Fiction Reviews

Against the Fall of Night

(1953 / 2019) Arthur C. Clarke, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, viii + 135pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22234-2


This is Arthur C. Clarke's first novella – indeed he himself called it his first novel – published in 1948 in the November edition of the US pulp magazine Startling Stories, though he first did an early draft back when he was at school. It was then published as a book in 1953.  It has been reprinted a number of times. It was further, substantially revised appearing three years later as The City and the Stars (1956).  As such, this short novel is of interest to Clarke aficionados because its long gestation so early in his career would see him touch – in some instances tantalisingly briefly – on some of the themes his later works further explored.  This then is an excellent sampling of early Clarke.

It is the far future, the year ten billion AD and the 17 year old Alvin is the first human to be born into the city of near immortals for countless years: he is, in effect the last human to have been born.  The city is Diaspar and, though wondrous in its technological marvel, it is the last city on Earth.  Beyond Diaspar's impenetrable walls lies dry, sandy desert that can only be glimpsed from a handful of obscure points from within the city.  Diaspar's citizens have turned their backs on the outside world and, indeed, the stars as their history tells of the wrath of the distant past, mysterious Invaders.  Nobody wants to leave lest they stumble upon the Invaders who may then find humanity's last refuge.

The novel opens with Diaspar's citizens gazing up into the sky as the last cloud slowly dissipates in the heat.  But for young Alvin, Diaspar cannot surely be the only place: he will not be confined; he seeks a way out…

This short novel is reminiscent in scope of Clarke's own early 20th century, English SF author hero, Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), especially Last and First Men (1930). It also is typical of mid-twentieth century SF on both sides of the Pond in relying on ideas, concepts and sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) to hold the reader and not characterisation which – for SF of this time – was very much a secondary consideration.

I do recall, when going to my first SF conventions back in the latter half of the 1970s (yes, I'm that long in the tooth) that there were two significant, but minority camps at British cons who were at loggerheads with each other.  The rest of us let them get on with it while we simply enjoyed the genre.  One camp appreciated the then traditional SF, while the other deemed characterisation, psychology and social aspect of the genre rather than nuts and bolts engineering, space exploration and so forth.  These last were the New Wave fans and woe betide anyone that got between these two factions as that was a very heated place.  Now, Clarke is hardly a New Wave writer, but recently have re-read both some Clarke and Asimov (the other giant of SF of the 1960s and '70s) I can say that Clarke beats Asimov hands down on characterisation and social aspects even if both writers give bags of sensawunda. Against the Fall of Night illustrates this and rallies against introversion and turning back on exploration, contact with an tolerance of, other cultures.

Among the themes and elements that were to become something of a hallmark of Clarke's oeuvre, we get wondrous, near magical engineering.  There is a sense of deep time: that events of the distant past and even distant places impact, or are relevant, to us here and now.  There is the notion of human evolution taking our species and transcending somewhere beyond our normal perception of space-time: a theme he later had at the centre of Childhood's End(1953).  We even get a brief – blink and you'll miss it – Hal (2001: A Space Odyssey) moment as a robot malfunctions and shuts down due to conflicting commands.

In short, this small novel is a key one from one of the stalwarts of British SF.

Yes, it is obviously dated: it was written nearly three quarters of a century ago!  But no fair person can blame Clarke for that: indeed, you can praise him for foreseeing high-tech urban existence. Remember, only this decade have globally there been more people living in cities than the countryside.  Three quarters of a century the world had far more of a rural focus. This was a pre-semiconductor, pre-green revolution, pre-biotechnology and genomic world from which Clarke was considering matters of the far future.  Taking this into consideration, being aware of our present, privileged, now Clarke's own future position in the 21st century, and we can see that Against the Fall of Night is something of a remarkable Science Fiction gem.

This book is part of Gollancz's new SF book series of Golden Age Masterworks.  Needless to say, they are well worth checking out.  Arguably many of the titles are indispensible if you have any interest in getting a feel for the inspiration behind many of today's genre writers.

Jonathan Cowie


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