Arthur C. Clarke, in case you never heard of him, was a British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host. He was a co-writer of the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke was a science writer, who was both an avid popularizer of space travel and a futurist of uncanny ability. On these subjects he wrote over a dozen books and many essays. He was awarded a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, which along with a large readership made him one of the towering figures of science fiction. For many years Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.
The City and the Stars takes place one billion years in the future, in the city of Diaspar. By this time, the Earth is so old that the oceans have gone and humanity has all but left. As far as the people of Diaspar know, theirs is the only city left on the planet. The city of Diaspar is completely enclosed. Nobody has come in or left the city for as long as anybody can remember, and everybody in Diaspar has an instinctive insular conservatism. The story behind this fear of venturing outside the city tells of a race of ruthless invaders which beat humanity back from the stars to Earth, and then made a deal that humanity could live—if they never left the planet.
In Diaspar, the entire city is run by the Central Computer. Not only is the city repaired by machines, but the people themselves are created by the machines as well. The computer creates bodies for the people of Diaspar to live in and stores their minds in its memory at the end of their lives. At any time, only a small number of these people are actually living in Diaspar; the rest are retained in the computer’s memory banks.
All the currently existent people of Diaspar have had past “lives” within Diaspar except one person—Alvin, the main character of this story. He is one of only a very small number of “Uniques”, different from everybody else in Diaspar, not only because he does not have any past lives to remember, but because instead of fearing the outside, he feels compelled to leave. Alvin has just come to the age where he is considered grown up, and is putting all his energies into trying to find a way out. Eventually, a character called Khedron the Jester helps Alvin use the central computer to find a way out of the city of Diaspar. This involves the discovery that in the remote past, Diaspar was linked to other cities by an underground transport system. This system still exists although its terminal was covered over and sealed with only a secret entrance left.
Eventually, the protagonist, Alvin, finds a space ship which is still functional, buried outside Diaspar. He manages to retrieve it, gets his friend from Lys, and travels into deep space. They encounter Vanamonde, a being of pure intellect, with whom the friend, being telepathic like other Lys people, can communicate and bring him back to Earth. From him the truth of history finally emerges.
I was somewhat disappointed. It felt dated, and its tropes and themes seem, from the vantage point of 2018, now rather overdone, but in 1956, when this was written, this was hot stuff. Some interesting ideas, as there always are, even in the most dated of science fiction. But I am still glad I read it.