The City and the Stars

The City and the Stars
The City and the Stars  
The City and the Stars hardcover.jpg
1st edition
Author(s) Arthur C. Clarke
Cover artist George Salter
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Frederick Muller Ltd[1]
Publication date June 1956
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 256 pp
Preceded by Against the Fall of Night
Followed by Beyond the Fall of Night

The City and the Stars (1956) is a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. It is a complete rewrite of his earlier novella, Against the Fall of Night.



Against the Fall of Night was Clarke's first novel. It was published in Startling Stories in 1948 (after John W. Campbell, Jr. rejected it, according to Clarke's own account). A few years later he revised the book extensively and retitled it as The City and the Stars. The new version was intended to showcase what he had learned about writing. The major differences are in individual scenes and in the details of his contrasting civilizations of Diaspar and Lys. To everyone's surprise, Against the Fall of Night remained popular enough to stay in print after The City and the Stars was published. In introductions to it[clarification needed] he has told the anecdote of a psychiatrist and patient who admitted they had discussed it one day in therapy, without realizing at the time that one had read one book and one the other. Most recently it[clarification needed] has appeared with a sequel by Gregory Benford called Beyond the Fall of Night. What follows is a summary of The City and the Stars, but it is a broadly accurate description of either of the books about Alvin, except for the role of Khedron (who replaced a different character in the earlier novel) and for the nature of the immortality of the people of Diaspar.



The City and the Stars takes place a 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, they are the only city left in the world. The city of Diaspar is completely enclosed. Nobody has come in or left the domed 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 people's lives 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 when they die. At any time, only a small number of these people are actually living in Diaspar, the rest sleeping 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 a 'Unique', 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. In the novel, 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 wild 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 still exists although its terminal was covered over and sealed with only a secret entrance left.

Alvin's quest

Once out, Alvin finds that one other human habitation remains on Earth. In contrast to domed, technological Diaspar, Lys is a vast green oasis shielded by mountains from the worldwide desert. Its people are not stored and recreated technologically, but are naturally conceived, born, age, and die. They have rejected the hyper-advanced technology of Diaspar in favor of an almost agrarian existence, with machines used only for labor-saving purposes. The people of Lys have instead worked to perfect the arts of the mind; they are telepaths, capable of communicating with each other over great distances and without words.

Alvin continues his quest until he finds out the truth of why the people of Diaspar are so frightened of the external universe and why Lys is so scared of space travel and mechanical things. In Lys he goes on a trip with a young man named Hilvar who becomes his friend, and they see a signal light, which they decide to investigate. It leads them to Shalmirane, the remains of the fortress where the Invaders were fought off with unimaginable weapons, where they encounter an extraterrestrial creature with a strange robot. The creature is the last survivor of a religious cult dating back to the days of the Galactic Empire. The robot was the companion of the founder, the "Master", who came with his followers to Earth at the end of his life. Alvin and Hilvar are unable to understand the content of the religion except that it refers to "Great Ones" who have left, but will someday return. Alvin persuades the creature to lend him the robot, arguing that the Master would want it to see how things were developing in the world. The Master had, however, forbidden the robot to give out any information at all, so Alvin does not learn anything.

The robot enables Alvin to escape the attempts of the people of Lys to purge his mind and send him back—previous Uniques had stayed. Alvin had originally been told he would be free to choose whether to stay or return, but because the people of Lys had failed to prevent news of his departure spreading in Diaspar in time, this option was no longer available. Back in Diaspar he seeks the help of the Central Computer, which overcomes the Master's block on the robot by producing an illusion of an apocalyptic return of the Great Ones.


Alvin now learns that the Master's ship is still functional, buried outside Diaspar. He manages to retrieve it, fetches Hilvar from Lys, and travels into deep space. They encounter Vanamonde, a being of pure intellect, with whom Hilvar, being telepathic like other Lys people, can communicate and bring him back to Earth. From him the truth of history finally emerges.

The fearsome Invaders, it turns out, were a myth: Shalmirane was actually used to destroy the Moon when this became necessary to prevent it from colliding with the Earth. Instead, the people of Diaspar and Lys are the descendants of those humans who deliberately turned away from the universe in rejection of history's greatest scientific project: the creation of a disembodied intellect. The first attempt had created a powerful but insane being, the Mad Mind. The Mad Mind had devastated the galaxy and its civilizations before being imprisoned in a "strange artificial star" called the Black Sun.

Vanamonde is the second, successful experiment of the ancient empire: a being of pure intellect, immensely old, immensely powerful, able to move instantly to any point in space — but entirely child-like and unsophisticated. Vanamonde's ultimate destiny, Hilvar realizes, is to battle the Mad Mind, when it escapes its prison at the end of Time.

After this, most of the Galactic Empire had left our galaxy, leaving only a scattered few. This departure from the galaxy, leaving it to Vanamonde, was because contact had been made with something "very strange and very great" which called them urgently.

Alvin's discoveries reunite Diaspar with Lys. He then sends the ship, under the command of the robot, to search for the long-lost people of the Empire. He does not wish to search himself - even if there are human remnants in the Galaxy, they are probably decadent - and he has work to do on Earth. Even the environment, he hopes, can be revived.

A comparison of the two books

Clarke had assumed that the new version would simply supplant the earlier, but in fact a large number of readers preferred the earlier novel, and thus, rather unusually, both versions of the novel are in circulation with approximately equal popularity.

Against the Fall of Night opens with a fragment, apparently originally written in isolation in 1935, in which all Diaspar has fallen silent and Alvin is called out by his father to see something in the sky. Alvin's father says he has only ever seen one other. It is a cloud. This scene dramatises the "desert at the end of time" setting, but is not quite consistent with the detail that we are later told that Rorden had never seen the stars until Alvin shows him the outside.

In Against the Fall of Night Alvin is the only child to be born in Diaspar for seven thousand years, and the people of Diaspar are described as immortal, but their lives appear to be simply extremely extended—the point is not very clear. In The City and the Stars the people of Diaspar live an endless sequence of limited lives, being reissued bodies from the Hall of Creation and between lives spending long ages frozen in the Memory Banks. In both, Lys's rejection of "the false dream" of immortality is key to its break with Diaspar. In The City and the Stars Alvin is a "Unique", a person who, anomalously, has apparently never lived before. Only a handful of previous cases are known.

In Against the Fall of Night Alvin is assisted in his search to leave Diaspar by Rorden, the Keeper of the Records. In The City and the Stars Rorden is replaced by Khedron the Jester, whose duty it is in Diaspar to introduce calculated amounts of disorder from time to time and consequently has access to unusual places. But Alvin's success is really made possible by the tacit consent of the Central Computer. This had no real equivalent in Against the Fall of Night, showing the new possibilities created by computers in the post-war years. In the earlier novel, there are master robots, but they are multiple and do not seem to have the active supervisory role of the Central Computer. The Central Computer is not a single machine but the primary sentient Artificial Intelligence that oversees all the computing power in Diaspar. The Central Computer in Against the Fall of Night is merely a functioning computer demonstrating no self awareness whatsoever. In The City and the Stars it talks and has a definite personality.

There are a few differences in the plot concerning the robot. In the earlier novel, the Master's follower was human, and he had three robots, of which one was lent to Alvin, whereas in the later novel the follower is extraterrestrial and has only the one robot. As was noted above, in The City and the Stars the block in the robot is overcome by an illusion of the apocalypse. In Against the Fall of Night a duplicate of the robot is created which is identical except for the block.

In The City and the Stars, there is somewhat more circumstantial detail about the life of Diaspar. For example, there are "sagas", total-immersion virtual reality entertainments where you apparently lose your outside knowledge. Alvin has a female lover, Alystra, whom he abandons (sex and even a degree of romantic love continue in Diaspar although unconnected with reproduction or family life). When citizens re-emerge from the Hall of Creation they are assigned "parents" who look after their social education, and a tutor. Though new citizens emerge as physically formed adults they do not remember their past lives until about the age of twenty, and apparently it is not mentioned to them until they have a sort of "facts of life" talk. At any rate it was not mentioned to Alvin. Little of this appears in Against the Fall of Night.

In Against the Fall of Night, Alvin is apparently a literal child, the first for 7,000 years. There is no explanation of whether this interval is normal or whether children are expected at all.

In The City and the Stars, the city of Diaspar was apparently planned as a closed community, and its true past deliberately obliterated. The Uniques, it seems, were a device added by the original planners, who thought that a safety device should be left, to test periodically for what lay outside the city. This makes the role of Alvin somewhat less independent: whereas in Against the Fall of Night he was an adventurer, albeit "the first to be lucky", in The City and the Stars it seems at the end that he may have been a pawn. The escape route from Diaspar involves the "Tomb of Yarlan Zey" in both books; in The City and the Stars Yarlan Zey was apparently a leading figure in the planners of Diaspar, but may also have been one of those secretly planting the Uniques.

At the end, when leaders from Diaspar travel to Lys, in Against the Fall of Night they are apparently able simply to master their fears, whereas in The City and the Stars powerful psychology is necessary, and Alvin's tutor Jeserac experiences a "saga" in which Yarlan Zey explains how Diaspar was founded and releases him from his fears.

There is a slight difference in the way the two books treat the "Master" and the "Great Ones". In Against the Fall of Night it is eventually revealed that the Great Ones were the people of the Empire who had left the galaxy. The Master is presented as a wise man, a philosopher, whose teaching was misunderstood and made a religion by superstitious followers. In The City and the Stars, however, he is a religious leader who uses trickery to advance his goals; the block on the robot was imposed in order to keep his secrets safe (although he did teach much that was wise and noble). In the later novel the "Great Ones" are not identified at the end of the novel as they are in the earlier version.

In general, in Against the Fall of Night the false history and the dystopic society seem to have grown up more organically; whereas in The City and the Stars they seem to have been more deliberate creations. While it is unproblematic for Diaspar, it is less clear why Lys should then have the same doctored history.


  • Alvin is the first person in centuries to be born on Diaspar. He also lacks the natural instincts of other Diaspar citizens to remain within the city;in fact, he has something of the opposite, a desire to leave the city.
  • Hilvar is the son of the leader of Airlee, a sub-community within Lys. When Alvin comes to Airlee, Hilvar is appointed to show Alvin around Lys, and eventually becomes his closest friend.
  • Jeserac is Alvin's tutor, and understands him more than anybody else in Diaspar. When Diaspar makes contact with Lys, Jeserac is one of the first people from Diaspar to leave the city for the first time in thousands of years.


The characters and events of the book can often be seen as representations of certain ways of thinking, or times of change. Such characters are Alvin, representing Man's drive to explore; Jeserac, representing the wisdom, and fearfulness, of the average people of Diaspar. One such event that is representative in the book is when most of the people of Diaspar learn of the existence of Lys, and in panic, run to the Hall of Creation hoping to flee into the Future, which shows how people often resent change happening around them. The final example is seen at the end of the book, when Alvin is looking down on Earth from space for the last time. He is looking down from above the North Pole and is able to see night from one side of the Earth, and daylight from the other. This illustrates that although one age has just ended, a new one is just dawning.

Notable quotations and concepts

"Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man's. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind-all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached-that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality: No machine may contain any moving parts. Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him."

In the passage above, Clarke describes the Central Computer that maintains Diaspar in an unchanging state, and refers to the end of all evolution and the apparent creation of a perfect society.

Jeserac sat motionless within a whirlpool of numbers. The first thousand primes.... Jeserac was no mathematician, though sometimes he liked to believe he was. All he could do was to search among the infinite array of primes for special relationships and rules which more talented men might incorporate in general laws. He could find how numbers behaved, but he could not explain why. It was his pleasure to hack his way through the arithmetical jungle, and sometimes he discovered wonders that more skillful explorers had missed. He set up the matrix of all possible integers, and started his computer stringing the primes across its surface as beads might be arranged at the intersections of a mesh.

In this passage, Clarke describes the prime spiral, a method of graphing the prime numbers that reveals a pattern, seven years before it was discovered by Stanislaw Ulam. Apparently, Clarke did not notice the pattern revealed by the Prime Spiral because he "never actually performed this thought experiment."[2]

Print history


See also

  • Religious ideas in science fiction

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