The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

As Nightlands, Philly’s Dave Hartley makes what have been called “lunar hymns,” full of space, size and more importantly, a keen attention to detail, precision, nuance and a sense of mystery. It’s fitting then that not only should the Nightlands album art be a nod to the classic science fiction covers of the 70s and 80s (though it’s actually a proposal for the Lower Manhattan Expressway by the late Paul Rudolph), but that Hartley himself is obsessed with the art form – both sci-fi writing and the cover art that accompanies it. We’ve asked Hartley to share with us some of his knowledge and theories on the genre. And well, he nailed it. (Editors note: First, check the logo at the top right of this Arthur C. Clarke joint. Strikingly similar to the logo of a certain Bloomington, Indian-based record label. Just sayin’).

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, David Hartley:

Here are two examples of what I’m going to call the “Future Monument” sci-fi cover art paradigm: Star of the Unborn by Franz Werfel (illustration by Gene Szafran) and The City and the Stars by Athur C. Clarke (illustrator for this is unknown). This form basically consists of a giant gleaming perfect peak or city or superstructure — it’s not apparent whether it’s naturally occurring or created by man, or by divine will (often a combination thereof) — and a human or two to indicate scale and give the monument perspective.

Star of the Unborn by Franz Werfel

Star of the Unborn by Franz Werfel

I haven’t read Star of the Unborn, or finished it anyway. I found the writing style just way too annoying to deal with (too much British-style wit or something), but I picked it up because it was described to me as being Tolkien-esque in ambition and had a really sweet Pink Diamond Super Mountain on the cover. Also, the synopsis on the inside was just hysterically over-the-top: “ASTRO-MENTAL CIVILIZATION — IN THE ELEVENTH COSMIC CAPITAL YEAR OF VIRGO — Where men have already experience Judgement Day — Where places routinely travel to people who want to visit them — Where old age is unknown, and dying has been replaced by the opposite — Where a universal language makes it impossible to utter threats or insults — Where one giant Worker cheerfully provides all of humanity’s wants and needs — Where the crystalline mountain Djebel lights up a man’s knowledge into himself and into the farthest reaches of space.

So, I’m assuming that the image on the cover is The Crystalline Mountain Djebel? I’m not sure if it is in the process of lighting up a man’s knowledge into himself and the farthest reaches of space or just busy with other metaphysically inscrutable duties, but no matter, it’s one of my favorites because it depicts a futuristic utopia that is totally independent present day sociological problems. Not an alternate history, but a truly alien world. Science and logic and reason have won out and taken us far into the future where humanity has only to reckon with the intersection of science and spirituality and the ticky-tack problems of existence. I have always thought that the human figures at the bottom, a classic sci-fi cover move, are meant to invoke awe more than just scale. Reverential awe towards science and the “mysteries of the universe”, so to speak. Man is small but special in that he can at least engage or attempt to contemplate the mind-blowing realities of existence. It’s a humble mythos. It’s not the most skilled or artful sci-fi cover of all time, but it hits that little emotional/nostalgic spot in my brain right on the money.

This cover also exemplifies two hallmarks of the Future Monument paradigm (which seem oppositional but are not): detail and mystery. We have a very full realized landscape here, with lots of nooks and crannies and things to stare at, but also a sense of wonder. We don’t know why this mountain is so crystalline, and we don’t know what these utopian monks are doing wandering around it, other than probably enjoying their immortality. But we want to know (I do, anyway). Most of my favorite sci-fi paperback covers are very detailed but also raise questions which are probably unanswerable–like gazing at the cosmos.

The City and The Stars, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels (and has one of my favorite covers, obviously) and I’ve reread it as much as just about anything in my collection (check out the scan, the cover is devastated with wear) . Like Star of the Unborn, it’s just mind-bogglingly epic in scope, taking place millions of years in the future and over the course of millions of years, basically staring right into the face of the end point of the evolution of intelligence and what the ultimate form of existence could be. Clarke often toys with the idea of some form of purely-mental existence in his works, like some sort of scientific heaven or omnipotence–here he really explores that in detail. The book centers around Diaspar, man’s ultimate creation, a perfect city in which all the inhabitants are immortal and forever protected. Like Djebel, Diaspar watches over and cares for its human inhabitants with godlike skill –“Earth itself could crumble and Diaspar would still protect the children of its makers, bearing them and their treasures safely down the stream of time.”

The book has had lots of different covers, but the one here is by far my favorite. The city really does seem to extend into the heavens and the boundary between the gleaming super structure and the night sky is indeterminate. Beautiful orbs glow like disembodied minds and ramps arc and jut like jungle vines in some frozen forest. It’s mysterious and intricate and just loaded with suggestion: man is small and insignificant but meant to reach upwards. With science and curiosity he can brave the abyss and create divine things. Intelligence is godliness, or at least the one true way to master nature for robust prosperity. Science is god. The naked man facing Diaspar, who we must assume is the protagonist Alvin, is not diddling about like Wefel’s immortal monks, but has a posture of confidence and definite purpose. He is not standing in the city, but outside facing in. We are not sure if he is going to step forwards and enter the city or turn and plunge into the darkness and the unknown. It turns out that both are true; Alvin is born of the city, but flees into the darkness and, ultimately, the stars. It’s the perfect cover for this amazing, amazing book.

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Nightlands -- Forget the Mantra

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