anything Stapledon ever wrote. While it is suffused with a stunning Stapledonian sense of loss and transcendence, the book works as a coming-of-age story. Even though he and his time are so alien, Alvin is a genuine and sympathetic character, a protean force wrecking the lives of those around him while troubled, occasionally, by conscience.

City remained creatively alive throughout Clarke’s life; Gregory Benford produced a fine sequel in 1990. Central to an understanding of Clarke’s work, City’s dazzling images will enthral generations of teenagers to come – just as that first flash of inspiration changed the 19-year-old Clarke’s life for good.


The City and the Stars is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook, and you can read more about Sir Arthur C. Clarke in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.


This piece was written by Stephen Baxter and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature [PDF]. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Stephen Baxter is the author of the acclaimed Xeelee sequence of hard SF novels, the Time Odyssey books with Arthur C. Clarke and the Long Earth books with Terry Pratchett. His latest novel is Proxima, which is available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.