And for the little little span
The dead are borne in mind
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.
The Appeal, Rudyard Kipling
Some novels are a long time coming, especially first novels. This was certainly true of the story which eventually became The City and the Stars. This novel’s gestation period can be traced back to the late 1930s (and even earlier) when Arthur was living in a flat in Gray’s Inn Road, near Holborn Tube Station in London. As Neil McAleer relates in his definitive biography of Clarke:
“I still know exactly how it all began,” Clarke said later in an introduction to the work. “The opening scene flashed mysteriously into my mind, and was pinned down on paper, around 1935. It was an isolated incident, unrelated to any plot I had been trying to develop.” The work became “Against the Fall of Night.” From its beginnings at the Clarke family farm to the time an early version of it first appeared in “Startling Stories” in November 1948, this work went through as many as six versions, its word count climbing over time. But that was not the end of it; Clarke couldn’t let it go, and it was eventually published as a novel by Gnome Press in 1953. Next Clarke undertook a major revision, and “The City and the Stars” was published in 1956. Twenty years had passed since he had visualised the opening scene, and some critics believe that this marathon was worth it.”
Even as Europe headed remorselessly into the abyss of the Second World War, Clarke was writing against the eventual fall of his own personal night by constructing a novel which would stand the test of time for decades to come. Of course, the novel (and its more fully reworked drafting) was one of the books Arthur himself left behind as part of his literary legacy. The book’s narrative, even at that early stage, gave a clear indication of the themes that would run through many of his works of fiction: perhaps most principally, human evolution as shaped by space exploration, and humanity’s natural destiny as a space-faring race.
These themes were evident back in the 1950s as the text on the dust jacket for the first edition of Against the Fall of Night clearly demonstrates: “The same skill to combine prophetic fact with exciting fiction that Mr Clarke displayed so outstandingly in The Sands of Mars is evident in Against the Fall of Night, but with an impressive difference. Against the Fall of Night rises to almost poetic heights, in its description of Man’s destiny in time and space, that reveal the author to be an artist of the first rank.” The reference to “poetic heights” alludes to the almost metaphysical nature of many of Clarke’s stories, a quality that the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey would use to such dramatic effect in the movie’s concluding sequence.
In December 2007, shortly before his death, Arthur said goodbye to his fans in a short video recording, which can still be seen on YouTube today. When, as part of this recording, Arthur referenced Kipling’s The Appeal was he perhaps thinking of his early days in that flat in central London – a time of innocent fun when a young “Ego” would steal sugar cubes from local tea shops and restaurants, and enjoy fish and chip suppers with other members of the emerging BIS. Even then, Arthur’s head was already full of the very imaginings he would later turn into best-selling novels.
Clarke’s early draft of this charismatic novel was part of a journey that would lead him to the moons of Jupiter in the company of Stanley Kubrick; and then onto the very stars he had written about all those years ago, as Dave Bowman (the astronaut Clarke always wanted to be) went in search of an answer to the mysteries posed by a famous monolith. In many ways, it was a journey which mirrored the one taken by the lead character in The City and the Stars, a quest to escape the confining boundaries of everyday life. And there can be no doubt that Arthur succeeded in completing that journey. Wherever Dave Bowman is now, Arthur is certainly there with him, somewhere on the other side of the Star Gate. Not a bad final destination for a farm boy from Somerset.
Mark Stewart, FBIS
Honorary Archival Librarian/Editor (Odyssey)
British Interplanetary Society
Lineage: from Bulletin to Newsletter: How it all Began (Odyssey 14, April 2012)