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Book Review: Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

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In this universe the night was falling,the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered: and along the path he once had followed, man would one day go again.

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert's face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came.

Such were the words, times, and concepts that Arthur Clarke unveiled before awestruck readers in Against the Fall of Night (expanded into The City and the Stars) – still one of the most poetic and soaring examples of the fantastic Grand Adventure. I will go out on a limb here and say that modern cynical society is convinced that it does not need such pure unadulterated adventure fare any more. We are more than glad to trod along our daily paths shrouded in sophisticated worldliness. But for those who wonder if there is more, there is a book to discover – Against the Fall of Night.

First published as a novella in Startling Stories, November 1948, it was later expanded into the novel The City and the Stars in 1953. It did not win any major SF awards. In fact, here is the list of how it fared since its publication:

  • 1956 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll /22nd place
  • 1966 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll /7th place
  • All time novel: 1975 Locus Poll /17th place (tie)
  • All time SF novel: 1987 Locus Poll /32nd place
  • Best SF novel: 1998 Locus Poll /34th place

Well, in my heart it certainly won many more awards, and here is why: "The mystique and glamour of this book is going to recede into eternity, passing occasional black holes of critique and publishing oblivion, and finally coming to rest in the center of the Galaxy, enigmatic and unbearably bright." (Hmm… did I pick up this cosmological language from that novella somewhere along the way?)

Getting back to the review – Arthur C. Clarke's youthful enthusiasm (he was under 30 when he wrote this) spills over the pages with the most tastefully appointed coming-of-age/end-of-times revelation kind of story in the history of pulps (even though it was Clarke's first novel, and a rare appearance in the pulp, Startling Stories, complete with a gaudy cover).

Hardly anything has approached the sheer audacity of its scale in SF ever since, mostly because the pulp constraints dictated it to be of minimal length, so Clarke's concepts had to be concentrated in a novella! Granted, it has been expanded into a novel, and not just once (I have not read Gregory Benford's version as yet), but this singular chunk of wide-eyed adventure reads better, perhaps, in a novella form. Brevity is certainly a virtue. Your mind's imagination can expand upon the vista, if you so desire.

The IMAX-large narrative consists of escaping the closed, stagnated world of the last City, undertaking the quest for Universal meaning and the uncovering of stupendous artifacts, the conflict between urban and pastoral ways of life, and many hints of Something Larger than yourself or your world. Edmond Hamilton might've written it. Leigh Brackett might've written it (in less optimistic tones, perhaps). Clarke however did it at the beginning of his career, with grace and a surprisingly "non-stuffy" style. This novel could benefit from a more fluid style of writing and more polished prose, but it remains a splendid canvas on which your imagination can fly — short, of course, of some Dante, William Hope Hodgson's or Tolkien's world-building.

Critics note that the space opera is undergoing a modern renaissance as a genre. True, we have a veritable British Invasion of fine writers (Reynolds, Stross, Hamilton, Banks, Asher, to name a few) and we may safely say that Grand Adventure is alive and well (maybe it just feels different among the endless "door-stopper" trilogies in Chapters, you know). One good example is Alastair Reynolds' recent gritty and sweeping in scale Pushing Ice, where a planet gets abducted into an alien cosmological structure, which in turn is a part and a mechanism in an even bigger super-structure of it all. We live in fortunate times indeed, able to sample such cool new epics together with the older classics of space adventures (and even some rare pulp stuff).

I hesitate however to broadly apply the term "modern space opera". Many books remain "adventures" only, and may be all the better for it. Stanley Weinbaum’s sophisticated planetary romps were definite Golden Age space adventures, but to graduate to the “opera” status, one has to shift the focus from the characters and single ideas to the “concepts” and “principalities and powers”. Yes, it is essentially a scale shift, and not always for the better. My personal preference would be toward scaled-down but more wondrous stories… simply because it is much harder to do it properly on a larger scale (it tends to dull your sense of wonder). It’s hard to write poetically about civilizations perishing in a blink. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to write a monumentally engrossing thriller (with some grandiose and smart ideas) happening on a single spaceship, or a submarine (Frank Herbert did that in Under Pressure).

One more point. Space opera is all about epic plot and magnified sense of wonder, and if you look close enough you can even find it in the Bible. (After all, that's what the Higher Powers do — wage epic battles, which humans are just too fragile to write about.) As for the Space Opera in science fiction, may it live long and prosper, as it requires first and foremost a child-like heart. Compare the thirties' and forties' wide-eyed innocence with the modern "been there, done that" attitude, and you will understand why many readers are left to seek out collectible pulps on eBay, instead of going to the chain bookstores. Classic science fiction was brief, to the point, inventive, and simply grand. Do we have a similar trend in high-quality fiction today? I'd like to be convinced that we do. It'll be great to hear about your suggestions of writers and stories which still carry on in a grand and wondrous adventure tradition.

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About Avi

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Interesting that you should write about the space opera – particularly given our modern unwillingness to venture beyond even the moon, and our insistence on spilling blood and money on stupid wars.

    The review was fine, well written and does convey your own sense of wonder at Arthur Clarke’s story. But there is a reason for the cynical “been there, done that,” attitude, at least in this reader/writer.

    Frankly, Avi, I was hoping to read about mining expeditions on Mars and the moons of Jupiter in the newspapers in my lifetime, not in revvified space operas in my middle age. The space operas were designed, amongst other things, to fire up the public imagination about space travel and its possibilities. The ability is certainly there, the money is certainly there. Alas, the will and imagination and sense of adventure is not.

    “The problem is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
    Wm. Shakespeare

  • http://www.thrillingwonderreading.blogspot.com Avi Abrams

    Exactly my point! That special “sparkle in the eye” is lost today not only in fiction, but in the whole direction of our world. One can make a point that we should clean up and learn to live peacefully in our own backyard before venturing outside in space etc, but even so – witness the modern times! (I too have dreamed that in 2001 there will be Mars artifacts for sale in Walmart). And I am not speaking only about space: ocean exploration fares even worse. I read that we know only of a tip-of-the-needle area (less than 1%) of the misty depths where such creatures as a giant squid live (but nobody has seen them). We have a choice either to ignore outside and read cool adventure fiction, or read cool adventure fiction and DO go outside. Seems like we are trying at least to cover the first “reading” step, but even then we get sideswiped by TV and who cares? culture.

    BTW thanks for cool comment! Jerusalem is a good place for a sip of espresso.

  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    We have a choice either to ignore outside and read cool adventure fiction, or read cool adventure fiction and DO go outside. Seems like we are trying at least to cover the first “reading” step, but even then we get sideswiped by TV and who cares? culture.

    Great Points Avi (and Ruvy), though I do love my TV – you have to wonder why with all the brain power in the world, more hasn’t been explored.

    Welcome to BC Avi. : )

  • http://www.thrillingwonderreading.blogspot.com Avi Abrams

    Thank you for the warm welcome. It feels great to join the “sinister cabal” :)

    I’d watch TV if the quality of it would approach the big screen movie quality. So far everything made-for-TV (excluding news) seem to have the following written all over it: “I have all the time in the world. So I’m going to leisurely tell my story, dilute it with water, add sugar, spread cheese on top of it, etc – ’cause viewers have all the time in the world, too”. Hmm, many people hardly have time to look at their shoelaces, so that not to stumble running around. Don’t you think TV people should tighten up their act? (the writers of a long-winded epics should probably cut on amount of pages, too – but this is dictated more by the publishing standards, alas) In the meantime my TV box is switched on only to watch the DVDs. Or should I loosen up a little there and just start to consume that stuff as a chewing gum, or Tetris?

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Avi, the only difference between the TV progrqamming and the TV news is that the news has been spiced with horse manure instead of cheese or milk or sugar…