I’ve spent far more time in my life rewriting than writing, and I believe the same can be said for most authors. A writer’s craft involves shaping ideas, characters, and narrative arcs through meticulous (and sometimes tedious) revisions – a process I liken to carving a statue from stone one layer at a time. The first few passes are always rough, just vague shapes and outlines, and then over time finer and finer details emerge through careful chiseling and polishing.
Readers rarely see the writing process, only the finished result. And believe me – it’s usually better that way. My first drafts are buried in files I hope never to open again, except perhaps as comic relief.
That being said, I find the two versions of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel about the city of Diaspar to be fascinating glimpses of a mind at work – and a science fiction grand master in evolution.
Clarke published his first novel, Against the Fall of Night, in 1948. Years later he returned to the story and, in 1956, he published a new version entitled The City and The Stars.
Clarke anticipated that The City and The Stars would replace Against the Fall of Night, but in fact both versions remained popular – almost in equal proportions. This is good news for Clarke fans today, as both versions are still widely available.
What are the differences between the two versions? I have to admit I am not an unbiased reviewer, as The City and The Stars is a book that captured my mind early on, but to me the difference is one of skill. Of revision.
Both books tell the story of Alvin, child of Diaspor and yet unique among it’s immortal inhabitants. In Against the Fall of Night, Alvin is the first child born in 7,000 years, and in The City and the Stars he is living his first life while everyone else endlessly recycles through the city’s Memory Banks. Alvin, unlike the other residents of Diaspor, is not afraid of life outside the immortal city and is driven to understand what lies beyond his known world. Thus begins his quest.
The City and the Stars captivates me with it’s nuance and elegance in exploring the intricacies of immortal, sedentary life. In Against the Fall of Night little of the city’s structure is explained or explored. In addition, in the earlier version Alvin has little protagonism in leaving the city – he expresses his desire and then follows the direction of Rorden, Keeper of the Records. The City and the Stars creates more conflict, and more struggle, as Alvin must earn the secrets of Diaspor instead of having everything handed to him.
Both novels are fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But in the early version of Arthur C. Clarke’s great work I see common pitfalls for first time writers, namely 1.) lack of detail in world building and 2.) lack of struggle on the part of the protagonist.
Oftentimes, when first creating a world the details are unclear for the author, and therefore remain muddled for the reader. Once a first draft is finished, however, a writer will have a much better sense of what he or she wants and needs that world to be, and will be able to go back and “flesh out” initial ideas, exploring in much greater depth. The same is true for the protagonism of the main character: many times in first drafts the main character reacts rather than acts. By the end of a first draft a writer will have a much better sense of the character’s personality and motivation, and will then be able to go back and add more agency to his or her actions.
The ability to compare the two versions provides a valuable learning tool for writers, and not just writers of science fiction. To read Arthur C. Clarke is to experience a master at work, and his work transcends genre to address human nature at its most fundamental levels. And yet rarely are we able to compare the evolution of an author’s voice and vision so clearly as with Against the Fall of Night and The City and the Stars.
We all need first drafts. And we need second drafts, third drafts… twentieth drafts. Don’t give up. In the end, excellence is all a matter of revision.