Arthur C. Clarke: Against the Fall of Night
Clarke’s second novel (although there does seem to be a touch of confusion around this matter) is something of a fairly middle of the road affair. It first appeared in Startling Stories in 1948, and this goes some way towards explaining the discrepancy in style between this and Prelude to Space. Finally published in novel form in 1953, it was later expanded upon into the 1956 The City and the Stars, more on which later. The story is set on Earth, millions of years into the future, and follows the progress of a boy/man named Alvin who lives in Diaspar, a startlingly ill-named city which is the last on Earth, the rest of the planet having been swallowed by desert after Humanity was on the losing side in an intergalactic war.
The inhabitants of the city have been become nervous and uncurious, relying on the wondrous technology around them to provide everything for them but which they have long since lost the knowledge to replicate or repair. Luckily, the technology was built to last forever, but humanity itself is stagnating. Alvin is the first child born in thousands of years (the humans having traded off the ability to have children for immortality) and he shows an unusual curiousness about the world around him, and his attempt to leave Diaspar is what gives us the action for the book.
The story is typically Clarkian, dealing as it does with the role of Humanity in space, but what is different about this novel is the actual writing itself. Having shown in Prelude to Space a mature and cultured style of writing, the author somehow manages here to slip into what, when measured against this previous novel and some of his early short stories like ‘Rescue Party’, almost seems like telegraphese. I am tempted to put this down to Clarke writing for publication in a SF periodical where space is limited, but I cannot be sure this was the case. At times, the brevity gives way to strange sentence structures which, whilst grammatically correct, don’t display the flow that Clarke is capable of and frequently pull you up and force you to reparse the line in order to get
the stresses correct.
Unfortunately, this problem has an impact upon the story itself. The plot is vast, encompassing deep time and truly unimaginable distances, and this immense scale is sadly at odds with the quick fire prose. Similarly, events happen rapidly, too rapidly. Needing to progress matters on the micro scale so he can get to the macro Clarke sacrifices characterisation and scene to the demands of plot. All the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and even the principle Alvin comes across as pretty flat. The character of Rorden, Keeper of the Records, and a man with a properly science fictional name (seriously, Alvin?) is a singularly missed opportunity. Despite this, he still stands as one of the most interesting characters in the novel alongside his criminally underdeveloped female counterpart, Seranis.
Happily, Clarke seemed to be aware of this and rewrote the story from scratch as The City and the Stars. It is a good yarn, and there is the basis of a brilliant Clarke novel in here, but it reads like an outline. In its current form it would need to be two or three times the length that it is in order to do the characters and scenery justic, and to properly give the ending the impact that it deserves. I look forward to reading what I hope will be a much improved version of the same story.