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Literature / The City and the Stars

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The City and the Stars is a novel written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1956, and is a major rewrite of Against the Fall of Night, his novel debut.

Millions of years into the future, Diaspar stands as the last apparent bastion of humanity in a hostile universe. Mankind once spread out in a great interstellar empire, but after a millennia-long war they were driven back to Earth and eventually confined to Diaspar, which cut itself off from the rest of the world to preserve itself against the Invaders while the rest of the planet slowly withered away over the eons. Despite its isolation, Diaspar isn't an uncomfortable place to live: Humanity has managed to achieve functional immortality by means of Brain Uploading and longevity treatments, while highly advanced matter replication allows its citizens to lead lives of almost complete leisure and a dedicated Central Computer manages the maintenance down to the molecular level.

While everyone else in Diaspar is content to live in this splendid isolation, Alvin yearns for adventure. Unlike the other citizens of Diaspar, Alvin is a Unique — he was "born" as a completely new person, rather than being reincarnated from a preexisting personality stored in the Halls of Creation. Furthermore, he seems to have none of the psychological blocks that prevent the other residents from even thinking about leaving the city. With the help of Khedron, Diaspar's Jester, Alvin manages to find a way out into the wider world and discovers the land of Lys, another remnant of humanity that has chosen to reject Diaspar's reliance on high technology in favor of a more pastoral lifestyle. Yet even Lys is not quite as idyllic as it may seem at first...

This work provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Area: Downplayed with the outer regions of Diaspar. They are empty of people, but the city's automated maintenance systems keep them in the same perfect condition as the inhabited areas. Played straight with the ruins of the fortress at Shalmirane, which have reverted to nature.
  • Aerith and Bob: Along with Alystra, Jeserac, Etania, Eriston, and so on, there's Alvin.
  • Always Someone Better: Alvin feels this way about Hilvar, although it is downplayed. Especially while exploring the planets of the Seven Stars, Alvin somewhat grudgingly notes that Hilvar, being both telepathic as well as better educated in applied science, has a somewhat more capable mind than his own. He does not allow it to bother him too much beyond an initial bit of jealousy.
  • Arcadia: Lys. They do have both knowledge of and access to higher technology, but they deliberately eschew its use outside of emergencies because they believe over-reliance on technology cheapens human relationships.
  • The Beforetimes: The so-called "Dawn Ages" which encompass all of human history prior to the coming of the Invaders a billion years before the story is set. Alvin muses that this must result in truly primitive pre-spaceflight times being lumped together with the Galactic Empire that preceded the current version of Diaspar. Because records of this time are mostly lost (or deliberately erased), nobody knows how long the Dawn Ages actually lasted.
  • Born as an Adult: Diaspar's residents emerge from the Halls of Creation as full-grown adults with adult intellectual capacity, though they still have a "childhood" where they're taught how to function in society.
  • Brain Uploading: Diaspar has perfected the technology, and its citizens use it to preserve themselves between reincarnations.
  • City in a Bottle: Diaspar has survived over a billion years in total isolation, apparently as a compromise with the Invaders to preserve humanity. The truth is a little more complicated.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Not surprising given that the author is the Trope Namer. Because the story is set an unknown distance into the future (Diaspar alone has existed in its current form for a billion years), the technology depicted simply is. Little effort is made to provide Technobabble explaining how any of it works because it is the product of Transhuman engineering and simply so advanced that even the Diasparans have only a general idea of what makes it possible for them to, for example, conjure up furniture by mental command.
  • Crack in the Sky: When the Master Computer simulates the end of the world, the simulation begins with the sky splitting open to reveal darkness, from which the Great Ones descend.
  • Crapsack Only by Comparison: Diaspar and Lys are two competing visions of utopia: The former a high-tech city of Crystal Spires and Togas where death and material need have been abolished, the latter a pastoral realm where Psychic Powers have allowed humans to form deeper and more intimate bonds. Neither is entirely comfortable with the other's values.
  • Cyberspace: One form of entertainment available to Diaspar is the "sagas," which we would recognize as something like virtual-reality Co-Op Multiplayer.
  • Data Crystal: Crystals serve as the backbone for all of Diaspar's computer systems, including the Central Computer and the Halls of Creation.
  • Designer Babies: Children in Diaspar aren't born and raised the old-fashioned way, but rather are created by downloading personalities from a computer database into an adult body. Alvin is a Unique, apparently created by the system itself rather than being based on a preexisting personality like the vast majority of Diaspar's citizens.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Mad Mind, a disembodied intellect of prodigious power and knowledge that, if released on the universe, will most likely destroy it.
  • Exotic Equipment: One incidental detail reveals that in the far future, humanity has modified male genitalia to retract for storage when not being... used.
  • Fake Action Prologue: The first chapter starts with the protagonist and his friends fleeing some monsters in underground tunnels. It turns out to be a full VR Co-Op Multiplayer session.
  • Future Imperfect: Diaspar's historical databanks only go back to its founding; all knowledge of human history prior to this are purely the realm of legend. Turns out it was deliberately done to conceal the true reason for Diaspar's isolation.
  • The Gadfly: Pretty much Khedron the Jester's purpose in Diaspar. The original designers of the society recognized that a perfectly ordered society would become stifling over long spans of time unless there were at least some variables. So whenever Khedron is incarnated his role is to behave as a minor trickster and social critic, just to keep things interesting.
  • Ghost Planet: When Alvin and Hilvar go to explore the worlds at the heart of the Galaxy, they find them deserted — some allowed to revert to nature, some stripped of everything useful, and one where whatever was there has been sealed away behind impenetrable force fields.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Vanamonde was created to counter and defeat the Mad Mind, on the assumption that the risk of the universe being destroyed in the fallout from their conflict is a chance worth taking compared to the certainty of the destruction and misery that the Mad Mind will inflict unopposed.
  • Good Parents: Eriston and Etania are stated to be this - in Diasparan terms. It was their job to watch over Alvin's socialization and it is clear that they care about their Unique 'son' and worry about him and they stand loyally by him when he turns Diaspar upside down.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Lys is aware of Diaspar, but has been intentionally concealing its own existence from them through various means.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: The Diasparans aren't; though they can control their robots with thought commands, it's implied that they've lost the secret to replicating the technology. Lys, on the other hand, has preserved the secrets of telepathy.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Along with Brain Uploading, the people of Diaspar have the ability to selectively edit what memories go into the Memory Banks so that future incarnations don't have to remember unpleasant experiences.
  • Last Fertile Region: Lys is the last surviving remnant of Earth's ecology, though not all of the flora and fauna are strictly of Earth origin (or a billion years of evolutionary change has created some very different species).
  • Lost Technology: The city of Diaspar is composed of technology that no one living understands any longer; but which is all fully automated and self-repairing. Somewhat subverted in that the computer that maintains the city, including the inhabitants — who are cloned reincarnations of the original population with memories of all their incarnations stored in the computer — could conceivably produce new inhabitants with the requisite memories. The technology necessary for space travel, on the other hand, had been deliberately purged both from the city computer's memory, and the records of the telepathic inhabitants of the pastoral city of Lys; and the populations of both cities had developed a phobia of space travel, with a powerful and completely wrong mythology justifying their fear.
  • Master Computer: Subverted in that the Central Computer of Diaspar is benevolently disposed towards the humans under its care. But it does control the entire city of Diaspar down to the atomic level and maintains its largely unchanging state.
  • Matter Replicator: The technology upon which Diaspar is based. From calling up one's favorite chair via mental command to the periodic re-creation of Diasparan citizens in the Halls of Creation. A typical living space is basically an empty room just waiting for somebody to start shaping it to conform to their desires. At the end of the novel, Alvin makes the intellectual leap that the people of Diaspar and Lys will be able to use this technology to recreate Earth's lost oceans and terraform the planet back to how it was before modern Diaspar was built.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: When Alvin first takes the underground railway to Lys, the narration remarks that countless commuters would have seen nothing out of the ordinary in such a journey. But to Alvin's world, it'll make history.
  • No Blood Ties: No one in Diaspar is actually related to their parents. Upon being reinstantiated, all citizens are adopted by a couple to help them learn to readjust to the world until they're old enough for their full memories to be restored.
  • No Navel, Novel Birth: The Diaspar residents lack navels due to the nature of their creation — their bodies are artificially cloned from existing DNA samples rather than born in the traditional way, and their minds have been backed up onto computers and later downloaded into a cloned body so they can live again.
  • Planet Spaceship: It is revealed at the end that most of the humanity left the Galaxy to explore the universe... in a star cluster made into a fleet.
  • Population Control: A variation since the people of Diaspar no longer practice biological reproduction. The actual population of the city at any given time is only a fraction of the stored minds in the memory banks. Thus the city is never fully populated, even though unused areas are as perfectly maintained as the ones that the current population lives in.
  • Psycho Prototype: There were two attempts at creating beings of pure intellect. The first resulted in the Mad Mind, which had to be contained in a black hole to keep it from destroying the universe.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Diaspar was intentionally designed to endure and is actively maintained by an extremely advanced computerized network.
  • Retractable Appendages: The male inhabitants of Diaspar have retractable genitalia.
  • The Reveal: The Invaders that Earth's remaining inhabitants believe imposed their isolation on Earth never existed. No war was fought that humanity lost. It was the long-forgotten experimental Mad Mind that devastated the galactic empire once shared by humans and aliens. Earth's remaining population simply consisted of very conservative people who did not want to join the rest of humanity in leaving the galaxy to explore the universe after the Mad Mind's imprisonment.
  • Revealing Continuity Lapse: Alvin comes to the realization that there is something wrong with the whole story of the Invaders forcing humanity to live inside of Diaspar because there are absolutely no records describing the Invaders or the specific terms of the agreement that they made with humanity. It turns out that this is because the Invaders are nothing more than an intentional myth.
  • Rousseau Was Right: No one in the story is actually evil (aside from the Mad Mind, which we never meet, though even this is debatable if its destructiveness is merely a product of its faulty sanity), and everyone who tries to hold Alvin back from his adventures has perfectly justifiable reasons for doing so. The ending implies that both Diaspar and Lys will eventually learn to put aside their differences in order that humanity may return to the stars.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Already struggling with potential My God, What Have I Done? implications of helping Alvin leave Diaspar, and subsequently being easily tracked inside of the city by telepathic operatives from Lys, Khedron the Jester decides to return to the memory banks rather than face what he expects to be far larger changes to Diaspar than any of his pranks have ever caused.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: To prevent it from destroying the universe, the Mad Mind was sealed in a "Black Star," an artificially-created black hole. Unfortunately even this containment won't last forever; hence why its creators tried again with Vanamonde.
  • Significant Anagram: 'Diaspar' is a a near-anagram of 'Paradise'. Which, for nearly all of its inhabitants, it is. It is also a near-anagram of 'Despair'. Take your pick. Alternatively, it may simply be linguistic drift from "diaspora", as the city used to be Earth's major spaceport before the current sealed arcology was built.
  • Telepathy: One of many enhancements that humanity engineered into themselves after discovering that their natural capabilities were vastly inferior to the first spacefaring aliens which they encountered in prehistory. The Diasparans know that humanity once possessed this ability, although they themselves have since lost the knowledge of how it works. The people of Lys retain the ability and use it to communicate and share knowledge. They can also potentially control others and alter memories.
  • Time Abyss: Diaspar has survived a billion years. Many of its citizens have combined lifespans in the hundreds of thousands at least, though this is broken up by long periods of dormancy in the Halls of Creation.
  • Transhuman: While it predates Transhumanism as an organized movement, the book presents Diaspar as something of a transhuman utopia — ubiquitous automation frees people to spend their time dedicating themselves to arts, crafts, and leisure, while advances in medicine and genetic engineering have extended the human lifespan to functional immortality and allowed people to be stronger, smarter, and faster than the unaugmented baseline. The telepathic inhabitants of Lys also qualify, though their society has a much more agrarian bent.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The first chapter is full of these for video games, which didn't even exist as a medium in the real world yet as the technology for them simply didn't exist (note that this novel was written in The '50s). Alvin and his friends are playing a virtual reality game which contains a Quest Arrow. His friends get angry when he breaks the game by attempting to take it Off the Rails, and they mention many times in the past when he screwed the game up by Sequence Breaking. It's interesting to note that he's doing this out of a genuine sense of curiosity, and is not griefing his friends.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: When Alvin finds the Tower of Lorraine he starts sitting in one of the air outtake vents and looks at the night sky. In the sky is a perfect ring of stars. Alvin notices the pattern, but doesn't see anything unusual in it because the night sky itself was new to him. He later finds out the constellation was engineered to point travelers from outside the Milky Way to the inhabited area of the galaxy.
  • Virtual-Reality Interrogation: Towards the end of the story, the characters need to get some vital information out of a robot that has been sworn to silence until the end of time. The Master Computer helps by simulating just that.
    • Still later a virtual dream is used to cure Diaspar inhabitants of their agoraphobia.