Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke, originally appeared as a novella in 1948, in Startling Stories. Clarke expanded the story and published it as a novel with Gnome Press in 1953. Still later he wrote The City and the Stars which expands some of the themes posited in Against the Fall of Night.
Against the Fall of Night would be considered a novella by today’s standards; it’s probably about 40,000 words in length. Other aspects of the work contribute to a “novella” feel; the story is not fleshed out and large sections are told to us via indirect narrative. The things that are shown, though, are imaginative and gorgeous.
Alvin lives in the city of Diaspar, the largest, and last, city on Earth. It’s more than a billion years in our future and Earth is a desert, or seems to be, with no surface water, plants or other mammals than humans. Highly developed machines keep the city of Diaspar functioning and its inhabitants safe and alive. (It’s interesting that Clarke named his main city something that reads like a cross between “diaspora” and “despair.”) Everyone in the city knowns Alvin, because he was the last child born in the city. Alvin is about seventeen when the book starts, but the people of Diaspar are virtually immortal. There is no explanation given for why Alvin was born and whether the population is controlled in any way, just that Alvin’s youth make him a celebrity — and very spoiled.
Alvin is curious. He wants to go beyond the walls of his city, and he enlists the support of Rorden, who is the city’s Keeper of Records. Rorden reluctantly agrees to help Alvin achieve his goal, and shows him a secret that lies beneath the city. Alvin, who like everyone in Diaspar, has been told that there is no other human life on Earth (or in the universe for that matter) soon discovers that this is not true, as he visits the city of Lys, which is not a ruin, but a thriving city at the edge of a forest. Before the book ends, Alvin and others will go far beyond the boundaries of Lys, and discover that much of their history is incorrect.
Clarke’s descriptions of Diaspar, the secret underground space, the city of Lys, which is open and naturalistic, and ecosystems like the forest, which Alvin has never seen, are beautifully done. Against the Fall of Night is a book of ideas; throughout all of his adventuring, including that first trek across a brutal desert (and a later journey to the stars) there is never any sense that Alvin or his companions are in any danger. Humans in Lys have maintained life spans closer to ours and do not want immortality, but have honed intellectual and cerebral gifts; they think faster than the people of Diaspar, and they are telepathic. Alvin’s journey and a subsequent expedition to the ruined outpost of Shalmirane yield more clues and mysterious gadgets, all leading to the discovery of a starship… a thing humans thought had been gone for five hundred million years. In the meantime, Alvin’s actions force the city of Diaspar and the city of Lys to talk to each other.
Clarke explores a lot of themes he will work with in more depth later in his career: the question of human evolution; development of cognitive and intellectual capacity; the function of belief systems; machine intelligence, and the curiosity of what’s beyond the stars. The story even has a robot who goes insane. The far distant time-frame makes this more fantasy than science fiction, and as a modern reader I was really surprised how little humans have changed in one billion years, but the sense of an intellectual adventure comes through the story clearly.
Another theme introduced is that of the mysterious super-intelligence; before the Star Child, there was Vanamonde, who meets Alvin late in the book.
It’s nice to see Clarke playing with ideas that he will develop into major works later on. The scenic descriptions are decidedly visual and powerful, and while there isn’t a lot of humor in the book there is some, like this scene where Rorden tells Alvin that the city’s computers will need time (apparently in one billion years, humanity never did develop a quantum computer):
“All I know is that this machine is an Associator. If you give it a set of facts, it will hunt through the sun total of human knowledge until it correlates them.”
“Doesn’t that take a lot of time?”
“Very often. I have sometimes had to wait twenty years for an answer. So won’t you sit down?” he added, the crinkles around his eyes belying his solemn voice.
As a work of historic interest, Against the Fall of Night was a good read and I enjoyed Clarke’s imagination. In other ways, it was a terrible slog and several times I nearly put it down for good. Clarke’s prose is in its early days here. Most of this book is narrative or, frankly, lecture. There is one woman character, Seranis, in the city of Lys, and she actually gets to talk, although, while she is apparently the leader of the city governing council, she isn’t allowed to do anything. However, Clarke’s use of words like “man” for humanity (or even, on several occasions, “Man,”), and his use of “he” as a supposedly-inclusive pronoun, which was the convention at the time and completely unexceptional, was grating. Vanamonde, which is a machine intelligence and has no gender, is still referred to as “he.” No women are described or mentioned in Diaspar, even Alvin’s mother, although she must have been slightly interesting since she did something not many Diasparians do, by giving birth. I have to say, if you have ever wondered about people of color, or women, or gay and trans people saying they feel excluded from stories, and you’re female, just read about halfway through this and you’ll get a taste of what they’re talking about. Do not let anyone tell you that “he” is a non-gendered pronoun.
I’m not beating up on Clarke for pronoun use; this was the way stories of the time were written. I’m just saying you can sure see what the problem is. And I am beating him up for this: there were women mayors, women scientists and women doctors in the 1950s, yet when this story introduces questions of science, of research, policy or leadership, it does not include women in those moments. The story can’t make the argument that women in Diaspar have to stay home to be mothers, because there are no children. Women are unimportant and invisible in this story, and that is on Clarke.
The other problem is simply that Clarke does not go deeply enough into this story in this version. Because there are so few characters in general, we never see Alvin among “regular” characters in his home town; the story tells us he is different and an adventurer, but we don’t know why he is different. There is a nod in the direction of exceptionalism, but that’s it. And, generally, Diaspar has the feeling of a large empty city with six people in it, all of them male.
The two cities, Lys and Diaspar, who chose different routes of development, do come together to talk at the end, but the ending is too rushed, with too much data shoehorned in. Dramatic moments are skipped and lectured about later, as in a key dramatic moment between Vanamonde and Theon, Alvin’s friend from Lys, which is glossed over and touched on only in narrative flashback.
With all that, it’s still interesting to see how an SF master started off. With some reservations, I recommend Against the Fall of Night.