Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Love Letters to Science Fiction: Part One

Words: Charles Hay

The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke

Science fiction is often treated as an enormously mixed bag with a few stand out examples completely out-numbered by dross. Quite how this differs from every other form of human creativity is beyond me, but many seem to cling to the idea of science fiction as "child's stuff" or even as an irrelevant side-show.

Over the next few weeks, I want to introduce you to several authors and novels which will not only challenge pre-conceptions about science-fiction, they will hopefully expand your horizons, change your perspectives and, perhaps most importantly, inspire you.

Science fiction has the potential to be misogynistic, formulaic, hackneyed and crass. A lot of it is simple 19th century colonialism or age-old revenge fantasies dressed up in silver and spaceships. Disregard this side of the genre as you would un-funny comedy at Cannes or Carling at a beer festival. Instead listen: science fiction's true potential is a transcendent rediscovery of our world, or humanity, our future and our past, the nature of reality, of time, of life of death and of almost literally every philosophical conundrum you can think of. It is that big. The true greats are those who dared to stare at the world and find in themselves a canvas big enough on which to paint the chaotic true portrait of reality. Science fiction at its best can feel like the universe being stretched and warped around you. It can invoke true wonder of beauty and eternity, and it can allow you to see this in humanity in a way I have never experienced elsewhere. With this in mind, I am starting this series with an unequalled masterpiece, The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke.

In one billion years time, humanity on Earth survives in a city, Diaspar. organised and stabilised on the molecular level. Earth is a dead waste, and humanity survives in a harmonious and completely peaceful senescence, memories of hundreds of millions of years of interstellar civilisation kept at bay by a cultural fear of outside invaders. I only wish I could do justice to the feeling Clarke's description of this world gave me. The almost palpable sensation of the sheer depths of time left behind, and the vertiginous knowledge of infinite time in the future. All citizens on Diaspar live for a thousand years, after which they are re-incorporated into the central computer, to be re-awakened to new life at some essentially random point in the future. The city itself is structured so as to avoid any issue with minor issues like the eventual total degradation of the universe. Those who live there are, therefore, guaranteed an unendingly infinite experience. Amazingly, completely amazingly, Arthur C Clarke succeeds in just about suggesting what this existence feels like. He achieves is with such aplomb that I simply could not imagine it done better. The dying Earth feels so real and Diaspar becomes such a convincing environment that it is only a very straight-forward and intuitive move to considering humanity's colossal forays into the universe and their almost god-like influence.

Through the time spent reading this book, I dreamt of walking the streets of this city of ten million, so perfectly balanced, always mid-afternoon, always clean and beautiful. Towering spires, the river, the transcendent art, the conscientious and inquiring people. All of knowledge, all of time at your demand, with only two, or maybe three major flaws.

The first is that these people are essentially trapped, although they would not perceive it that way. They do not leave because they have no need to, but this is clearly contrary to human nature; an avenue explored with wonderfully astute deliberation on what is necessary to keep a population both happy and trapped. I do not want to say much more on that subject, other than that its treatment is inspired.

The second is similar. Their city, Diaspar, travels further and further down the river of time, and Clarke portrays this as an increasing isolation felt almost spacially. I felt the inertia of time through this novel almost physically. I think this was accentuated by the desertified Earth described here. Whether or not it was intended, I could not help but associate the vast, vast distances in time as endless shimmering deserts, limiting your vision to horizons as far away as the beginning and end of your own civilisation and no further. After that, it becomes difficult, almost impossible to imagine. The inhabitants of Diaspar could not look back sensibly to our world. Our culture, our ways, or technology and politics would make no sense to them. I would absolutely want to spend a day or a week in Diaspar, but its sheer distance from the world I hold dear would make it always seem so remote, so alien. It was a sublime experience to dip in and out of this experience of distance and loneliness in time.

The third is an age old question, also related directly to the experience of eternity. Who wants to live forever? It is a question I had considered through my formative years, but this novel gave me a framework over which to structure the question in such a way that it has never left me. Immortality is treated in an extremely sensible way here, in that every time someone is "born" again for another thousand years. This gives scope for personalities changing with every incarnation to promote dynamism, but still - a continuous sequence of memories stretching back over eons of time? Daunting. The possibility of staring forward through your life and seeing endless, eternal personal history? That's enough to break a brain. This novel haunts as much as it inspires, and even its methods of haunting are inspiring.

I hope I have given some suitable idea of the sheer size of this book. It is just enormous. And the humanity of it fits. It is authors like Arthur C Clarke that fill me with so, so much hope. He was so convinced of human potential, resilience and permanence, and I am too. We will do things wrong time and time again, but our progress is marked more significantly by what we do right. We create civilisations and methods balancing stability and forward momentum. We use the malleable reality we exist within to create something more significant and more wonderful than any one of us can create. Look at the world around you. We are doing it in our cultures, our countries, our cities. Sooner, rather than later, we shall do it in the stars.

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