Tue
Sep 9 2008 9:00am

The Poetry of Deep Time: Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night

I’ve been meaning to re-read some Clarke in a memorial kind of way ever since he died earlier this year. What I picked up immediately was the short story collection Of Time and Stars, the first thing of his I ever read, which holds up wonderfully. Looking along the shelf this afternoon I found myself wanting new vintage Clarke, and failing that, which I’m not going to get, one that wasn’t utterly familiar. There comes a time with authors one really likes and re-reads a whole lot when the books that were the least favourites become the favourites, because they’re the ones you can still actually read.

Against the Fall of Night (also known as The City and the Stars) was the first far future SF I ever read. My memories of it were hazy—I remembered the far future city Diaspar, the only city on the desert Earth, and the way it had stood for countless millions of years looking only inward. I couldn’t have told you a thing about the plot and characters, and on re-reading it, yeah, they’re there, I suppose, but they’re not what's important.

There isn’t much lyrical SF, and it’s something more often associated with Zelazny than Clarke. In the story about SF, Clarke was the nuts and bolts engineer with a vision. Yet here we don’t see any nuts and bolts, we’re into Clarke’s-law sufficiently-advanced-technology. What makes the book memorable and notable is the beauty of the words and the imagery that clothes the ideas.

Man has been beaten back from the universe and confined himself to Earth. Not everybody was writing in those terms even in 1953—this is where Heinlein looks like an enlightened feminist. But never mind. I didn’t notice it when I was twelve. There is one female character, but it might as well all be all “he” for all that it matters. For the purposes of this story the spirit of humanity, the only important character, is called Man, and he, and is to be considered male. The actual notable characters are two asexual teenage boys and a middle aged asexual male librarian. Forget it. It’s shooting fish in a barrel. It’s probably part of the genetic engineering they’ve done so they don’t want to leave the city. Gender barely exists, sex isn’t an issue, passion isn’t an issue. Cope. Billions of years have passed, the oceans have dried up, nobody leaves Diaspar and Alvin is the first child to be born in the city for seven thousand years.

It’s an amazing span of time, between now and then, and Clarke really makes you feel it. You feel how old Diaspar is, with its forgotten connections to lost cities and its buried robotic levels. Nobody knows how the computers work, or the moving walkways. They’re decadent, in a mild passionless way. Then you learn of the dried up oceans, the fallen moon, the endless desert, the great span of history out among the stars before the city existed. This really does feel like the end of time, not only to the people who live there but to the reader.

In utter silence, the ship drew away from the tower. It was strange, Rorden thought, that for the second time in his life he had said goodbye to Alvin. The little closed world of Diaspar knew only one farewell, and that was for eternity.
The ship was now only a dark stain against the sky, and of a sudden Rorden lost it altogether. He never saw it going, but presently there echoed down from the heavens the most awe-inspiring of all the sounds that Man had ever made—the long-drawn thunder of air falling, mile after mile, into a tunnel drilled suddenly across the sky.
Even when the last echoes had died away into the desert, Rorden never moved. He was thinking of the boy who had gone, wondering, as he had so often done, if he would ever understand that aloof and baffling mind. Alvin would never grow up, to him the whole universe was a plaything, a puzzle to be unravelled for his own amusement. In his play he had now found the ultimate, deadly toy which might wreck what was left of human civilization—but whatever the outcome, to him it would still be a game.
The sun was now low on the horizon, and a chill wind was blowing from the desert. But still Rorden waited, conquering his fears, and presently for the first time in his life he saw the stars.

The plot is quite simple. Diaspar is beautiful but entirely inward turned. Alvin looks out and discovers that there is more in the universe than his one city. He recovers the truth about human history, and rather than wrecking what is left of human civilization, revitalises it. By the end of the novel, Man, Diaspar, and Earth have begun to turn outward again. That’s all well and good. What’s always stayed with me is the in-turned Diaspar and the sense of deep time. That’s what’s memorable, and cool, and influential. Clarke recognized though that there isn’t, and can't be, any story there, beyond that amazing image. It’s a short book even so, 159 pages and not a wasted word.

They don't make them like that any more.

16 comments
clovis
1. clovis
Will re-read The City & the Stars f(library allowing) as I didn't wildly enjoy it but that was at least 15 years ago. For what it's worth I maintain that 'Rendezvous with Rama' is the pinnacle of Clarke's work as it marries the nuts and bolts of space travel with a real sense of mystery and wonder (sadly diminished by the very poor sequels). The characterisations are pretty awful, but then you shouldn't, if I may suggest, read Clarke for insightful characterisation. It's not what he does well. Read him rather for the poetry of space flight and the sheer optimism that fills his books.
Janet Kegg
2. jmk
I re-read Against the Fall of Night earlier this year and enjoyed it. Now I can't find my copy. Bummer.

The City and the Stars is not the same book according to Clarke's preface to my 1961 printing of the Signet paperback: "About a quarter of this work appeared in Against the Fall of Night; it is my belief, however, that even those who read the earlier book will find that this is virtually a new novel."

Have you read both versions? I vaguely recall that I preferred Against.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
I don't know! I always thought they were just alternate titles for the same book, as so often happens.

What I read yesterday was a 1977 edition of the 1953 original of _Against the Fall of Night_. ("Another masterpiece by Arthur C Clarke!" it says on the cover.) It doesn't seem any different from what I remember reading when I was a kid, but then again, it wouldn't.
Patrick Shepherd
4. hyperpat
Against the Fall of Night was originally published in 1948, City and the Stars in 1956. The latter did represent a pretty complete re-write, and was considerably longer. For my money, Against the Fall of Night is the better of the two versions (though both are excellent), mainly because the sense of poetry comes through more strongly in this shorter version. Comparing this work to Bear's recent City at the End of Time and the poetic feel of AFN becomes even more striking in comparison.

AFN was the book that first hooked me on Clarke; the hook was set even deeper after acquiring Tales from the White Hart. Clarke excelled at the short story, where his lack of strong characters was not so much of an issue, and he could play with grand (and not so grand) ideas. His "The Star" still ranks as one of my top picks for best short sf.
Pasi Kallinen
5. paxed
That particular book always sticks to my mind due to a typo on the spine of the book in (one of?) the SF Masterworks printings
Janet Kegg
6. jmk
So, Jo, it's possible there is (almost) a Clarke SF novel you haven't read. The City and the Stars looks like it is about 30 pages longer. The copyright on my 1961 printing is "1953, 1956".

Oh, I finally found my copy of Against (1960 Pyramid paperback, 1953 copyright). Clarke says in the preface to his revision that he started Against in 1937 and completed it in 1946 "though for various reasons beyond the author's control book publication was delayed until some years later." Sounds familiar.
Ken Walton
7. carandol
the long-drawn thunder of air falling, mile after mile, into a tunnel drilled suddenly across the sky.

I do like that phrase -- poetry and physics in the same breath.
clovis
8. Amit
I've read both Against the Fall of Night and The City and the Start. I liked City better, but that may be just me. In either case, do read City also, as it is a different book entirely. The sense of deep time comes through very strongly in both, but City has, IMO, a better story.
Bruce Cohen
9. SpeakerToManagers
I think it's worth reading both books; they're good in different ways. ATFN is much more lyrical poetic, for my taste, while TCATS has more of the classic sensawunda; Clarke shows more (especially of the remains of past civilization) in the rewrite, whereas the original book was mostly atmosphere and implication. I like the original better, myself. It's the poetic mode of Clarke's writing that I read first, and learned to love, for instance "Second Dawn" and "Exile of the Eons".
clovis
10. irishscribe
City is an expanded version of Against. IMHO it is a much more rounded work, expanding on ideas from Against. It does have a certain magical, poetic quality to it, I have real all of Clarkes' novels and most of his short work, and City is the one i remember reading most vividly. It sucked me in totally, and I read it, at about the age of 20, in a matter of 2 or 3 sunny days, sitting out in the garden. I've always thought it would make a really good movie, actually. If i remember coerrectly, "Logans Run" borrowed quite a bit from "City".
Noamaan Siddiqi
11. cmdrfire
I will reread The City and The Stars again soon, I think (many thanks for reminding me of it), and I will now start hunting for Against the Fall of Night which I've not previously encountered before.
One image that stands out from City - to me, at least - is that of the place of the last defence that the two main characters find. I forget all the details of it, the circumstances of the discovery, even the name (I think it began with an A?), but the concept of a place for humanity's last stand really jumps out at me.
Poetic, indeed.

For some reason - possibly because I read them both one after the other - City is associated in my mind with The Fountains of Paradise.
Fred Kiesche
12. FredKiesche
The City and the Stars (I'm sure this has been answered already) is an updating of Against the Fall of Night.

Clarke had a funny story in one edition where he talked about how a doctor and a patient had each read one, but not both, of the books. Each was convinced the other was crazy, because there are significant differences in plot and such.

Both were highly influenced by works such as Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and The Starmaker and some of the short stories of John W. Campbell (in his Don A. Stuart "mood piece" mode).
clovis
13. Martinus
I've read, and like, both versions. I think I prefer the more austere original, but there are some nice ideas scattered through The City And The Stars, for example the virtual reality game played by Alvin and his friends (which he breaks by trying to move in an unexpected direction). I first read Against The Fall of Night in a paperback edition with The Lion of Comarre.

My first Clarke book was a copy of The Other Side of the Sky, bought from a jumble sale at my school over 40 years ago, for the princely sum of 2d (old British money).
Wesley Parish
14. Aladdin_Sane
One of my very first Clarke books was Against the Fall of Night; I skimmed it in a library and haven't yet forgotten the impression the description of the robots keeping guard over the corpse of the last disciple of the Master in Shalmirane, made on me, even just skimming through.

I bought it in the Corgi edition, bound together with The Lion of Comarre, about a young man who goes in search of future tech, invented by an ancestor six hundred years ago and hidden in the unacknowledged AI robot-managed building-city Comarre.

I've read the rewrite The City and the Stars; my feelings are consonant with the others who have made comments.

Though I have considered - seriously - a fanfic story where some Lys coercers go deep into Diaspar in search of some people whose memories of a Unique they want to erase; and Diaspar closes the gates on them, ignores them for practically everything except food and occasionally transport. After about five or fifteen million years, they have evolved into a new human subspecies ... and then Diaspar gets opened to the outside ....

It's too bad I can't get Arthur C. Clarke's approval now - but then, I think I can use the framework for some of my own stories, and I don't need his approval for that. Not the first time I've used ideas I've picked up from previous writers - Uan aka Kherash-shio-Uan (The Huntress in the Blizzard (she's confused, bitter but not twisted - twisted? That was her mother -, so uses a metaphor to name herself) - found in the antipodeansf archives via antisf.com c. 2004) would never have come into existence if I had not pondered deeply JRRT's musings on the relationships of the Elves, the Orcs, and the Druedain in Unfinished Tales.
Fred Kiesche
15. FredKiesche
Gregory Benford did a sequel to "Fall of Night" that was put in a book called "Beyond the Fall of Night":

You all might be interested in this Wikipedia article, a pretty good comparison.

Benford later took (IIRC, grain of salt, my memory might be confusing the title) "Beyond" and expanded to his novel "Beyond Infinity". It "de-Clarked" it, again, IIRC (too many books, too few brain cells).

Aladdin, you might not be able to get Clarke's permission, but seeing that "Fall of Night" and others were "riffing" off of Olaf Stapledon and John W. Campbell, Jr., there's no reason you can do a variation on Clarke. Think of it as SF jazz.
Fred Kiesche
16. FredKiesche
Here's a thought for an article posting here, BTW. The covers of the SF Masterworks series. The "Fall of Night" cover is nice. I'm very fond of some they've done for works like "Sea Kings of Mars" (Brackett) and "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker" (Stapledon).

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