Book review: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

the_city_and_the_stars.pngIn case you’re wondering how I decide which book to read next, it’s usually just a random stab on the internet. If it’s got a interesting cover, proper punctuation and decent typesetting then I’ll give it a go. Oh, and if the Guardian doesn’t like it then there’s a fairly good chance I will.

The City and the Stars falls into the interesting cover category, and it is also part of the SF Masterworks set, and that alone means it probably won’t disappoint. The book (written by the late SF demi-god Arthur C. Clarke) falls into what I call extreme Science Fiction: pushing the boundary to pretty much the end of everything. Another book in the same vein was the weighty but brilliant Seveneaves, a book that looks at what mankind will become five thousand years from now. Clarke takes it a wee bit further.

The City in question is Diaspar (a name uncomfortably close to the word despair), the last city on the desert planet Earth… a few billion years in the future. The population is content, if not happy, being able to conjure anything they need from thin air and having, after a fashion, overcome the inconvenient business of death. Well, not everyone is happy; one person in particular, Alvin, can’t settle with the idea that he’ll live for a thousand years, then after being stored in a computer for a few centuries, he’ll be reborn to do the same thing again for another thousand years. No, for Alvin, this will never do, so he decides to leave Diaspar and look for something beyond…

The genius of this book is that it’s entertaining, and at the same time, a little bit depressing. As I read it, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, is that it? Billions of years into the future and we’re still pretty much alone?’ I’ve always had a hankering to look at mundane speculative fiction: the idea that in the far future, we’re still alone and in the scheme of things, not much has changed. I think the City and the Stars fits the bill while still being a very absorbing page turner. The viewpoint is a close-in omniscient one, with Clarke jumping quite cleanly from character to character, reading his mind and then jumping out. It’s pretty seamless, and it’s rare to see it done this well. The dialogue is workable, but nothing to really write home about, but the sense of place you get from Clarke’s writing is stunning. Yes, the city of Diaspar is perfect, in a clinical, computer-generated sort of way, and although it’s large enough to hold ten million people, there’s this overriding sense of claustrophobia, especially when you’re following Alvin on his quest. The prose is somewhat stark which again lends itself well to the sterile, unchanging nature of the environment.

Not a cheery read, but very difficult to put down nonetheless.

Eight out of ten.

 

So how do you know if your book isn’t finished?

I’m doing the agency rounds for book number 3 at the moment. As you’d expect, the submission criteria don’t vary that much between them:

  • Covering letter
  • Synopsis
  • First fifty pages or the first three chapters.

A lot of the agencies also post some helpful hints about presentation, and increasingly, recommendations for literary consultants – which I’ve talked about before.

Anyway, I came across the  Caroline Davidson Literary Agency who, according to their entry on LitRejections, were not interested in any of the following:

Chick Lit, Romance, Erotica, Crime, Thrillers, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Poetry, Children’s Books, YA, Or Non-Fiction in these areas: Autobiographies, Memoirs, Conspiracy Theories, Educational Textbooks, Local History, Occult, PhD Theses, Self-Help, Unfortunate Personal Experiences, True Crime, or War Stories.

Bloody hell, I thought, what are they interested in?  I was intrigued enough to head over to their website to take a look, and under submissions guidelines, I found this:

What we are looking for in a novel »

A good title; an engaging story with a beginning, middle and end; vivid, memorable characters whom one cares about; superb dialogue; a trans­porting sense of time and place; accuracy of detailing; psycho­logical plaus­ibility; an intriguing beginning and memorable ending.

In addition, what fills us with joy is the writer who has a palpable love of language; who always chooses precisely the right words; eschews cliché; handles pacing with the grace of a dancer or musician; conjures up moods and atmospheres with precision and panache. His or her spelling, punctuation and grammar will be immaculate.

First novels are welcomed at CDLA, but only if they fit all the requirements above.

And there you have it:  all they’re looking for is a bloody good book. At the very least this is what every writer should be aiming for.

A bit further down, we have a few more gems that tell you whether or not your book is in a fit state to be published:

The classic signs of an ‘unpolished’ novel are as follows:

  • you haven’t actually finished it
  • you haven’t revised it
  • you’re still at the first or second draft stage
  • you haven’t read it out aloud and improved it in the light of that experience
  • you haven’t given the novel to test readers (i.e both men and women of different ages and from varying backgrounds) and acted on their detailed feedback.

Points 1–3 should be obvious, and I will keep banging on about point number 4: read every page in a loud clear voice to hear how it sounds. There’s no better way to catch awkward sentences and an overabundance of dialogue tags. After you’ve read your work for the ninth time, missing/misplaced words will just wash over you because you’re not actually reading at this stage; you’re remembering. Read it out loud, and watch the mistakes fly out at you.

Book review: Us by David Nicholls

I’ve been looking forward to reading this; I’ve been a huge fan of David Nicholls’s work since someone lent me a copy of One Day. Nicholls seems to have carved himself a niche that, on the surface, seems a little hard to define. The best I can come up with is that he writes about ordinary people who suddenly find their lives turned inside out by an extraordinary situation. Us is no exception. We are introduced to Douglas, a biochemist married to Connie, a bohemian free-spirit whom he suspects he doesn’t deserve (he is punching slightly above his weight), and his son Albie whom he has almost no connection with. After twenty-five years of marriage, Connie announces that when Albie leaves home for university, then she’ll be leaving Douglas too.

1433134101_thumb.jpegDouglas, being a scientist, deduces that the best way to save his marriage, and salvage any kind of relationship with his son, is to use a trip across Europe as a way to heal old wounds and forge new bonds. And so the reader accompanies the three of them across the continent, along with the uneasy feeling that none of this is going end well.

As always, it is an extremely well-written book. Nicholls crafts his prose concisely and with a certain terseness that flows easily from page to page. His characters are equally well-crafted, but having read a few of his books I’m starting to get the feeling that I’ve met them before. They’re all slightly detached and very sardonic. I do like this because it gives his dialogue a flat, dry wit, but I am starting to think that I’m reading about the same people in different situations.

The road-trip itself is funny and sad and extremely vivid. You do get a sense that you’re right there with them experiencing Douglas’s frustration; he seems to live behind a sheet of glass with his wife and son on the other side. At times though, I thought the exposition into art galleries and landmarks got a little too dense, a bit like reading a travel brochure, and I found that it detracted from the main story. As we headed towards the end, I think I became a little impatient with all the tourist paths; I really wanted to know things turned out. I know how important it is not to rush the ending of a good novel, but by the same token, you can stretch things out a little too far.

But overall, I really enjoyed Us, and would recommend it as a cracking good read, though I didn’t like it as much as One Day or Starter for Ten.

I’m going to give it a very respectable seven out of ten.