I’m not dead you know. Just working minimum wage, full time. I’m one of those now, the 99% (of employed people doing a job they don’t particularly like) until I find another teaching job. Whilst my energies are drained for little reward I have shied away from putting pen to paper on any more short stories of my own, (though I intend to return to writing up the ideas I’ve collected after I move into a new flat in the next few weeks) I have been steadily feeding my hunger for classic science fiction. Not your ‘Sci-Fi/Fantasy’ genre fiction, but far out speculative science based fiction writing… your Arthur C Clarkes of the world. The first review of 2012 then is the second Arthur C Clarke novel that I have read in recent weeks (I’m flying through them they are so readable) and the seventh piece of extended fiction from his extensive catalogue – The City and the Stars.
Hats off first of all to the cover art on the SF Masterworks release of this work. The other worldly green glow and futuristic cityscape gives an exotic appeal and completely masks the surprising premise of the book: That this ‘otherworld’ is in fact Earth, an all but abandoned Earth millions of years in the future where the last remnants of humanity cling on with an eternal fear, no phobia, of the outside world, outside universe. In a sense, The City and the Stars is both a narrative of the end of human endeavour and its rebirth.
What an incredibly well read and intelligent man Arthur C Clarke must have been, and so much I regret not coming to his works earlier. This story does what the best scifi always does – it tackles epic themes of our place in the universe, human nature, faith, control, free will, and even such minutiae as how people may ‘furnish’ their homes in the future. He forsees, writing in 1956, virtual reality and the use of avatars being the principal means of socialising and exploring, something that feels quite remarkable in a modern world of Wii Mii’s, World of Warcrafts, Second Lifes etc. He even tackles one of the thorniest issues of any speculative writing about ‘immortality’ – he has the male race genetically altered by scientists to no longer reproduce the traditional way. Sex becomes purely recreational and the unexpected effects of this are thought provoking and gently explored in the social interactions between the principal characters. The family unit no longer serves any meaningful function when people come into the world physically as adults and ‘check out’ when they choose, not when their biological ticker gives out. It is a work of astonishing vision and still readily accessible unlike some contemporary science fiction which appears to me to be written in an ancient tongue long since forgotten.
Arthur C Clarke does what a lot of popular advise for writers today warns against – it tells the audience things at times, rather than ‘showing’, though it certainly does that also. However it does not feel a cheap way of world building and lends it a kind of academic quality. He writes so confidently and so clearly that you accept his vision. However the real strength of his writing I found was in the way certain passages would make me just stop, re-read the last few paragraphs and reflect, daydreaming at work on the possibilities of it all. One thing i have noticed from having read Rendezvous with Rama and The City and the Stars is that his writing, whilst complete in its telling of a particular story and satisfying in itself… feels like a mere slice in time. As if you were reading a brief moment in the lives of these characters and that they really continue after you reach the back page. He builds living worlds in his books and that persistence of characters, even after the completion of the story is a great compliment.
What happens next? What happened before?
On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, I ask of the sadly departed Arthur C Clarke…
Please Sir, Can I have some more?
Highly recommended for lovers of science fiction.