This is an early novel by Clarke, written in 1954.
There are parts he borrowed from a book he wrote in the 1940s.
The story is set over 1
billion years in the future. Humans are limited to the planet
Earth. Initially, we are only introduced to The City and its
people. To them, anything beyond the city is legend without solid
historical foundations. It is said that humans once traveled the galaxy,
but were forced to live only on Earth by invaders a billion years
previously. Today, the idea of going outside the city to another part of
Earth is too frightening to consider.
The city is full of tech
marvels. For instance, any time someone wants furniture, they simply
indicate which template they want used and furniture appears (apparently made
up of force fields producing the desired shape and feel). People aren't
born - some technology produces them (from templates) in more or less full
grown bodies. The technology provides all the needs of the inhabitants.
People spend all their time with entertainment, games and socializing.
Younger ones spend some time learning - taking in stored knowledge - but not
trying to find previously undiscovered facts nor trying to "think outside
The protagonist, Alvin, is an
exception to the rule. He either was made without one of the templates or
with a template that has almost never been used. Also, people are usually
made with some of a previous person's mind in them, but Alvin was not. Alvin has a fascination with what is outside the city, while everyone else has an aversion
Alvin finds a way to travel to another human community
outside the city. This is an area in which there are a series of villages
in more rural-looking surroundings. The people there have babies the old
fashion way and don't live as long as people in the city. They have
advanced technology but limit themselves in what situations they use it.
They are telepathic and may have other "mind powers". Their
approach to life is very different than in the City, but they also don't look
beyond their own corner of the Earth or their culture(s).
In the mountains on the
outskirts of this society's lands, Alvin finds a robot that has been around
since before the memories of the societies of Earth. With the help of the
robot, Alvin finds a starship and flies it to what had been the center of
galactic society. He finds no signs of intelligent life having been there
for ages. However, on his way home they come in contact with a
disembodied intelligence with vast knowledge of the past.
Before Alvin had set out on
his voyage, events had forced the two Earth societies to decide to talk to each
other. That and Alvin's adventures set the stage for possible changes...
While Clarke shows us various
advanced tech, most of the billion years between now and then were
technological stagnation. Today’s readers, used to all the tech in
today’s SF, may feel the story seems to be set 1000 or so years in our
future. …but Clarke is more interested in being human, divergent
societies, closed-mindedness, and maybe the potential risks of technologies.
I have a knee-jerk reaction
against SF including telepathy and disembodied intelligences. Rationally,
there is no reason why with 1 million years to work at it, science couldn't
bioengineer human DNA so humans would have a radio transceiver body
organ. And Clarke does not give any explanations for how this telepathy
works, so there are no specifics to critique. Whether or not the
reception range for the telepathy in the book is realistic, I can at least
suggest how radio "telepathy" might be possible in general.
It's not so easy to suggest how a disembodied intelligence might be
implemented. Nevertheless, we can't absolutely exclude the possibility
and Clarke does not give any foolish explanations for it...
My problem with this sort of
thing stems from a great number of SF books which either give half-baked
explanations for such phenomena or give no explanation but give improbable
capabilities. (For instance, we can assume if a story has instantaneous
interstellar telepathy it does not use radio and the human body could not
provide enough power for interstellar communications by any known means.)
Most of the remainder of SF including things like telepathy don't give any
specific basis for criticism, but also don't give any basis to believe the
author has anything more realistic in mind. Suppose we took a survey of
SF readers and asked, “What is telepathy and how does it work?” I would
guess only a fraction of them would give a plausible technological
explanation. I think that if SF writers want to convey to readers
something more scientifically based, they need to be more explicit about it in
their stories. So it remains a pet peeve for me.