Grand ideas of great scope were the hallmark of 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction' and this book certainly fits that mold. Set in the very far future, so far that many main sequence stars have started to die, this is a story of two very different paths that two different groups of humans have taken to the puzzle of existence and life. In the city of Diaspar, we have a totally enclosed and static society, where people live for a thousand years, then store their memories for some later computer controlled reincarnation, where anything outside the city is not only totally ignored, its very existence is practically denied. At the other extreme is Lys, where man is just one part of the world of living, growing things, where bio-engineering has been raised to such an art it is buried in the background, and humans have developed telepathic talents. These are the last two areas of civilization on an Earth that has otherwise become a desert, where even the oceans have totally dried up.
Against this background we find Alvin, the first truly new citizen in Diaspar in seven thousand years, born without any memories of prior existences, to whom, without any preset thought biases, all things are open to question. When he starts to question the origin of Diaspar and ask what exists outside the city, he is met with rebuff and ostracism. Persisting in his questions, he eventually finds a way to leave Diaspar and travel to Lys. The things he learns there and the additional questions provoked by this knowledge eventually lead to things far beyond the Earth and a complete revision of 'known' history, with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance.
While Alvin and the other characters are reasonably portrayed, this is not the strong suit of this book, nor will you find a great amount of 'hard' science gadgets and plot devices. This is rather a book that will make you think about the long term purpose of man and his place in the universe. There is a painted picture here of just what the ultimate end point is of pure technological development and the stifling effects such an environment has on people, strongly contrasted with an alternative development line focusing on human mental capabilities and its negatives. Both thematic sides are held up beneath the strong lights of hope, pride, and ambition.
There is a feeling of near poetry, a total 'sense of wonder', that pervades this book, a feeling that will captivate and invigorate the reader, that will take him far outside the everyday concerns of today. In certain areas, the great weight of not just millennia, but billions of years of history will press upon you, where the discovery of ages old items will be as much of an adventure as watching our first manned lunar mission.
This book was a near total rewrite of "Against the Fall of Night". While the basic scenario is the same between the two books, the endings are dramatically different, and actually present a different outlook on man’s purpose and his part in the grander scheme of things. I have never been able to decide which of the two versions is better – but that just means you should read both, as they are both fully deserving of your time and attention.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)