Once upon a time man crossed the stars and spread throughout the galaxy, leaving Earth behind. They met other intelligent life forms and formed alliances. Unfortunately, this took place a billion years ago. In the interim they ran across a species that was not happy about man's success, known only as The Invaders, and by launching war they forced humanity to abandon the galaxy and retreat to Earth. During the war that resulted large portions of the earth were subject to desertification and the surviving inhabitants were forced to flee to a lone city, Diaspar.
A billion years hence Diaspar seems like nothing short of a paradise to most. Genetic modification and advanced technology have come together to create a utopia. Death is no longer an issue: The average life span of an individual is one thousand years and at the end of that period one simply feeds their memories into a computer, turns back into star dust, and waits for the inevitable technological reincarnation some time in the future. It will seem like minutes rather than the eons that have actually passed. They will be reborn as 'children' that are in their twenties (in standard human years) and will soon enough be able to access the memories of their past lives. Any food or furniture or adventure that one wants can quite literally be created out of thin air. Beautiful architecture and art surround you everywhere you go. Sex has become a purely recreational activity. There is only one caveat: You cannot go outside, even in adventures taking place in virtual reality. Occupants of the city can never leave, nor do they desire to. A fear of the outside is bred into them. At least, it's bred into most of the occupants. On the other hand, why would you want to leave?
Once every fifty thousand years a 'Unique' occurs, a human that has been born for the first time rather than being reincarnated. These individuals do not share the same inborn fear of leaving the city that everyone else does. Alvin, our protagonist, happens to be one of those individuals and he finds himself staring longingly at the stars and the desert with unfulfilled curiosity, determined that there has to be more to life than the pleasures the city has to offer, that there must be an adventure waiting if he can escape.
And so begins a coming of age story for both Alvin and humanity. (Sound familiar?) Clarke uses this tale to elaborate on some of his viewpoints on what the coming of age of humanity entails. Specifically, it is a very strong critique of political and social isolationism. It also unsurprisingly takes aim at religion. That said, as a fellow critic of religion that prefers these matters to be handled intelligently I found the critique delightfully subtle. The novel also deals with the ramifications of the fear of scientific progress and repressing the longing for adventure.
That this is a re-write of Clarke's first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is noteworthy. He states in the preface that he felt that the story from that novel could be enhanced by what he had learned about writing in the interim. Given the elegant writing and the consistent flow of the prose he was correct in asserting that he had learned a few things about writing.
On the other hand, character development is lacking. All of the characters tend to feel like foils for the thoughts and actions of Alvin, rather than an attempt at peopling this world with distinct individuals. Meanwhile, the main character suffers from very uneven character development. There are long stretches where absolutely nothing is revealed about his personality except his desire for adventure, punctuated by random bits of exposition (generally put into the mouths of other characters) that show a new side of his personality, making his personality seem like an after-thought. Clarke, in this novel at least, is clearly an idea man and not a character man. A more damaging flaw than the lack of character development is the sense of inevitability that permeates the work. There's never any feeling that the main character will truly come to harm or fail in his quest. You know from the beginning that he will complete his quest, though you will probably not guess where it will lead. It removes all tension from the story, leaving you to meander through at a casual pace without any real page-turning moments. Fortunately Clarke does demonstrate several impressive leaps of the imagination throughout the story with interesting twists that keep one reading and help drive home his philosophical points. He also manages to wrap things up with a satisfying ending, a difficult task.
In short, this is an interesting read with some great ideas in it and some fascinating leaps of the imagination and could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the lack of character development and worse, the lack of any real sense of tension brings it down a peg. Overall, four stars.