Beyond the Fall of Night

Since I recently brought up Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, I thought I’d also mention Clarke’s earlier version of the story and Gregory Benford’s sequel.

Raw Feed (1991): Beyond the Fall of Night, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, 1990.BNDFLLFN1990

My reactions to this book follow three veins: comparing Part 1, Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” with the expanded version The City and the Stars, Benford’s sequel to Clarke’s novella in its own right, and the combination as a whole.

As an alternative to The City and the Stars, I liked the latter better than “Against the Fall of Night”. The novel gave full rein to Clarke’s mournful vistas of an ancient Earth where man huddles fearfully. The novella has the same feel but Clarke simply doesn’t have as much space to portray these emotions. Also the novel had many interesting details, notions, and speculations: the psychological and social effects of no new births in Diaspar — just recycling of personalities with undesired memories edited out — and immortality, the instant creation of desired forms of matter (for role-playing games and much else), the sex games of Diaspar’s inhabitants and their evolved state, the mysterious Jester and the more mysterious matter of Alvin actually being born not recanted, the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanamonde (dealt with here but not in as great detail), and the religion of the Master and the enforced silence of his robot servant to spare him embarrassment. The mere length of the novella lessens the tone and emotion that goes so far in making the novel a classic.

I’m not sure if Benford’s addition really stands alone, but I liked it. From what I’ve heard of his novels (I’ve only read his collaboration with David Brin in Heart of the Comet), this story has his characteristic concern with man’s evolution and his place in the vaster evolution of life and intelligence. The vistas of millennia are reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon I suppose, but this part reminded me most of the bizarre future of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Benford’s life forms are just as bizarre, even more rationalized (particularly the creatures whose consciousness exist in the magnetic fields of the galaxy), but less well described. Which is just as well. Benford’s creatures are too vast, too alien to be minutely described like Aldiss’. They can just be suggested.

Benford also has a rare gift in writers who deal with evolution and man’s place in present and future ecologies: he’s utterly convincing, utterly sincere. By that I mean one gets the sense that most sf writers just play with the idea of man’s place in evolution. Benford really ponders it, believes in it, “internalizes” the emotions, the implications of humanity evolving.

He also has a spendid gift of metaphor, my favorites are:

They all lived as ants in the shadow of mountains of millennia, and time’s sheer mass shaded every word. … so talk darted among somber chasms of ignorance and upjuts of painful memory as old as continets, softening tongues into ambiguity and guile.

and his comparing man’s place in the new ecologies of strange, vast, stellar intelligences to yeast’s in beer — the yeast goes about its business of making beer unaware it serves a vaster being.

Benford really makes, through his extreme, bizarre evolutionary future the idea of being part of a greater intelligence believable — much more so than the Gaia-incarnate ending of David Brin’s Earth. Benford also has a knack for using landscape, real and symbolic, as metaphor.

But how do the two parts mesh? Well, the two parts are, at first glance, jarringly different. “Against the Fall of NIght” has one on-stage death — the disciple of the Master — while Benford’s section begins with the image of a dead human and much death is seen throughout. Man, robots, and the artificial minds are the sole sentients in Clarke’s sections; Benford’s section is chockful of different types of sentience. Alvin is relegated to a side figure, a distant, short-sighted figure clearly not in touch with the larger picture of life.

Seeker is a great character: humorous, wise, enigmatic, alien, perhaps God. Cley, the Ur-Human (more advanced than us, though), is our running hero. Alvin pushes outward into the cosmos, Cley flees into the arms of a vast mind. She is a pastoral creature unlike urban Alvin. Yet both are limited, as Seeker points out, in their intelligence by the form they take. Alvin, unlike Cley, does not first know he is a “local intelligence”.

Ultimately, thematically, the clash of styles and concerns work: Alvin discovers a larger universe, Cley discovers a larger ecology and man’s place in it. Interestingly, the robots eliminated most life as untidy — an analog to Diaspar’s sterility is culture and birth. Alvin is physical man isolated from life; Cley is spiritual man united with the universe.

One odd mistake in this collaboration (perhaps I didn’t read carefully enough, it’s such a blatant mistake for a professional like Benford to make) is Benford’s mention of a spectacularly terraformed moon. In “Against the Fall of Night”, Clarke specifically says the moon’s destruction gave rise to the legend of the Battle of Shalmirane.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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4 thoughts on “Beyond the Fall of Night

  1. “Against the Fall of Night” was one of my early favorites—8th grade back in the late 50s. I think Clarke’s vision of humanity declining as machines rose was prescient. Shortsighted visionaries lamented the loss of certain jobs, but foresaw only a blossoming of intellectual activity. I notice that many people today look down on anyone who knows how to do anything manual—car repair, plumbing, electrical work, etc.—as if they can’t get a real job.

    1. A generally untethering from reality is a mark of the modern age. Biology is denied. Symbol manipulation is of higher prestige than actually dealing with the material of the world. That would be, as you mention, things like auto repair, plumbing, and electrical work. It even holds for computers. I’m old enough to be of an age where, to use a PC, you had know something about the hardware (not in all that much detail, but what did what). How many of the “tech savy” generations actually know about physical hardware?

      As for the promises of the internet, yes, a few use it for self-education. Mostly, though, it’s porn, gambling, cat videos, and celebrity gossip.

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