It took me some time to get into this story. I assumed it was your typical futuristic-utopia-with-one-disgruntled-resident tale. But once I understood Clarke’s world it took me to a whole new level and I was hooked. I could have happily forgotten the ‘real world’ and got lost in Clarke’s imagination.
This crafty novel is set in the distant future – about one billion years from now. Miraculously, humans are (sort of) still around. In a way, they’re flourishing – in a truly civilised city so advanced that residents can summon food, furniture and scenarios at will from the so-called Central Computer. The only negative is that the city is so self-contained it is in fact shut off from the rest of the world, said to be a barren, deathly desert, possibly at risk from the enigmatic Invaders who almost killed off the human race.
And Alvin isn’t happy. Like anyone who has ever looked up at the stars from his hometown, Alvin thinks that there must be more – and he sets out to break all the rules of his society to find it.
This could have been a simple allegory about how you don’t know what you don’t know. But not in such an expert’s hands; Clarke turns this story into a complex, philosophical exploration of identity, fear and discovery. And, naturally, he does it with an unsurpassed wonder. There’s plenty of gadgetry in this to woo any sci-fi fan: whooshing doors, silent but powerful transport and worryingly sentient robots. Clark uses all this to characterise the world of the novel and its inhabitants. Only a handful of times are there passages of unnecessary technical titillation. (And Clarke would probably be able to convince me that these are necessary.)
But most of the time we stay focused on the story: the first half is all exposition and exploration; then it becomes a fascinating debate – the exploration now is into ethics and existentialism. Throughout there is a real feeling of movement, of seeing the stars and actually reaching them. Clarke masterfully describes what that journey involves, how it changes the explorer and the society he left behind.
This really is a very wonderful story, a tale with epic implications. Not least because I feel myself reading a lot more sci-fi.