A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read last week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about worldbuilding.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own. 

In Chapter 20 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I touch on the very complex and challenging job of building an imagined culture. “Culture” is a pretty huge umbrella covering a lot of topic, including art.

What sort of art do the people in your world create? How do they create it? Why do they create it? Art reflects the time, place, and condition of the artist. It reflects his desires and fears, and can tell us more about a people than any history book.

In Clarke’s conception of the perfect technological paradise, the “gilded cage” of Diaspar, art played a significant role:

 It was the custom of the city’s artists—and everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another—to display their current productions along the side of the moving ways, so that the passers-by could admire their work. In this manner, it was usually only a few days before the entire population had critically examined any noteworthy creation, and also expressed its views upon it. The resulting verdict, recorded automatically by opinion-sampling devices which no one had ever been able to suborn or deceive—and there had been enough attempts—decided the fate of the masterpiece. If there was a sufficiently affirmative vote, its matrix would go into the memory of the city so that anyone who wished, at any future date, could possess a reproduction utterly indistinguishable from the original.

The less successful pieces went the way of all such works. They were either dissolved back into their original elements or ended in the homes of the artists’ friends.

And this in a novel written in 1955, in which the author seems to have anticipated Napster, Facebook, YouTube, and the internet in general. It does beg the question: Where was all this information technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Still, the art that these people create, and the fact that “everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another” speaks volumes about that imagined place and time, including the various indulgences afforded to a population enjoying voluminous free time.

Buy It Now!

Another aspect of worldbuilding that was touched on in Part 3 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and later expanded upon in Writing Monsters, is the inclusion of “monsters” both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. In my worldbuilding classes one of the exercises we had some fun with was something I called “Horse+.”



In a world (or future universe) in which either none of the real world animals exist, or other strange creatures are added to the existing ecosystem, we could imagine, as Edgar Rice Burroughs did in his John Carter series, or George Lucas in Star Wars, some other kind of animal that people might use as a mount or beast of burden.

Here’s Clarke’s Horse+ from The City and the Stars:

 For short distances, people walked, and seemed to enjoy it. If they were in a hurry or had small loads to move, they used animals which had obviously been developed for the purpose. The freight-carrying species was a low, six-legged beast, very docile and strong but of poor intelligence. The racing animals were of a different breed altogether, normally walking on four legs but using only their heavily muscled hind limbs when they really got up to speed. They could cross the entire width of Lys in a few hours, and the passenger rode in a pivoted seat strapped on the creature’s back. Nothing in the world would have induced Alvin to risk such a ride, though it was a very popular sport among the younger men. Their finely bred steeds were the aristocrats of the animal world, and were well aware of it. They had fairly large vocabularies, and Alvin often overheard them talking boastfully among themselves about past and future victories. When he tried to be friendly and attempted to join in the conversation, they pretended that they could not understand him, and if he persisted would go bounding off in outraged dignity.

These two varieties of animal sufficed for all ordinary needs, and gave their owners a great deal of pleasure which no mechanical contrivances could have done.

Part of what these animals do is further differentiate between the pastoral paradise of Lys and the mechanized paradise of Diaspar: two sides of the same coin. Where in Diaspar you get around on moving walkways and goods are transferred hither and yon by largely unseen robots that travel a system of underground byways not unlike the way staff moves under Disney World, in Lys they’ve genetically engineered animals to serve those same functions. This really opens up the concept of what technology is and its myriad forms, in this one story. The same problem, solved in different ways.

Later in the book, after Alvin has discovered his ancient starship and gone out with his friend Hilvar on a mission of interstellar discovery, do we encounter a monster in the classical sense of the term, or as I defined in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction as: “. . . any creature of a species that is neither a part of the civilization of sentient people or among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna.”

Though this unnamed monster is, technically, “among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna” on the world of its birth, we’ll apply this definition strictly to the point of view of our narrator, who has travelled to an alien world and encountered something wholly outside his frame of reference, and it’s dangerous and scary:

The level plain was level no longer. A great bulge had formed immediately below them—a bulge which was ripped open at the top where the ship had torn free. Huge pseudopods were waving sluggishly across the gap, as if trying to re-capture the prey that had just escaped from their clutches. As he stared in horrified fascination, Alvin caught a glimpse of a pulsating scarlet orifice, fringed with whiplike tentacles which were beating in unison, driving anything that came into their reach down into that gaping maw.

Foiled of its intended victim, the creature sank slowly into the ground—and it was then that Alvin realized that the plain below was merely the thin scum on the surface of a sea.

“What was that—thing?” he gasped.

“I’d have to go down and study it before I could tell you that,” Hilvar replied matter-of-factly. “It may have been some form of primitive animal—perhaps even a relative of our friend in Shalmirane. Certainly it was not intelligent, or it would have known better than to try to eat a spaceship.”

In Writing Monsters I encourage authors to appeal to all five senses when describing monsters, but in this instance, Alvin and Hilvar can only see this creature, through the view screens of their starship, so Clarke was careful to limit their perception of this creature to only the sensory input available to them.

In Writing Monsters I also covered questions like: Where does this monster come from? And that included both Outer Space and Underwater. This alien creature of Arthur C. Clarke’s shows that you can easily and effectively combine those elements, as your story and imagination demands. In terms of what this monster represents, it’s what both of these characters most fear: a primitive world, “red in tooth and claw.” There is no one to talk to here, no civilized humans . . . just animals, some of whom are giant, terrifying predators. Alvin and Hilvar don’t even work up the courage to leave the safety of their ship. The presence of the monster is meant to convey an absence of people.

I’ve also spent some time in both books discussing the often fine line between monsters and people, or monsters and aliens. It’s fair to describe “people” the same way we did monsters, just that “people” have a greater individual agency. They have humanlike brains: creative and emotional intelligence, or what I often illustrate as being the difference between a horde of mindless zombie (really a sort of natural disaster) and Dracula: a vampire (read: monster) but who retains his human intelligence and interacts with humans as a human, with human plans and feelings. So then “people” grows to include (most) vampires, elves, Martians, and . . .

The creature now emerging from the dark water seemed a monstrous parody, in living matter, of the robot that was still subjecting them to its silent scrutiny. That same equilateral arrangement of eyes could be no coincidence; even the pattern of tentacles and little jointed limbs had been roughly reproduced. Beyond that, however, the resemblance ceased. The robot did not possess—it obviously did not require—the fringe of delicate, feathery palps which beat the water with a steady rhythm, the stubby multiple legs on which the beast was humping itself ashore, or the ventilating inlets, if that was what they were, which now wheezed fitfully in the thin air.

Most of the creature’s body remained in the water; only the first ten feet reared itself into what was clearly an alien element. The entire beast was about fifty feet long, and even anyone with no knowledge of biology would have realized that there was something altogether wrong about it. It had an extraordinary air of improvisation and careless design, as if its components had been manufactured without much forethought and thrown roughly together when the need arose.

Despite its size and their initial doubts, neither Alvin nor Hilvar felt the slightest nervousness once they had a clear look at the dweller in the lake. There was an engaging clumsiness about the creature which made it quite impossible to regard it as a serious menace, even if there was any reason to suppose it might be dangerous. The human race had long ago overcome its childhood terror of the merely alien in appearance. That was a fear which could no longer survive after the first contact with friendly extraterrestrial races.

Note that Clarke is describing this creature in a way that’s firmly rooted in the experience of the POV characters. It’s described in terms of its “design”—precisely the sort of thing someone from a completely technological world might fall back on. These characters have also become so separated from the natural order that, like animals found on remote islands that have no fear of humans, they aren’t scared by it, and see it with a detached intellectualism . . . which they lose, by the way, later in the story when they leave Earth and are confronted by things, like the monster in the previous example, that really should scare them.

Next week we’ll dig deeper into the technology and philosophy of The City and the Stars.


—Philip Athans






About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Pingback: WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 1) | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Craig says:

    “They were either dissolved back into their original elements or ended in the homes of the artists’ friends.”

    Sounds like everything I’ve written so far 🙂

  3. tawardrope says:

    There’s a lot to learn from random science fiction novels, I guess. I really like the POV details you brought to light. A monster is one of the many ways good fiction can draw out the limits of a characters perceptions and understanding of their world.

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