The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the immortal city of Diaspar nothing changes - until Alvin is created, the first new human in eons, and the first to ask what lies beyond the city's gilded walls.
Diaspar is populated by immortal humans who stave off boredom with art and science, and by a process of artificial reincarnation that allows them to cycle through stages of existence and storage. The agoraphobic inhabitants long ago imprisoned themselves in the face of an alien threat, becoming risk-averse and incurious, content to exist in a labyrinth with no exit.
Alvin, though, is a Unique. He has no memories of past lives to discover when he reaches adulthood, because he is a completely new person. In his beautiful, self-contained home, Alvin finds himself growing restless at its inhabitants' futile, inward-facing lives. But there is nowhere else to go - beyond the walls they are surrounded by a cold desert: all that remains of Earth. Alvin attempts to learn long-forgotten secrets and is aided by a Jester named Khedron (part of the city planning was to insert agents of controlled chaos to keep things interesting), a man who describes himself as "a critic, not a revolutionary" (57).
What Alvin finds outside could either annihilate the highly polished remnants of human civilization or grant them a freedom they never imagined, and possibly begin a rejuvenation the species so desperately needs.
There is no writer quite like Clarke, who delights in introducing mysterious landscapes and contemplating huge swaths of time. Long-view science fiction like this can be dizzying (and sometimes defeatist, full of dying suns and senescent species), but Clarke keeps Alvin moving from discovery to discovery. There is an optimism that I find appealing, particularly since so much modern science fiction skews toward absolute dystopia.
He's also a golden age author, which leads to some drawbacks; it's a male-dominated world (the only female character worth even a passing mention is Alvin's stalker, Alystra). Clarke also expresses an insulting view of religion, calling it a "disease" to be destroyed by science, a form of irrationality inevitably overruled by superior logic. I find this incredibly narrow-minded, but it's a common philosophical difference I have with much of hard science fiction. (Clarke was a firm atheist as well as a logical positivist.)
As the title hints, this book is less about character or plot than it is about setting, so fans of Clarke's novel Rendezvous With Rama will find much more to enjoy here. Other books where setting is primary are the fantasy classic Titus Groan (first in the Gormenghast books) by Mervyn Peake and the modern speculative fiction novel The City and the City by China Mieville. You might also try Larry Niven's Ringworld if old-school sexism isn't overly bothersome to you as a reader.
"Diaspar had been planned as an entity; it was a single mighty machine. Yet thought its outward appearance was almost overwhelming complexity, it merely hinted at the hidden marvels of technology without which all these great buildings would be lifeless sepulchres." - 28
"No single individual, however eccentric or brilliant, could effect the enormous inertia of a society that had remained virtually unchanged for over a billion years." - 30
"Sympathy, for one whose loneliness must be even greater than his own; an ennui produced by ages of repetition; and an impish sense of fun - these were the discordant factors which prompted Khedron to act." - 58
"There was only one thing of which he could be certain now. Boredom would not be a serious problem for a considerable time to come." - 102
"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 civilisation - but whatever the outcome, to him it would still be a game." - 177