“Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of Earth congealed–but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.”
“He was always wanting to go outside, both in reality and in dream. Yet to everyone in Diaspar, ‘outside’ was a nightmare that they could not face. They would never talk about it if it could be avoided; it was something unclean and evil.”
Alvin is a boy who wants more than life currently has to offer him. He lives on Earth a billion years from now, and everything around him is desert. He lives in Diaspar, a walled-in city that’s the last on the planet, and the people of Diaspar are agoraphobic to the point of not even being able to look over the city walls at what lies beyond. A long time in the past, humans traveled the galaxy, but then they ran foul of an aggressively expanding civilization called “the Invaders.” Violence ensued; many human lives were lost. Humans and Invaders eventually made a pact. If humans stay on Earth and never travel the stars again, the Invaders won’t wipe them out. Or at least, this is the story the people of Diaspar have been told for millions of years…
Diaspar is kind of like a sophisticated Second Life. A central computer maintains everything in and about the city. The computer controls the rise and fall of the urban landscape, as well as the memories and essences of people. Folks aren’t born, they’re created…over and over. When reborn, the new you comes out bellybuttonless and fully formed, and after about twenty years, your old memories return too–with a little editing. Objects can be gained through thought alone. I want a beer…(poof)…there it is. People go around through a kind of Second-Life avatar. Large gatherings, for instance, usually include no physical beings; Alvin has rarely been in the physical company of his “parents,” who are more like assigned guardians. And kids play virtual reality games that are fantasy quests that reinforce the status quo (“don’t leave the city”).
Alvin has had enough; he wants to know what’s outside Diaspar. In particular, he wants to see the stars. And an odd fellow named Khedron the Jester befriends him in this quest. Khedron is an element of chaos planted in society by the central computer (or rather the designers/programmers of the central computer). The thought is that utopia without crime is too much of a bore; a little chaos does a society good. Khedron helps Alvin find a way out of the city because it will shake things up. Lucky for Alvin and unknown by any other Diaspar resident, an ancient tram system exists underground. It’s in bad shape, but it can still make it to one destination…a place called Lys. Alvin takes a free ride.
Lys turns out to be another human settlement, but one quite different from Diaspar: rural and resistant to the technologies of Diaspar. People in Lys are born and die naturally, and they want nothing to do with Diaspar and its unnatural ways. Lys residents have their own irrational fears, thank you. Once Alvin finds Lys, his journey truly begins.
Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars has a fantasy element–the hero’s quest–that separates it from the rest of his (hard-science) work. But the investigation of the unknown and the Clarke paradox (a belief in the power of science to make human life better while simultaneously looking to a higher intelligence–but not a god–to help usher human progress along) are as present here as in his other writing. And fantasy notwithstanding, Clarke’s intention in the novel is clear. Humans are bettered through science and questioning. In this way, Alvin is as Clarkean as one can get, and the novel is in good science-fiction company.