The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
The City and The Stars is a 1954 rewrite of Arthur C. Clarke’s first book Against the Fall of Night (1948). There are plenty of adherents of the original version, but the revised version is excellent too.
As one of his earlier classic tales, this one features many familiar genre tropes: A far-future city called Diaspar, where technology is so sophisticated it seems like magic, a young (well not exactly, but close enough) protagonist who curiosity is so strong it overcomes the fear of the outside that all the other inhabitants share, and a gradually expanding series of discoveries by our hero Alvin (actually, would anyone really have a name that is shared by an animated chipmunk, one BILLION years in the future?) as he strives to discover the reality of his world, and the larger universe around him.
Arthur C. Clarke’s specialty is “sense of wonder,” and he does a great job here, gradually giving us the bigger picture, and expanding his scope to the larger universe, as Alvin is continuously driven by the desire to know more and refusing to settle for a comfortable existence.
The writing isn’t particularly eloquent and the characters are fairly flat, but this is not China Miéville or Gene Wolfe we’re talking about. So if you’re willing to accept that, you can certainly enjoy the story.
There are so many great ideas in The City and The Stars, particularly its depiction of the post-scarcity future city of Diaspar, where all citizens are stored electronically and recalled to life on a regulated schedule that spans millions of years. Despite being able to pursue any line of study, art or leisure, Alvin just can’t seem to be content with his assigned role, and doggedly searches for clues as to what lies outside Diaspar and what caused humanity to turn back from its former star-faring days and retreat into it’s antiseptic and stale existence in Diaspar.
As I’ve said before, Arthur C. Clarke owes an enormous debt to another British pioneer of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, who wrote on as grand a scale as any SF writer ever has. His classic Last and First Men (1930) depicts the next several billion years’ worth of human evolution, while Star Maker (1937) is even more ambitious, tackling the beginnings and ultimate purpose of galaxies, nebulae, group consciousness, and the Star Maker itself). Nonetheless, Clarke’s body of work is probably the most consistent and impressive of the early hard SF writers.
I didn’t love this as much as Stuart did but might have felt differently if I’d read it in my teens. There were some ideas that I really liked, though, such as the fear (and how they conditioned it) that kept Diaspar’s citizens at home, and Clarke’s vision of a possible future evolution of the human race.
I can’t recommend the audio version I listened to. The narrator and publisher, Geoffrey T. Williams, does a nice job with his performance, but he decided to add weird sound effects that are present throughout the entire novel. They are unpleasant and distracting.