Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"The City and the Stars" (novel): Harry Potter style fantasy

Cover image of the novel City and the Stars by Arthur C ClarkeBest thing about this book is readability - at least the first 80% of it. Most of the time, I found it difficult to put it down. And that is when fantasy is not really my genre!

Last 10 or 20% is garbage - where some ultimate answers are given. Something that should be best left to Hitchhiker's Guide.

If you like Harry Potter, this will probably be an interesting book; if Potter bores you, this will too. Very simple test to determine your compatibility.

As an additional bait for Potter fans, you have a character called Vanamonde. He is not the villain here, but doesn't the name rhyme with Voldemort?

This is principally an adventure story - a restless man bored with his comfortable life, & seeking something different. It also has a very liberal sprinkling of Hindu mythology during first one third, a hell lot of fantasy all through, & some science fiction.

Among the cool stuff, you find everything you can name for a book labeled Speculative Fiction! There are immortals, telepathy, materialization/dematerialization devices, machines that respond to thoughts, aliens, energy beings, hive intelligence, spaceships that move faster than light, anti-gravity, worm holes in space-time, alternate universes, genetic engineering marvels, artificially created suns & planets, a variant of reincarnation, robots that can put Issac Asimov's robots to shame, weapons that can pulverize moon, self-sufficient closed habitat, virtual reality, computer games, utopia, religious cult, creatures that look like plants that move around, ... you name it! It's a massive cocktail.

So put reason aside, & enjoy the fantasy ride.

Story Summary (spoiler).
The story is set more than a billion years in future. Earth has lost its seas, & is nearly all of it desert. Moon no longer exists; it was destroyed by humans when it threatened to crash into earth at a time now long forgotten.

There are only two human communities on earth (or elsewhere) - physically very close together, psychologically completely disconnected. A closed habitat called Diaspar, & a collection of countryside villages called Lys.

Amazingly, members of these communities still look essentially like humans of today. Remember, we are talking of geological time. In this time, humans were created from probably pre-fish life forms! But we already agreed to put reason aside.

Our hero, Alvin, is a 20 year old child in a community of immortals. These immortals live in Diaspar, the closed habitat of a billion humans of which only about a 100 million are alive at a time.

What does that mean? This habitat is run by a robot that can digitize all information needed to recreate a human being, plus all or any of his/her selected memories. New individuals are continuously being created - but this creation is essentially materializing them from stored digital data. They live may be a 1000 years; then get dematerialized again into digital data to be rematerialized after a random amount of time in future.

This means there are no real children. You come out of the House of Creation fully developed, but your old memories will not return till about 20 years of age. And you are treated as a immature till you are may be a couple of centuries old.

There is an essential difference between these immortals, & current humans. They have a severe inbuilt fear of open spaces. None of them can even stand the thought of going outside the closed habitat. This situation is very similar to earth-inhabiting humans in Asimov's three Spacer novels (Caves of Steel, & two that followed it).

But our hero is different. He is one of the only a dozen Uniques the House of Creation has produced in all these billion years. He doesn't fear outside, & is in fact itchy to go there.

The story is of his adventures - to close by Lys country side community, to far off steller systems, & of helping rid his people of their fear of open spaces.

There are at least two later books of Clarke that borrow major plot elements from this book: bio-magic in "Rama Revealed", & a somewhat sensible religious/philosophical discourse in the middle of "3001 The Final Odyssey".

Creatures that are plant-like & move slowly are also found in Space Odyssey sequels.

"The Light of Other Days" shares general style with this book in that it also tries to squeeze in every theme known to sf into the story!

According to Clarke's introduction, this book is a major rewrite of an earlier book - "Against the Fall of Night"; about 25% text is common. But I have not read this earlier book.

Fact sheet.
The City & the Stars, novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Adventure, with a sprinkling of Hindu mythology, fantasy, & some science fiction
Rating: A


hippolytus said...

i feel like when this review says the ending is "garbage" that this reviewer isn't an intelligent reader because despite the fact throughout this book has an adventuresome feel i think the book gets better as it goes along. the comparison with Harry Potter I also find disappointing and depressing. If you think Harry Potter is worth comparing to Clarke, you're wrong. I also take issue with the sf vs fantasy labels since sf and fantasy have been intertwined from the start. There are differences, but its hard to say City and the Stars is like your usually fantasy book.

Tinkoo said...

In response to comment above by hippolytus:

a. 'ending is "garbage"': Revelation that ancient humans are not extinct but had found some kind of a higher calling to a different universe (or was it a different galaxy?), & went there with other aliens. Or, that one of the villains is trapped in a black hole & will come out one day to destroy everything unless we are ready!

Compared to rest of book, this portion was completely beyond me. If a reader has understood this part in a way that mere mortals can relate to, I will welcome enlightenment.

b. "If you think Harry Potter is worth comparing to Clarke, you're wrong.": I happen to be less dogmatic about Clarke.

Much of the life inside Diaspor is magic Potter would find familiar. And could Voldemort do better than be capable of coming back even after being jailed inside a black hole for eons?

Incidentally, I don't find anything wrong with this magical world. After all, Diaspor is set a billion years into future; of course we will expect magic!

c. "sf vs fantasy labels": I am sure this issue will be raised again elsewhere on the site. I will write a separate note on it, & link from here. But that will have to wait a few days.

Anonymous said...

I read this book last week after nearly 15 years and i vividly remember the extremely interesting first half of the story which kept me hooked with its element of mystery - but I can safely say for myself that the second half, from approximately the part when Alvin finds the spaceship and starts jet setting across the galaxy - is rather forgettable and the ending is balderash - if it can be called an ending at all. Thats a shame because the theme is a beautiful one - very similar to Asimov's works actually and is very well narrated with imagery.

Jani said...

I dislike the whole Potter collection and find The City and the Stars wonderful. Vanamonde and Voldemort are not similar at all. Vanamonde is a kind of natural force. Voldemort is a pathetic antagonist with very little intelligence and major lack of common sense. Rowling writes as badly as Clarke writes brilliantly, and the only think they have in common is nationality.

Don Lee said...

I think Clarke missed out on a chance here. In the "City" setting, humans are embodied into physical life from stored digital data, and return to that digital oblivion upon death.
But while embodied, Diasparians take part in recreational "sagas" -- virtual-reality interactive stories. Why would the long-dead Diaspar planners even bother to embody the digitally stored humans? They could live out their entire lives in a digital Diaspar (The "Matrix" movies at least took that concept and ran, partway, with it) that has no physical being beyond the computer storage.
All of Diaspar could be some ultra-far-future databank.
Wouldn't THAT have been a twist ending to "City"!

(Side note: "Beyond the Fall of Night," a sequel of sorts by Gregory Benford to Clarke's proto-"City" story, "Against the Fall of Night," addresses the shape of humanity in the far future; Benford's physical description of Alvin, called a "supra" in this story, reminds me a bit of the big-headed, big-brained villain M.O.D.O.K in the Jack Kirby Marvel comics. Another character is described as a "ur-human," a preserved genetic form of what the supras think of as regular ol' homo sapiens, though from her description in the book, she seems to be a few hundred thousand years evolved from 21st-century humans.)