Read This: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

city_and_stars.jpgFROM JASON’S HALF OF THE BOOKSHELF — Genius novelist Jules Verne gets a lot of credit for the his successful futurist predictions about technology.

He anticipated submarines, widespread use of electricity, aqualungs, discovery of Antarctica, practical air travel, television, a space race to the moon — even a crude type of Internet.

I think Arthur C. Clarke is Verne’s successor, but his work is literally eons more future-minded. Forget the hard science roots of 2001: A Space Odyssey and read The City and the Stars, which is a far more fantastic adventure set a billion years from now.

Clarke wrote The City and the Stars 52 years ago and it remains crisply bereft of all those anachronistic 1950s science-fiction-isms you might expect. Too many novels from that time are filled with adventurers from 2200 or 3000 A.D. who still behave like they are in the ’50s and retain their Leave It to Beaver social conventions.

Not this one. Clark managed to skip entire generations of technological achievement, ignoring crude 20th century innovations and going right for what might as well be magic to primitives likes us. It takes a remarkable mind to predict achievements so far-flung from Buck Rogers’ dials and knobs, tickertape computers, leather space helmets, and clunky tape-fed robots. Instead, Clarke spins ideas like:

– Inertia-free rail travel
– Computers that control matter and convert energy and matter freely
– Robots that react to telepathic commands
– Peristaltic fields that whisk people enormous distances at high speeds
– Memory banks that store people in electronic form and reincarnate them every few thousand years
– Gravity manipulation so streets can bend in any degree of freedom
– Holographic avatars that can be sent to do any errand
– Games played in an immersive virtual reality dream-state
– Perfected human bodies that last 1,000 years and do not need fingernails, hair, external reproductive organs, or navels
– “Eternity cells” that hold every atom of a city in place forever without erosion or corrosion
– Art made from pure light
– Sidewalks that can be solids in some places and liquid-like moving walkways in others
– Not only genetic engineering, but psychological engineering as well

Clarke writes so convincingly that those elements fit seamlessly into the story.

Synopsis

Diaspar is the last bastion of humanity’s galactic empire — an enclosed and eternal city that’s remained virtually unchanged for a billion years. The city’s memory banks store all of its citizens, who slumber through the centuries and occasionally are woken to live for a thousand years or so before going back to sleep. Each citizen has lived thousands of lifetimes in Diaspar and death is an obsolete idea.

But every so often, a brand new person is created who has never lived before. Alvin is the first “unique” to walk out of the Hall of Creation in about 100,000 years. He is also the only human who seems unaffected by a universal phobia of the outside world — a phobia induced by a fear of the alien invasion that drove ancient man into hiding.

Alvin longs to leave Diaspar and explore the wilderness of Earth, which has lost its oceans and is covered in desert. With the help of the city’ central computer and a man known as the Jester, he finds a passageway that’s remained hidden for centuries and embarks on a journey to the only other remaining human settlement on the planet — a settlement called Lys, which had been thought long lost.

There, Alvin is confronted with a completely different type of life. Unlike in Diaspar, the people of Lys are telepathic, slightly Luddite, and choose not to conquer death. But Alvin’s journey of exploration doesn’t end there and he soon finds a path to the stars that man was once forced to abandon.

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