Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Tom Moylan

Ideological Contradiction in Clarke's The City and the Stars

From the works of Wells on, science fiction has been primarily a petit-bourgeois literature: written and read not by the elite who control technological capitalist society but by the merchants, farmers, teachers, technicians and their children who are not part of the ruling class but who seek reforms, usually characterized by populist ideology, that would bring them into positions of power and end their own alienation and oppression. In this vision, capitalist society and science is criticized for its dehumanization, alienation, and often physical destruction of people and for its misuse of science and technology; but just as there is a critique and even wish for escape so there is all too often a desire simply to reform and control rather than to negate and transform. The typical SF protagonist is not a revolutionary but a rebel, one who rises in the world from a powerless position and individualistically and voluntaristically changes society by means of newly gained personal power—seldom is the change collective, class-based and revolutionary.

Thus, although SF is rooted in a historically explicable desire to understand the new era of science and technology and to overcome the resultant problems while on the way to a better society, it is evident that at least until the 1960s, western SF was limited by its petit-bourgeois roots and its lack of fundamental critique of late capitalism. Certainly this is the case in the 1950s; for even the social criticism and tentative searches for a new humanist vision in post-war, post-bomb mass society were limited and frustrated by cold-war ideology and space-race fanaticism. This ambivalent perspective in SF too often results in stories which contribute to the manipulation of readers—particularly young adolescents—and their socialization into the status quo of capitalist society. Such manipulation operates by providing the reader with an inadequate compensation for what is lacking in his or her life rather than substantial criticism of the oppressive conditions of that life and hope for surmounting them. As the reader comes to an SF text with real needs and wishes, that text will either offer internal compensation for what is lacking in his or her reality by means of escape or by means of a limited and false solution achieved by an over-simplified combination of individual will and applied science, or offer an imagined solution based on an effective critique that can be appropriated by the reader and applied in some way to the present social reality. Certainly, the form of SF and its insistence on rational cognition weigh the potential in favor of the subversive, but unless the imaginative content is truly critical and emancipatory the work will fall to the level of compensation or false promises.1

In the 1950s, then, SF emerged from its pulp-magazine period and was on the way toward being a more widely recognized genre. After the war, the genre had diversified in many ways. To be sure, space travel, rocketry, and space exploration were major topics, but Sputnik in 1957 ended the long dream, and magazine sales dropped dramatically for a few years; however, in the long run, attainment of this long awaited science-fiction dream legitimized SF and paved the way for increased readership in the 1960s. Beyond the concern with space, however, SF in the 1950s was looking to life on the home planet. Capitalist society provided a wealth of material for reflection, projection, and criticism: alienation in post-war, post-bomb society; dehumanization of the cities; mass loss of identity; developments in advertising and manipulation of consciousness; questions of over-population, atomic holocaust, and genetic engineering; developments in computers and information theory, electronics and communications, transportation, and medicine: all these and more were fresh grist for the SF mill. Especially after the horrors of the war, fascism, and the bomb, SF was significantly bleaker and more critical than it had been in its early days.                

The 1950s, however, was also the decade of the Cold War and anti-communist ideology and of repression of progressive elements in US society as well of increased US imperialism in Asia and Latin America. So although SF authors were more critical, the depth of their analysis and attack was limited by anti-left mania; the criticism too often stayed on a reformist, and usually anti-communist, level. In spite of the cold-war atmosphere, some authors—such as C.M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, Robert Sheckley—were progressive in their work. In fact they often seem to have written in a form of "slave language" whereby fundamental criticism of US society got past McCarthyite repression as harmless, "escapist" SF. This seems particularly true of Kornbluth and Pohl's work, such as Space Merchants and Gladiators-at-Law. Others, however, such as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, were not only better known and more successful as major authors but also sympathetic to and part of prevailing bourgeois ideology. Although their works were future-oriented and critical, they were still primarily works of compensation and cooptation. Because of his major status and the ideological contradiction in his work between subversive and socializing elements, Clarke and particularly The City and the Stars warrant a closer examination.                

Arthur Clarke's SF, reflecting his own ties with space technology, explores the possibilities of and propagandizes for development of space flight and planetary colonization either by the US government or an Americanized world government. A second direction in his work is his mystical preoccupation with the distant future and the evolution of humankind into a superior race, often helped by an even more superior race from another star system. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, exhibits both directions: the evolution from primate to space travel by means of tools and science is indicative of the concern for technology and US hegemony in space; but the intervention of the advanced beings, the mystical ending of history, and the dominance of the world by Bowman as star-child by the end of the novel certainly indicates the mystical direction.               

A curious figure, Clarke is both propagandist for US space programs and mystical prophet of the end of humankind and the ascendancy of superior life forms. Although some of his novels—Sands of Mars (1952), Earthlight (1955)—emphasizing the struggle of colonial Mars and the Moon against a conservative and decadent Earth seem progressive and anti-imperialist, further reading of his stories indicates his anti-communism—"I Remember Babylon" (Playboy 1959)—and his nostalgic longing for the days of the British Empire. Rather than third-world socialism, Clarke in the 1950s called for a renewal of American frontier spirit to carry on the white man's burden and establish a new empire, first in the solar system and then the entire galaxy. Viewed in this way, Clarke's technocratic vision is compatible with his mystical one: the longing for empire and the transformation of the human race by superior mental beings join together in the end-of-ideology consciousness developed and encouraged by the emerging US empire in the late 1940s and 1950s. Humankind's appropriation of nature and creation of its own history are negated by Clarke's technocratic mysticism and replaced by a ruling elite holding all power to itself. Clarke's support of US capitalist hegemony—continuing in the 1970s in his novel, Imperial Earth (1976)—is both strengthened by his obsession with technocracy and mystified by his visions of a distant non-human future.                

With this background in mind, then, The City and the Stars can be recognized more readily as a mechanism of bourgeois ideology. Completed in its final form2 shortly after the publication of Childhood's End in 1953, The City and the Stars is also concerned with the future of humankind beyond matters of space flight and initial colonization. It is a reflection upon the state of the world in the 1950s and a projection of that era billions of years into the future to an Earth reduced to desert except for two self-contained and isolated societies. The time is so far in the future that the first log canoe and first flight in space seem to have occurred simultaneously, a compression of time that is repeated in 2001. The era of interstellar travel has come and gone, the moon has fallen out of its orbit, the Galactic Empire is dead. The civilizations of urban Diaspar and rural Lys are the last outposts of humankind— closed feudal remnants of the ancient empire.                

The city of Diaspar has mastered both genetics and information theory so that it is able to reduce the genetic code and memories of its citizens to tapes in the Central Computer. Thus individual citizens are re-created randomly to live out thousand-year lives before returning to the computer to be recreated in another perfect body: technological reincarnation and immortality, a Clarkean ideal. However, to protect the city from stagnation the designers have introduced two character types: the Jesters, who with cynicism and perfect knowledge of the city would create minor crises to keep life interesting if the rest of Diaspar's delights failed to amuse; and the Uniques, fifteen in the billion-year history, each a male who has no previous existence or memories to tie him to the city and who is thus a built-in catalyst to return Diaspar to the stars when the time is right.                

CS, then, centers on the character of Alvin, the last of the Uniques, and his world-shaking search for identity. Here Clarke draws on the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman to weave the tale of a bourgeois messiah figure who not only finds his place in society but who reforms it in such a way that humankind is again on the road out of feudalism toward empire. Alvin is meant to be a leader within his society, not a cadre who works against it: thus Clarke can critique the problems and excesses of western society while at the same time helping to divert rebellion into socially useful roles. The novel, in short, offers compensation and false promises to young readers of the 1950s: the alienation of working-class rebels without causes and disillusioned bourgeois children is coopted and channeled into meeting the demands of US society: management and public relations, science and engineering (especially after Sputnik), international politics—that is, into individualistic, patriotic service as technocrats. Post-war capitalism is to be re-invigorated rather than overthrown.      

As far as Alvin and the rest of Diaspar know, closed in as they are, there is no other human society left. "Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of desert" (§1), challenging eternity, protecting its "children" from legendary Invaders who supposedly destroyed the empire and drove humankind to the refuge of Earth. The citizens of Diaspar "did not wish to bring back the old days" of commerce and exploration for new planets and new markets: "They were content in their eternal autumn," remembering the glories of the Empire and living in the same city, walking the "same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away" (§1).                

Obviously Clarke is fascinated by the technology of his dream city; information theory, genetic engineering, matter transformation, robots, holograms, and telepathy are given a glorious home in this technological utopia. Labor is eliminated, instantaneous communication is possible, material goods are manufactured on thought commands, and a genetically perfect master race is created and maintained by the central computer. For Clarke Diaspar is a scientific jewel.                

But the jewel is in a desert. Diaspar has stagnated and withdrawn from life. Clearly, Clarke's vision is not satisfied by technology alone: there must also be life and growth—that is, a universe full of potential markets must be reconquered. And Alvin is the catalyst: explorer, entrepreneur, and citizen, he discovers the civilization of Lys, exposes the myth of the Invaders, learns the history of the empire's demise, restores Earth to its galactic hegemony, and then settles down to a career as a terra-forming engineer who will rebuild desert-earth—an appropriately mundane place for a bourgeois messiah.                

In the second third of the novel Clarke turns from Diaspar to the rural society of Lys. As Alvin leaves Diaspar by an ancient subway and enters Lys—walking through his first real forest like Dorothy on the yellow brick road—the novel's initial images of appearance and disappearance, of insubstantial technically created matter give way to the organic, pastoral setting of Lys.               

For Lys is a classic communist utopia: rural, with a rational and scientific base for the ecological and political-economic blending of city and country; decentralized, with village government overseen by central administration; diverse, with each village producing its unique material goods and intellectual work; collective, with telepathy providing one more way to overcome individual isolation; free, with each person able to develop several skills and interests depending on his or her preferences. Most basically, Lys is a society based on unalienated and dignified human labor, producing security and freedom for everyone. One is led to recall Marx and Engels' words on the communist society of the future:

While in communist society where no body has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.3

As Diaspar is a flawed utopia, Lys is a perfectly realized one: the society of Lys suggests both a medieval, pastoral utopia which must be surpassed by the return to empire as well as a communist utopia which represents the negation of the returning capitalist empire. The subdued nature, technological domination, static lives, eternal order, and isolated individualism of the city stand in contrast to the stateless rural society where each contributes according to ability and receives according to need, where the interplay between labor and nature has reached a balance, where the "not yet" has arrived and where humanity has found a "home." Wishes and fears of modern capitalist society emerge from the images of the two societies: wishes for peace and cooperation; long, healthy and productive individual lives; rational appropriation of both science and nature; wishes, in short, for the benefits of communism without having to pay the historical price of struggle and revolution. Fears of control and manipulation; of human closeness and collective life; of an unseen and subversive enemy; of being by-passed by history; of losing capitalist, "free world" hegemony.4               

The dialectical tension between Diaspar and Lys, of course, is a product of cold-war ideology. As in Childhood's End and elsewhere, Clarke posits a utopia that is flawed in that it does not fulfill the needs of capitalist-imperialist political economy. And then with Lys, he both provides a medieval precursor of capitalism and negates neo-capitalism with an idealized vision of what the communist enemy could accomplish if not crushed or coopted. The resolution of this contradiction inevitably is a renewed bourgeois empire with the communist utopia abandoned to a meaningless backwater of history.                

In Lys, Alvin is first fascinated then bored and must again move on. But to begin with he is intrigued with and befriended by Hilvar, the son of the female head of Lys—one of the few major female characters in Clarke. Hilvar is a Lysian foil to Alvin: of similar age, he will grow old and die while Alvin lives on. But Hilvar is superior to Alvin in intelligence; has real parents, is an integrated and productive member of society; has a loving and intimate relationship with a woman in a neighboring village; and is a natural scientist sympathetic to all life forms. Hilvar is the responsible, intelligent, sensitive, wise person that Alvin is not. Compared to Hilvar, Alvin is a crass, individualistic, manipulative, engineer-to-be who lives by wit, not by rational discourse tempered with the collective wisdom of the society. Nevertheless, Alvin is Clarke's hero. Hilvar's communist-nurtured superiority must be negated: thus, he is homely and, significantly, mortal. Hilvar may be a good person and a good biologist and a good friend, but he will die; whereas Alvin, the best and the brightest, will save the universe. Again Clarke posits a seemingly ideal communist factor—in this case a character—and negates it—with a pragmatic bourgeois hero.               

Finally, on a trip to a remote mountain region of Lys, Alvin discovers the key to the stars. At the ancient shrine of an imperial religion he finds a robot remaining from the days of Empire. Winning the robot's obedience by means of wit and the help of Diaspar's computer, Alvin acquires a valuable tool which leads him to the discovery of the last operable starship. With the robot as pilot, Alvin and Hilvar travel to the Seven Suns, the center of the old empire at the center of the galaxy.

With the contradiction established between Diaspar and Lys, Clarke devotes the last third of the novel to Alvin's success at breaking open the closed societies of Earth and beginning the steps toward empire. The pastoral setting gives way to the vacuum of space. The organic life of Lysian forests, lakes, mountains, and the calm and creative society are replaced by the artificially made Seven Suns and the emptiness of that system.                

As Alvin appeared in the first third of the novel, and Hilvar in the second, another youth appears in the final third, At the center of the old empire the boys from Earth find an intelligent being: a creature of pure mental energy, Vanamonde. When telepathic scientists of Lys examine it, they find that although old by human standards it is still a young adolescent in its life span. They also find that Vanamonde knows the history of the empire and its fall: in fact there never was a race of Invaders; humankind emigrated in flight from a mental being created by the scientists of the empire itself. Galactic imperialism had harnessed the life force and produced a life form of pure mental energy to replace humankind; however, the project backfired as the being became psychotic in cosmic proportions; the "mad mind" destroyed half the civilized worlds before it was contained in the energy field of the Black Sun.

In one sense, the "mad mind" represents the failure of the empire and capitalism to control and beneficially use its science and technology; like a latter-day Tennyson, Clarke seems to be consciously challenging the power and the science of capitalism to control and direct its own development so that it does not destroy itself. But in another sense, the "mad mind" represents, on a more subconscious level, the same fear of reason and socialism that is expressed in the treatment of Lys: reason developed by the imperial society but unfettered by the needs of imperial development could very well negate the empire rather than extend it; hence, in a sample of western anti-intellectualism, reason unfettered is to be regarded as mad and destructive and thus must be contained until the empire can again exploit it.5 In the same way, the "mad mind" is also the one element of rebellion and successful struggle against the empire in the novel; hence, it must be branded as mad and evil.               

Of course the Black Sun would one day die and the "mad mind" would be on the loose. Before that, the empire prepared for the ensuing armageddon against its rebellious Frankenstein monster by developing a second mental being, Vanamonde, a slower-developing young mind which, when mature, would do battle with and defeat the monster. After creating Vanamonde, the Empire left the galaxy to return only when the battle ended. Thus as the teenager, Alvin, saves Earth for the new empire, the teen-ager, Vanamonde, saves the entire galaxy. Both are channeled into the service of the empire: one a technocrat to build a more efficient system; one a soldier to keep the empire safe from the madness of reason and freedom. Clarke's call for dedicated young people to serve the capitalist system is clear; compensation is offered in the promise of a satisfying individual life in a stable society.                

Back on Earth the people of Lys and Diaspar realize that they are not alone in the universe and that they have a dual mission to fulfill: to rebuild Earth and extend the empire and to assist in nurturing Vanamonde for its eventual role as warrior. Under the threat of the "mad mind," civilization begins again with the stimulus of a war-time economy. Humankind is returned to bourgeois hegemony over the universe, and Alvin settles down to his career as a terraforming engineer. But in the forthcoming battle of the mental giants, humankind will actually be eclipsed by the superior race that Vanamonde represents, Lys is negated by the empire of Diaspar, but the empire will be negated by a new race of non-corporeal beings. 

CS represents Clarke's vision at its simplest: science can solve all problems, and the youth of the "free world" had better get busy so that technological capitalism can get on with its work. His view of science and social change is uncomplicated by considerations of social relations or economics. As he puts it in Profiles of the Future, his non-fiction account of the possibilities inherent in modern science, science

will dominate the future even more than it dominates the present. Moreover, it is only in this field that prediction is at all possible; there are some general laws governing scientific extrapolation as there are not (pace Marx) in the case of politics or economics.                

I also believe—and hope—that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive concern of full grown men.6

This is typical of the cynical, mystified language that expressed the end-of-ideology in the 1950s; by denying politics and economics a place in the world of grown people and by fetishizing science, the workings of capitalism are covered up. Change is limited to efforts of idealistic technocrats making a "better world" for "everyone."                

Thus, as Alvin becomes a successful adult he will put away the things of a child—rebellion, struggle, politics—and take his place among the technocrats in control of society. The socializing function of the imagination with its compensatory images and false promises becomes evident: in his youthful quest for identity and for a better world, Alvin almost becomes a progressive hero; certainly he is attractive to the adolescent reader going through similar, though less grand, struggles. But in the tradition of the bourgeois Bildungsroman, Clarke insures that the compensating images never get beyond the text and that the vision of a better world is limited to reform by individual and voluntary action—not with collective struggle for an entirely transformed society—and even to eventual negation by mystical, non-corporeal beings. The ideology of socialization cannot allow images of youth who rebel and grow up to be revolutionaries. Nor can it allow visions of communist societies to seem real and viable; Lys must remain hazily in the background as a never-never land somehow not in touch with the mainstream of history, however attractive it might be. Alvin and Vanamonde, children of the empire, are the real movers; Hilvar is a pleasant but ultimately insignificant friend. Although the novel may at times appear to criticize and negate the bourgeois present, in the final analysis it does not.


                1. For a discussion of the role of the imagination in the process of socialization/ subversion, see Jack Zipes, "Breaking the Magic Spell: Politics and the Fairy Tale," New German Critique 6(1975):116-35.
                2. The first published version, "Against the Fall of Night" (Startling Stories, 1948) was the last of a number of versions written between 1937 and 1948; still dissatisfied, Clarke revised and expanded that version to produce the one finally published in 1956 as The City and the Stars. See his introduction to The Lion of Comarre & Against the Fall of Night (US 1968).
                3. Frederick Engels, German Ideology, quoted in Marxism and Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism, ed. Berel Lang and Forrest Williams (US 1972), p 43.
                4. The idea for this discussion of wishes and fears in SF came from a presentation by Fredric Jameson, "Marxism and Science Fiction," at a conference on the City of the Future at the Center for Twentieth-Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Fall 1973.
                5. I am indebted to Fredric Jameson for suggesting this second sense of what the "mad mind" represents and for noting that several elements can be overdetermined in an ideological fantasy of this kind.
6. (1962; Bantam pb 1964), pp xi-xii; also (rev edn US ©1973 xix+239), pp xiii-xiv.

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