This being Christmas, I wanted to put up something related to the holiday, even though I’m not in the least religious. Christmas has become a secular holiday in any case, more about promoting shopping than about the birth of Jesus Christ. For that matter, it was a secular holiday, the Winter Solstice, before the early Christians latched onto it. By coincidence, the Jewish celebration of Channukah falls about the same time, and Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a black alternative seasonal holiday. There’s even Festivus, a spoof of Christmas, from a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.
None of which has to anything to do with what I’m uploading today. What does is Sentinels, a memorial anthology in honor of the late Arthur C. Clarke, which came out in 2010. I hadn’t been aware of it at the time, but Marcia got me a copy for Christmas. I knew about that in advance; no surprise when I unwrapped it. But there was a surprise when I began reading it, because the first item in it isn’t a story but an essay by Damien Broderick, an sf writer and critic of some note. And what he was writing about was one of the formative experiences of his life: reading Clarke’s The City and the Stars.
“Clarke’s book was quite simply the most important novel I have ever read, will ever read,” Broderick writes, and after quoting some of his favorite passages, and goes on to tell how it shaped his own life, inspiring him to become an sf writer himself – he even got Clarke’s permission to write a sequel to City, but Gregory Benford beat him to it (well, actually to a sequel of an earlier version of the novel, Against the Fall of Night) – and to try to come to grips with why the novel is so fascinating and so meaningful.
Broderick hails from Australia, although he now lives in San Antonio. I’ve never met him; maybe I never will. But I felt a thrill of recognition, and even kinship, for The City and the Stars was a formative experience in my own life. His favorite passages are my own favorite passages. I can still remember reading the novel for the first time the year it came out, in 1956, and being carried away by its epic sweep and imagination. At one point while I was engrossed in the quest of Alvin to discover the secret of the lost galactic Empire, I was listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird on the phonograph, and ever since I have associated that music the novel. Only Clarke himself, I learn from Broderick, had Debussy in mind when he was writing it. Oh well…
Several years ago, when I joined the Science Fiction Research Association, I took a test of theirs called “Which science fiction writer are you?” It comprised a series of multiple choice questions on fundamental beliefs and values. I came out as Arthur C. Clarke. I can’t say that I was surprised. Without knowing it, he had as much to do as anyone with my becoming a lifelong sf fan, and a historian of the genre. And in When World Views Collide (1989), one of the volumes of Imagination and Evolution, I had already paid homage to Clarke and, in particular, The City and the Stars. There’s little, if anything, I would alter for the new version of my sf history in progress. Here’s what I wrote then, with the only change being adding Clarke’s year of death.
THE CALL OF THE COSMOS
Man was about to leave his Universe, as long ago he had left his world. And not only Man, but the thousands of other races that had worked with him to make the Empire. They were gathered together, here at the edge of the Galaxy, with its whole thickness between them and the goal they would not reach for ages.
What inspired the Empire to undertake this millennial journey, none of those left on earth a billion years later can guess, but it must have been “very strange and very great,” something of “immense urgency, and immense promise.” Immensity is the keynote of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), which draws its basic theme and basic imagery from the work of Clarke’s two great mentors: H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon.
Clarke (1917-2008) never concealed his admiration for Wells and Stapledon; his admiration is more than literary: he admires the evolutionary vision of Wells’ film Things to Come (1936) and the cosmic mythologies of Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1931) and Star Maker (1937). Such eschatological science fiction shaped Clarke’s interpretation of the nature and purpose of human existence as fundamentally as the Creation and the Incarnation shape a Christian’s. Nonetheless, interpret his mentors’ works he does. Clarke can be characterized as a spiritual Wellsian, inasmuch as he takes little notice of Wells’ utopian socialist ideology. Nor does he seem troubled by Stapledon’s spiritual angst; what he takes from Stapledon is what Wells himself might have taken: a cosmic vision of human destiny.
Childhood’s End (1953), still Clarke’s most celebrated novel, is, ironically, his least characteristic. He admitted as much in a warning note to readers: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Clarke never believed in the Overmind as an instrument of salvation for mankind, any more than he believed in the Galactic Overlords who act on the Overmind’s behalf. But he did show his intimate familiarity with Star Maker, for the Overmind, like Stapledon’s Cosmical Mind, is the final goal of evolution, beyond the organic or the material or the individual. Stapledon always sought to reconcile conflicting ideals of survival and progress, and submission to cosmic fate; of the spiritual integrity of the individual, and duty toward the collective and the transcendental. But Clarke sees no such reconciliation in Childhood’s End, rather, stark alternatives:
At the end of one path were the Overlords. They had preserved their individuality, their independent egos; they possessed self-awareness and the pronoun “I” had a meaning in their language. They had emotions, some at least of which were shared by humanity. But they were trapped, Jan realized now, in a cul-de-sac from which they could never escape ...
And at the end of the other path? There lay the Overmind, whatever if might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba. Potentially infinite, beyond mortality, how long had it been absorbing race after race as it spread across the stars? Did it too have desires, did it have goals it sensed dimly yet might never attain? Now it had drawn into its being all that the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.
Only, not for Clarke himself. He clearly preferred, like Wells before him, that mankind conquer “all the deeps of space, and all the mysteries of time,” yet still remain – somehow – human. Thus, in The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), the Wellsian dream has come to pass, despite the destruction of earth by a nova, through the seeding of colonies on distant worlds by automated ships. Now the last survivors of earth have fled the holocaust in a quantum-electric starship that will bear them to a virgin planet they can make their own. Moses Kaldor, one of the few to be awakened from hibernation during a stopover at the previously seeded Thalassa, shares the Magellan’s sense of mission. Yet he is still moved by the ordinary human things, like grief for his beloved wife, long dead in the holocaust. Rationalizations hardly matter:
Could grief be an accidental—even a pathological—by-product of love, which of course does have an essential biological function? It’s a strange and disturbing thought. Yet if it’s our emotions that make us human, who would abandon them, even knowing that each new love is yet another hostage to those twin terrorists, time and fate?
For Clarke, then, the essential task of sf was to reconcile the Wellsian vision of science fiction with the ordinary human things. Yet for him, the Wellsian vision itself is humanistic, expressing deeply human needs, as he argued in Profiles of the Future (1962):
Civilization cannot exist without new frontiers; it needs them both physically and spiritually. The physical need is obvious—new lands, new resources, new materials. The spiritual need is less apparent, but in the long run it is more important. We do not live by bread alone; we need adventure, variety, novelty, romance. . . . What is true of individuals is also true of societies; they too can become insane without sufficient stimulus.
Clarke’s earliest sf reflects the heady optimism and unbounded faith in mankind that was typical of pulp science fiction in its time of innocence. In “Rescue Party” (1946), for example, our sun is about to become a nova, and a Galactic Federation sends a belated mission to try to save a few of the people who have unaccountably given rise to a technological civilization in only 400,000 years. At the risk of their own safety, the aliens search Earth for signs of life, even though the very oceans are already boiling. They find the artifacts of a wondrous culture but no trace of its creators, until after they are forced to flee the stellar explosion and make what Rugon, their deputy commander, considers a totally awesome discovery in deep space:
“This is the race,” he said softly, “that has known radio for only two centuries—the race we believed had crept to die in the heart of its planet...”
“That is the greatest fleet of which there has ever been a record. Each of those points of light represents a ship larger than our own. Of course, they are very primitive—what you see on the screen are the jets of their rockets. Yes, they dared to use rockets to bridge interstellar space!”
Human chauvinism, one might call it. Clarke treats it poetically in “Transience” (1949), a series of vignettes about man and the sea – the sea as seen successively by savage, contemporary and far-future man. The savage is the first to sense “something of the wonder of the sea.” A child of the near future watches the last steamship in a world grown used to air transport, but soon he returns to building sand castles. In the far future, another child, called away from similar pursuits, can hardly comprehend that he and his family are leaving the sea behind forever because the solar system is threatened by a Dark Nebula, and the human race must find refuge on distant worlds:
Under the level light of the sagging moon, beneath the myriad stars, the beach lay waiting for the end. It was alone now, as it had been at the beginning. Only the waves would move, and but for a little while, upon its golden sands.
For man had come and gone.
But if Clarke was an optimist, he was never a totally naive optimist. He too knew of mankind’s destructive side. In “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth...” (1951), a child raised on the far side of the moon, knowing what stars are but unable to imagine why they should twinkle, is taken by his father to nearside to see Earth for the first time. Enchanted by its beauty, he wonders why his people can never return there.
Then Marvin, his eyes no longer blinded by the glare, saw that the portion of the disk that should have been in darkness was gleaming faintly with an evil phosphorescence: and he remembered. He was looking upon the funeral pyre of a world—upon the radioactive aftermath of Armageddon. Across a quarter of a million miles of space, the glow of dying atoms was still visible, a perennial reminder of the ruinous past. It would be centuries yet before that deadly glow died from the rocks and life could return again to fill that silent, empty world.
In much of his best work, Clarke tempers the Wellsian evolutionary dream with common humanity and cautionary revisionism. In The Deep Range (1957), for example, the protagonist is Walter Franklin, formerly chief engineer of an interplanetary liner, who must make a new life on Earth after an accident in space so traumatizes him that he can never endure free fall again. He is utterly cut off from his wife and children, who are adapted to the lesser gravity of Mars and cannot visit him any more than he can visit them. Progress cannot banish all pain or suffering:
Even in the most perfect of social systems, the most peaceful and contented of worlds, there would still be heartbreak and tragedy. And as man extended his powers over the universe, he would inevitably create new evils and new problems to plague him.
Franklin finds a new career with the Bureau of Whales, where he helps to manage one of Earth’s most vital food resources. Eventually, he finds a new woman to love; once again, he knows the joys of fatherhood. As his career advances, he can even forget the past—almost—and enjoy a contentment he has never known before. Then comes a challenge to his second career and his second life: an ethical challenge. In a secularized world, where other faiths have been discredited. Buddhism has filled a spiritual vacuum, “being a philosophy and not a religion, and relying on no revelations vulnerable to the archaeologist’s hammer.”
Because reverence for life is fundamental to Buddhist thought, the exploitation of whales cannot be condoned. “We believe that all creatures have a right to life,” the Mahanayake Thero tells Franklin, “and it therefore follows that what you are doing is wrong. Accordingly, we would like to see it stopped.” A transplanted Westerner himself, the Thero knows how best to appeal to Franklin—not by merely reminding him of mankind’s long and sorry record of cruelty to animals, but by bringing up an argument that must give even a human chauvinist pause to consider:
Sooner or later we will meet types of intelligent life much higher than our own, yet in forms completely alien. And when that time comes, the treatment man receives from his superiors may well depend on the way he has behaved toward the other creatures of his own world.
In a crisis of conscience. Franklin faces political ruin should he challenge the bureau. An unforeseen role as the hero of an undersea rescue operation restores his moral courage and gives him the chance to speak out freely. At last he can feel whole as he faces the future and its challenge: “Give us another hundred years, and we’ll face you with clean hands and hearts—whatever shape you be.”
In The Songs of Distant Earth, the exiles of the Magellan have bound themselves by the strict ethic of Metalaw that respects the rights of, not only all other intelligent life, but all other potential intelligent life. “The presence of more than a few percent oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere is definite proof that life exists there,” and thus is enough to preclude colonization by mankind. In Rendezvous with Rama (1973), the passage of a huge alien spacecraft through the solar system offers a chance to study the workings of a nonhuman technology, although the starship’s creators remain elusive. But Clarke’s heroes disable a missile fired at the alien ship by the xenophobic colonials of Mercury, refusing to credit their fears that the intruder is a threat to mankind.
World government is usually a given in Clarke’s near-future works, but he is neither blindly worshipful of the modern state nor insensitive to its dangers. World peace and unity may indeed be noble causes, but not at the price of hypocrisy. Although his sf was popular in the Soviet Union and he counted cosmonaut Alexei Leonov as a friend, Clarke made a point of dedicating 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) to the then exiled Andrei Sakharov and also of naming a space drive in the novel after him. Seemingly apolitical in most of his sf, Clarke edged toward a more conscious classical liberalism in his recent works.
In The Songs of Distant Earth, after millennia of “trial and often hideous error,”18 a true democracy based on computer nets and universal education has been achieved at last, but the heads of government are chosen at random, with the safeguard “that anyone who deliberately aimed at the job should automatically be disqualified.”19 It is this system, more or less, that has been bequeathed to the idyllic colony of Thalassa in the form of “a Jefferson Mark Three Constitution—someone once called it utopia in two megabytes”
We encounter Clarke’s ideal of a statesman in The Fountains of Paradise (1979): Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe, an ambassador-at-large who once “moved from one trouble spot to another, massaging egos here, defusing crises there, and manipulating the truth with consummate skill... in order that mankind might live in peace- When he had begun to enjoy the game for its own sake, he knew it was time to quit.”
Yet Clarke remained a thoroughgoing secular humanist, who could never accept revealed religion as the foundation of morality. Indeed it may be just the opposite: more evil has been visited on mankind, he argued, by religious fanaticism than by any other force in history. Those who plan the seeded colonies in The Songs of Distant Earth decide to spare them our religious heritage, even at the cost of cultural impoverishment:
With tears in their eyes, the selection panels had thrown away the Veda, the Bible, the Tripitika, the Qur’an, and all the immense body of literature—fiction and nonfiction—that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds.
Statistical theology discredits faith in the same novel: “Bad things happened just as often as good. ... Certainly there was no sign of supernatural intervention, either for good or for ill.” In what may be Clarke’s most controversial story. “The Star” (1955), proof of divine intervention is proof of an evil god. A priest’s faith is shattered when he realizes why an alien civilization of warmth and beauty was cruelly cut short in its prime by a supernova:
There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?
Nor does Clarke have a faith in the essential goodness of nature, common among literary intellectuals. In Imperial Earth (1976), Duncan Makenzie has come to the mother planet from Titan to have his own heir cloned. As in in vitro fertilization today, several embryos are to be created, only one of which will be brought to term. Makenzie has no sympathy for the traditional moral objection that the procedure is unnatural and murderous:
Old Mother Nature had not the slightest regard for human ethics or feelings. In the course of a lifetime, every man generated enough spermatozoa to populate the entire Solar System, many times over—and all but two or three of that potential multitude were doomed. Had anyone ever gone mad by visualizing each ejaculation as a hundred million murders?
Yet, considering the fact that his estranged friend Helmer, whose clone (unlike Makenzie’s, with its damaged genes) could father children, thus bringing genetic diversity into the family, may have more to offer his world than a replicate of himself, Makenzie may well have been moved by the argument of a doctor who has gone out of the cloning business, even if the doctor’s actual motives are suspect:
If the Pharoahs had been able to clone themselves, they would certainly have done so. It would have been the perfect answer, avoiding the problem of in-breeding. But it introduces other problems. Because genes are no longer shuffled, it stops the biological clock. It means the end of biological progress.
Makenzie does choose to clone Helmer, motivated by an essentially Wellsian evolutionary ethic. It is the same ethic that motivates the seemingly cynical treason of Robert Molton in Earthlight (1955), who uses a lunar observatory to transmit military secrets to the fleet of the Outer Planets Federation that is assailing Earth’s lunar fortress. Years later, having assured a stalemate in the war and a united humanity, he watches children frolicking at a lunar playground:
Professor Molton smiled as he watched them racing toward their bright, untroubled future—the future he had helped to make. He had many compensations, and that was the greatest of them. Never again, as far ahead as imagination could roam, would the human race be divided against itself. Far above him beyond the roof of Central City, the inexhaustible wealth of the Moon was flowing outward across space, to all the planets Man now called his own.
Clarke’s Wellsian confidence in the value of progress stands in stark contrast to the gothic sense of dread that has come to permeate much of our culture in face of threatened nuclear annihilation and environmental disaster. Only in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with the madness of HAL, does he seem to acknowledge the gothic tradition in sf at all, and that could be explained by the influence of Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and the novel (HAL’S madness is explained away, a bit too tidily, by Clarke in 2010).
The City and the Stars, which Clarke himself called, “For many years, and for many reasons . .. my best-loved book,” still remains the most vivid expression of his Wellsian philosophy and world view. It is a variation on all the tales of the distant future that began with Wells’ own The Time Machine (1895). But in seeming contrast to the gloomy panoramas of decadence and devolution that are common in such tales, the “glowing jewel” of Diaspar seems a beacon of hope. Earth’s last great city, it has endured for a billion years, long after the oceans have passed away and the last mountains have been ground to dust. It seems a triumph of mankind over entropy—and yet it is actually a surrender to entropy.
Mankind is not sufficient unto itself. Although the builders of Diaspar designed into it all manner of artificial novelty and variety, assuring its seeming vitality down through all the eons, none of their devices can compensate in the long run for the lack of frontiers – the lack of any outside challenge or stimulus. Diaspar has turned its back on space and time; even its inhabitants are endless reincarnations, who pursue the same endless round of arts and amusements, never knowing childhood, age or death.
In the story of Alvin, Clarke combines science fiction on a cosmic scale with the romantic quest. For reasons he himself cannot understand at first, Alvin is a misfit in Diaspar. He spoils the fun in interactive adventure games like The Cave of the White Worms by trying to shift the action outside the Crystal Mountain. In a world of utter sexual freedom, without any complications (people are “born” almost fully grown from the city’s memory banks), he can find no really intimate companionship. When his tutor Jeserac reveals that Alvin is “the first child to be born on Earth for at least ten million years,” he finds a sense of mission: “Diaspar might be sufficient for the rest of humanity, but it was not enough for him.”
Alvin must find a way out, even though none is shown in the memory banks; he must find the truth behind the ancient legends of the Galactic Empire, said to have been destroyed by the Invaders from somewhere beyond, who drove mankind back to its home planet and forbade it ever to leave again. Thus begins the search that leads Alvin to the Tomb of Yarlan Zey, founder of the city, where a directed thought grants him entrance to a long-forgotten transport system and passage to – Lys.
Lys: the antithesis of Diaspar, pastoral rather than urban. It must be heir to a technology as powerful as that of Diaspar, having preserved a portion of Earth’s natural splendors – mountains, wildlife, lakes, and rivers – against the encroachment of the global desert. Its inhabitants have maintained a simple, seemingly idyllic life. They live in small villages, and they actually walk from one place to another, instead of being carried on “streets” that flow like water at varying speeds, yet are otherwise solid. They value the powers of mind, rather than machine. Most astounding to Alvin, however, are the children. He finds them a source of amazement and delight and of tender emotions, long forgotten in Diaspar: when they have occasion to cry, over frustrations that are objectively trivial, “their tiny disappointments seemed to him more tragic than Man’s long retreat after the loss of his Galactic Empire.” Alvin realizes already in his heart what Seranis, one of the elders of Lys, later puts into words:
Long ago, Alvin, men sought immortality and at last achieved it. They forgot that a world which had banished death must also banish life. The power to extend his life indefinitely might bring contentment to the individual, but brought stagnation to the race. Ages ago we sacrificed our immortality, but Diaspar still follows the false dream.
And yet the dream of Lys is as false as that of Diaspar; Lys, too, is afraid of outside challenge or stimulus. Once again, Alvin must escape; an ancient robot, once owned by the Galaxy’s last religious zealot, offers a new path for his quest. Raising the Master’s starship from the desert, Alvin and Hilvar of Lys set forth for the Seven Suns, once the hub of the Empire, where the Master had found it “lovely to watch the colored shadows on the planets of eternal light.” Now the planets themselves are dead or else are devolved to primitive life waging anew the grim Darwinian struggle for existence. Of the fabulous Empire of legend, there remain only enigmatic ruins… and Vanamonde. A pure mentality, he is the crowning achievement of that Empire, before it forsook the Galaxy for an even greater challenge beyond.
It is through Vanamonde that Alvin and Hilvar and a reluctant Earth learn the truth behind the old legends: how the stars reached mankind before mankind reached the stars; how that challenge to human vanity led mankind to remake itself on a Stapledonian scale, becoming at last worthy to share in a galactic civilization, in a “sweep of great races moving together toward maturity;” how the Empire made its goal the creation of a mind without physical limitations, able to reveal for the first time a “true picture of the Universe;” how the destruction wreaked by the Mad Mind, disastrous first fruit of that quest, led to the legend of the Invaders. Even in the face of such a setback, the Empire persevered and, eventually, triumphed. Earth, which had shunned the Empire and turned inward, from the sickness of fear and exhaustion, now faces again the challenge of the cosmos, and of evolution:
In this universe, the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening toward an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he had once followed, Man would one day go again.