Empty World 1956: Shock and Awe in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars

clarkeCitystarsArthur C. Clarke didn’t write write typical post-apocalyptic stories, but he sure liked to write about dying worlds, long-abandoned constructions, last cities, the end of humanity, and vast, empty spaces. In his stories, humans who face extinction, or who live as the last holdouts on a barren Earth, are not doomed. Instead, they’re about to have their consciousness expanded as they become tied into a grand galactic narrative. But unlike other galactic narratives like Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which treat the galaxy or universe as a gigantic platform on which to re-stage Edward Gibbon, Clarke keeps his universe unfailingly mysterious. Pursuing that mystery is humanity’s noblest aim – it is an essentially religious imperative that becomes a means of transcendence.

What that means for Clarke’s End of the World stories is that the theme of extinction or a dying Earth is an opportunity to encourage us to leave our petty terrestrial concerns behind and embrace our galactic manifest destiny. This is clear in one of Clarke’s earliest stories, “Rescue Party” (Astounding Science Fiction, 1946), in which a crew of tentacled aliens is dispatched by the galaxy administrators to go rescue a fledgling, bipedal civilization from a backwater planet about to be vaporized by the local sun going nova. The alien team reaches the surface of the planet, only to find the cities completely abandoned, but puzzlingly rigged up with observation equipment that is broadcasting data into space. Following the data stream back into space, the rescue crew stumbles across the tail-lights of humanity’s evacuation fleet. Faced with extinction, those enterprising Earthlings took to the stars all on their own. Childhood’s End similarly deals with the end of Earth, after humans are guided by alien overlords into a new, transcendent existence that the overlords themselves are not able to achieve.

Clarke’s The City and the Stars is of a piece with “Rescue Party” and Childhood’s End. The City is Diaspar, which has stood for a billion years in an empty world (somewhat reminiscent of Edmond Hamilton’s City At World’s End, although Clarke was writing before that book was published). Diaspar is the end result of scientific progress: total conquest of death and decay. The human inhabitants are immortal, endlessly recycled into new bodies that are coddled and entertained with the finest that perfect human technology has to offer.

And then there’s Alvin, a young man who, like every single young hero in every science fiction and fantasy novel that features a young hero, doesn’t fit in. Alvin is different, dissatisfied with what his technologically perfect world has to offer, and apparently the only one in the city with even a scrap of curiosity about the outside world.

Alvin soon becomes the first in a long time to leave the city, and he quickly discovers that the rest of the planet is not quite empty. The city of Lys is the opposite of Diaspar – if Diaspar has conquered death, then Lys has conquered life. Birth and death in Lys take place as they traditionally have, but the people of Lys live in complete harmony with the cycles of nature. Unlike Diaspar, in Lys family relationships are valued and life is meaningful. And yet life is also is utterly static – the people of both Lys and Diaspar have sacrificed their birthright to the galaxy. Alvin’s Lysian doppelganger is Hilvar, and together they set out to do something nobody has done in eons: satisfy their curiosity.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)

The legend in Lys and Diaspar is that humans once ruled the galaxy, but were driven back to Earth after a cosmic battle with some newly arisen enemy, and the battle concluded with humans committing themselves to remain only on Earth. Alvin and Hilvar seek answers at the location of Earth’s final battleground. In an incredibly weird scene that represents Clarke’s imagination at its mind-blowing best, the pair converses with a giant polyp creature, who has waited in isolation for millions of years for the return of the long-lost human messiah figure that brought the polyp to earth.

Convinced by the polyp creature that the legends about a defeated humanity aren’t true, Alvin and Hilvar seek out and find an ancient space ship, in which they fly to an artificial solar system that was once the center of the galactic empire. All they find are ruins, abandoned relics of power, and artificial worlds gone to seed – signs of past greatness, but also a deeper mystery.

The City and the Stars is a clear statement of Clarke’s view that science should be something grander than a mere tool to meet our biological needs. Nature is a mystery, and science is how we can immerse ourselves in that mystery and transcend our mundane lives on our galactic backwater of a planet. This grand view of our place in the universe was common in 40’s and 50’s science fiction, but Clarke stands out as one of a very few authors who managed to connect scientific exploration with a religious yearning for mystery and transcendence – a combination that became famous a decade later in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Check out my ongoing series on post-apocalyptic science fiction: What the End of the World Says About Science: 60 years of Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

11 thoughts on “Empty World 1956: Shock and Awe in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars”

    1. Reading early work really helps to put the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey in context – the remarkable, mystic final scenes capture the essence of much of Clarke’s career.

    1. Clarke is not really one of my favorite 40’s/50’s authors, but he sure had a keen instinct for the sense of wonder. I’m planning on tackling Rama next, in hopes that his later writing style will make good on the promise of his earlier stuff.

      1. I found Rama to be especially transcendent, with a strong focus on Eastern philosophy. It has a few problems, but I think it’s one of his best works.

  1. Having loved speculative fiction for 60 yrs, I really enjoyed City and the Stars and consider it to be Clarke’s best work.The mad Mind, Vanamonde, the lost Magician and his still help robot. Just a lot to ponder and enjoy among the panoply of my collection.

  2. Having loved speculative fiction for 60 yrs, I really enjoyed City and the Stars and consider it to be Clarke’s best work.The mad Mind, Vanamonde, the lost Magician and his still helpful robot.Just a lot to ponder and enjoy among the panoply of my collection.

  3. Hi Mike – this is a desperate attempt but I am hoping someone with familiarity with Arthur C. Clarke’s work can answer my weird question! In a Paris Review interview in 2006, Stephen King said, “This was at the very end of the dot-com bubble… Arthur C. Clarke had already sold a piece on the Internet – a six-page deal on broadcasts coming back from the stars…” And I can not find what story or essay he is talking about, but I am really keen to read it. Do you have any idea? Thank you for answering this comment on an old blog post of yours! Love the review of The City and the Stars. – Trent

    1. Sorry to say I don’t know anything about that story, but is sounds fascinating. I’m sure you’ve already checked, but thought I’d mention this: have you checked for a listing in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)?

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Sorry amigo, except for giving myself a reread of my favorite SciFi novel of my high school days, Clarke drifted off my radar with the first Rama book. No doubt that ACC was a neo renaissance visionary. I’m certain you will at least enjoy your search, you could always email Stephen King!

  4. I read The City and the Stars a couple of years ago and I still remember how deep the impact was when I finished reading the novel. Despite the few negative aspects of the society depicted in the book, I found myself wanting to live in Diaspar and become one of this fantastic city’s resident. Maybe Clarke’s ability to evoke a sense of wonder is the reason why I love this novel so much. I wholeheartedly recommend SF readers this classic novel!

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