332. Arthur C. Clarke: The Two Diaspars

In 1949, Arthur C. Clarke wrote his first novel Against the Fall of Night. Four years later, he rewrote it, and gave it a new title, The City and the Stars. Clarke himself said that only about 25% of the first novel resided in the second. My arithmetic doesn’t add up with his. I see them as much closer to each other than that; in some ways, barely different.

If you want details, go to the Wikipedia article on the latter novel. There is a section of comparison between the two books where the differences are laid out, but I find them superficial.

I read Against the Fall of Night for the first time this month. The City and the Stars, on the other hand, was one of the first proper science fiction novels of my childhood, and a major influence on me.

I read it soon after I found the local public library. Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton and dozens of lesser science fiction writers were suddenly available, where I had previously only had Tom Swift Jr. to read. About then I was probably reading three books a week, and at least half were extremely forgettable.

This would have been about 1960 or 1961, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Clarke was my main man then. That seems entirely appropriate; I was just really learning to think, and Clarke was all head. By the seventies, I couldn’t read him any more. His prose doesn’t sing and his characters have neither heart nor cojones. They weren’t quite wooden, but they were at least cloistered.

Actually, most of all, they were extremely British. And so are these two novels. Here is a quote:

Since that far-off day, Man had explored the Universe and returned again to Earth — had won an empire, and had it wrestled from his grasp. p. 97

That’s from The City and the Stars, the one I read as a child. At that time my understanding of the twentieth century was shallow indeed. Reading it again fifty-some years later, it is clear that the novel is largely a product of its time and place. Clarke had just moved from Somerset to London and found the transition difficult. Hence the contrast between Diaspar the uber-city and Lys the sylvan paradise. Both books revolve around the elegiac feeling of a time when mankind had forged a stellar empire and then withdrawn to Earth when (as his main character believes) they were driven back from what they had conquered.

World War II had just concluded. It had driven a stake through the heart of the British Empire. India won its independence in 1947, and the fifties saw one after another of the old colonies become new countries. At home in Britain, it was a time of deep austerities as the British tried do rebuild their nation out of the ruins of war. 

America suffered during the war; I do not disparage her losses, but no one bombed our cities to rubble, nor destroyed our economy. The fifties in Britain were not like the happy days of hot rods, tract housing, TV, freeways, and kitchen appliances.

Reading Against the Fall of Night or The City and the Stars today, as an adult aware of twentieth century history, that background informs my reading much as it surely informed Clarke’s writing. In both novels, the closed city of Diaspar is the last bastion of mankind in an Earth gone to desert, in a universe on which man has turned his back. Alvin, the hero, is mankind’s last hope of recovery from those great losses. more tomorrow

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