Exposed in his childhood to both the pulp magazines of Hugo Gernsback and the English literary tradition of fantasy and science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke (16 December 1917 – 19 March 2008) sometimes forges an uneasy alliance between the two in his own stories. The matter-offact description of the marvelous of H. G. Wells, the poetic evocation of unknown places of Lord Dunsany, and the immense vistas of space and time of the philosopher Olaf Stapledon lie cheek-by-jowl with artificial suspense devices, awkward sentimentality, schoolboy silliness, and melodramatic manipulation of such hoary motifs as the “stranded astronaut” or the “end of the world” in his less distinguished fiction. At its best, however, Clarke’s work shows glimpses of humanity’s rise to interplanetary civilization or evokes the wonder, in suitably subdued tones, of confrontations with extraterrestrial intelligences.
Clarke’s 1967 collection of his “favorites” represents many facets of his career, from the raconteur of tall tales and ghost stories to the fantasist, the sentimentalist, the realist, and the poet of wonder. Most of his best and best-known stories are included, from the haunting rite of passage of a young lunar exile getting his first glimpse of the unapproachably radioactive world of his ancestors (“‘If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . . ,’”) to such “alien fables” of technological complacency as “Superiority” and “Before Eden.”
Among them, “Rescue Party,” his second professionally published story, looks forward to other tales of human progress and alien contact, but it is unusual in its strong story line and alien viewpoint. Although it makes one of his rare claims for human superiority, a fetish of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr., the story’s humor, style, and forecasts are vintage Clarke. “Who was to blame?,” it opens, setting the context of a paternalistic “Galactic Federation,” sending a ship to rescue a few hundred survivors from Earth before its sun turns into a nova. With a million years between visits, the federation had been taken by surprise by humankind’s rise to civilization in two-fifths of that time, signaled by radio waves detected two hundred light years away. With little more than four hours to go, the ship arrives at a deserted planet, sends out two search parties, and barely escapes the cataclysm, burning out its “main generators” in the effort. Directing its course to the receiving point of a communications array on Earth, the mile-long spaceship, now needing rescue itself, approaches rendezvous with an unexpected fleet of ships from the planet. Unprecedented in size, this fleet of “primitive” rockets demonstrates an acceleration of human technological development so astonishing that the captain, the tentacled Alveron, whose ancient people are “Lords of the Universe,” teasingly suggests the vast federation beware of these upstarts. This “little joke” is followed by the narrator’s quiet punch line: “Twenty years afterward, the remark didn’t seem funny.”
Humor of situation is evident throughout the story, from the concept of “administering” a galaxy to the discovery of the humans’ “handicap” of bipedalism from an abandoned portrait of a city alderman. The incongruity of the rescuers’ need for rescue is mirrored by the precision that allows the aliens an unflappable split-second escape but brings them there in the first place too late and with too little to do anything useful, then finds them baffled by relatively primitive communications devices and an automatic subway. Although the story creaks in places—contemporary theory says the sun cannot become a nova, vacuum tubes are outmoded, helicopters never did become the wave of the future—those details can be sacrificed for the sake of the fable. The primary forecasts of space travel and posturban civilization should not be discounted, at the risk of being as naïve and complacent as the aliens, without even their limited security in their own superiority.
More commonly, Clarke sees alien technology as older and better than humans’, as in two stories in which 2001: A Space Odyssey is rooted. In “Encounter at Dawn,” ancient astronauts “in the last days of the Empire” give tools to primitives a hundred thousand years before Babylon.
Even more understated, “The Sentinel” is allegedly told by an eyewitness who begins by directing the reader to locate on the Moon the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises), where the discovery took place. Part of a large 1996 expedition, he recalls fixing breakfast when a glint of light in the mountains caught his eye; staring through a telescope so fascinated him that he burned the sausages. From such homey touches, he led the climb to “Wilson’s Folly,” a plateau artificially leveled for a twelve-foot crystal pyramid “machine.” Its force field gave way, after twenty years of frustrated investigation, to an atomic assault which reduced the mystery to fragments. The rest of the story is speculation, successive stages of Wilson’s inferences.
Not a relic of lunar civilization, the artifact, half the age of Earth, was left by visitors: Wilson imagines it saying “I’m a stranger here myself.” After its destruction, he “guesses” it must have been a beacon; interrupting its signal has triggered a “fire alarm.” Lacking explicit alien intent, the pyramid emblemizes the unknown. Although such a potentially multivalent symbol invites other interpretations, Wilson’s is supported by 2001, in which a rectangular slab under the lunar surface signals after being exposed to sunlight. The final savage attack on the pyramid also seems significant to the narrator, although the pyramid might have been programmed to selfdestruct.
The quasi-religious awe, tinged with fear as well as positive expectation, with which Wilson awaits the aliens’ return has echoes elsewhere in Clarke. This story, moreover, with its judgment of space travel as a first step toward an incalculable destiny, many readers see as an article of faith in a grand design of a creator god. Such a pattern may lie beneath some of his work, but Clarke has also taken pains to discourage conventional religious interpretations.
The Nine Billion Names of God
Clarke’s work is dotted with attacks on religious or “mystical” belief and behavior, with one exception: the Scottish-born head of worldwide Buddhism in The Deep Range (1957), whose opposition to butchering whales is based partly on the conviction that aliens may judge humankind on its behavior toward its fellow creatures. Certainly the surprise ending of “The Nine Billion Names of God” is no proof of Clarke’s sharing the faith of his Tibetan lamas. Although the story attacks the complacency ofWestern computer technicians whose efficiency speeds up the counting of all of God’s names, the ending (“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out”) is that of a joke or a ghost story.
Rather than simply trivializing God, Clarke’s award-winning short story “The Star” makes God destructive and merciless. A Jesuit astrophysicist, slightly defensive about being both a cleric and a scientist, the narrator is at the point of quiet desperation. Beginning “It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican,” he finds no solace in the crucifix near his computer or the engraving of Loyola, whose order is not all that will end when an expedition makes public its findings.
In a retrospective narration that distances the action, the narrator recounts a ship’s approach to the inappropriately named “Phoenix” Nebula, the debris of a supernova that destroyed an interplanetary civilization. Different from Wells’s story of the same name, this cataclysm did not spare a people and let them find a sense of community. From their remains in a vault on the star’s most distant planet, the crew finds evidence that this “disturbingly human” civilization was at its peak when it died. The narrator’s colleagues see no room in nature for God’s wrath or mercy, and the narrator denies his own right to judge God. He is troubled, however, by the date of the disruption; given its direction and distance, this must have been the “Star of Bethlehem,” hanging low in the East before sunrise. Explicitly rejecting keeping the information secret or tampering with the data, he is troubled in his faith because he cannot refuse (or refute) the findings of science.
A masterpiece of compression, poetic in style, somber in tone, and totally devoid of action and dialogue (not even the two lines of “The Sentinel”), “The Star” does not even state its conclusion. The narrator must either conclude that his colleagues are right or accept a God who would destroy this culture to impress a few humans.
A Meeting with Medusa
Considerably at variance with these and most of Clarke’s short fiction is “A Meeting with Medusa.” Appearing four years after his retrospective collection, it is one of his longest stories not given book length, and a sharp improvement over most of his work in the 1960’s. Allusive and subtly patterned, both a character study and a tale of adventure, it continues Clarke’s interest in “first contact” and alien landscapes, but it also fictionalizes J. D. Bernal’s suggestion in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929) that space exploration is the proper province of a human mind in a posthuman body.
All but destroyed when a mismanaged robot camera platform sent his dirigible, the Queen Elizabeth IV, down in flames, Howard Falcon is restored to life as a cyborg, the physical form of which is not revealed until the last of eight chapters. Seven years later, stronger and more durable, he argues successfully to be sent on an expedition into the atmosphere of Jupiter. After an additional three years, the actual adventure takes place.
Almost a part of the “raft,” Kon-Tiki, supported by a hot hydrogen balloon (with emergency ram-jet and rocket motors), the wingless Falcon is nevertheless at a disadvantage when it comes to making contact with native life forms. Expecting at most a kind of plankton, he comes upon creatures whose nearest Earth analogues, in miniature, are varieties of sea life. Manta rays a hundred yards across seem docile browsers of floating wax mountains until their natural enemies appear. Radio-sensitive jellyfish over a mile wide, they repel attacking mantas with electrical discharges that also function for communications. A dirigible pilot once again, Falcon has neither their maneuverability nor their familiarity with local conditions.
Wryly amused at his ambassadorial role, he is understandably reluctant to obey the “Prime Directive” requiring him to avoid attacking intelligent creatures, at the cost of his own life if need be. When tentacles descend around the Kon-Tiki, he descends still lower; when the “Medusa” begins to “pat” his craft tentatively with a single tentacle, he cuts loose with his auxiliary engines. The Great Red Spot, blizzards of wax, atmospheric maelstroms, and various other features of the “world of the gods” can wait until another time.
A hero who has reignited humankind’s imagination, Falcon is slipping away from identity with the human race, one now discovers, along with the reader’s first glimpse of his undercarriage, hydraulic lifts, balloon tires, and seven foot height, if not of his “leathery mask” (now seen in a different light). Like the panicky “superchimp” on the Queen Elizabeth whose face he used to see in dreams, he is “between two worlds,” the biological and the mechanical. He represents at its extreme the “cosmic loneliness” of Clarke’s heroes.
Falcon is at the center of the story, although the predominant interest may be more in what he sees than in what he does. Jupiter is the “hero,” at least of the middle sections of the story, in which Clarke combines his undersea experience and astrophysical theory to draw plausible inferences about an unlikely place for “life as we know it.” Although he is not an adequate “ambassador” to the Jovians—who could be?—because he is not quite human, Falcon is the best possible explorer. A “new breed,” he is for some purposes “more than human,” although one’s bias toward the “handicap” of bipedalism may blind one to it. He is also one more piece of evidence that the “transcendence” of human limitations widespread in Clarke’s fiction may be at best a mixed blessing. Suspenseful yet satiric, adventuresome yet calmly paced, “A Meeting with Medusa,” in its poetic evocation of first contact and its sophisticated variations on transcendence and the “stranded astronaut,” is a culmination of the shorter fiction that came before it.
The Hammer of God
Several years elapsed before Clarke agreed to write another short story, “The Hammer of God,” for Time magazine’s special issue Beyond the Year 2000, published in the fall of 1992. In this tale, Clarke wryly combines paradoxes to shape his whimsical yet ironic version of efforts to deflect an asteroid’s possible collision with Earth.
Clarke combines extreme religious polarities; ancient mythological deities; futuristic technological, political, and economic achievements; and a cast characterized by their opposing actions and reactions: an eccentric politician, a sentimental captain, a very logical computer, an asteroid, and religious saboteurs. Facts about two previous asteroids serve to punctuate and divide the story into three parts. The first cataclysm sixty-five million years ago brought destruction to dinosaurs, plants, and other animals. In contrast, the second, in 1972, cut through Earth’s atmosphere for two minutes, causing no damage. The third asteroid enters the solar system in 2212. Named Kali after the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, this traveler is the menace facing Captain Robert Singh, commander of the ship Goliath; his central computer, David; and his one-hundred-person team, Operation ATLAS. The captain’s team wants to move a small chunk of the asteroid into a new path away from Earth.
Clarke envisions sophisticated technological and scientific advances. A neuralinput cap, the “portable Brainman,” fitting directly over a bald skull, allows the century-old Captain Singh to relive an experience from twenty years ago with his young son, Toby. The oil age ends with the advent of successful cold fusion. With lens-corrective laser shaping, eyeglasses are abolished, choices of skin coloring allow individuals to vary skin color as frequently as they change clothing, and scientific data from a radio beacon/measuring rod anchored within Kali supply David with facts to report on what the actual probability of impact would be.
Logical thinking is not characteristic for the captain of the Goliath. He focuses on whether his future friendships will be on Mars or the moon and speculates about how he can arrange that all the many decades of his life will be on Mars. His mind is not on ship business. Conversely, David’s logical thoughts provide an alternative solution to the loss of hydrogen the ship experiences.With the remainder of the ship’s own propellant, originally reserved to rendezvous with Titan, Goliath itself can push Kali into a new course that will bypass Earth. Unfortunately, no one explores Kali further before accepting David’s maneuver.
This asteroid has a fatal hidden feature, a weak outer crust. When Goliath pushes with all its force against Kali, it breaks through this crust and is stuck. Despite all attempts to reverse and pull free, the effort is useless. Using the remainder of its fuel, the ship makes one final push on Kali, strong enough to slightly alter the asteroid’s path and to permanently lock them into the asteroid’s surface. Contrary to the ancient Hindu goddess Kali’s almost endless blood sacrifices, this Kali’s destructive sacrifices as she cuts through Earth’s atmosphere for two minutes are trivial—only the ship’s crew, ten thousand lives, and one trillion dollars in damages. With skilled understatement, numerous paradoxes, and wry humor, Clarke again demonstrates in “The Hammer of God” his ability to craft an entertaining tale about Earth’s potential collision with a stray asteroid from outer space. As a poet of the infinite, whose fables judge humanity from an “alien” point of view, Clarke stands alone.
Short fiction: Expedition to Earth, 1953; Reach for Tomorrow, 1956; Tales from the White Hart, 1957; The Other Side of the Sky, 1958; Tales of Ten Worlds, 1962; The Nine Billion Names of God, 1967; Of Time and Stars: The Worlds of Arthur C. Clarke, 1972; The Wind from the Sun, 1972; The Best of Arthur C. Clarke, 1937-1971, 1973; The Sentinel: Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1983; Dilemmas: The Secret, 1989; Tales from Planet Earth, 1989; More than One Universe: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, 1991; The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, 2000.
Children’s literature: Islands in the Sky, 1952; Dolphin Island, 1963.
Novels: Prelude to Space, 1951; The Sands of Mars, 1951; Against the Fall of Night, 1953 (revised as The City and the Stars, 1956); Childhood’s End, 1953; Earthlight, 1955; The Deep Range, 1957; Across the Sea of Stars, 1959; A Fall of Moondust, 1961; From the Ocean, from the Stars, 1962; Glide Path, 1963; Prelude to Mars, 1965; “The Lion of Comarre,” and “Against the Fall of Night,” 1968; 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; Rendezvous with Rama, 1973; Imperial Earth, 1975; The Fountains of Paradise, 1979; 2010: Odyssey Two, 1982; The Songs of Distant Earth, 1986; 2061: Odyssey Three, 1987; Cradle, 1988 (with Gentry Lee); Rama II, 1989 (with Lee); Beyond the Fall of Night, 1990 (with Gregory Benford); The Ghost from the Grand Banks, 1990; The Garden of Rama, 1991 (with Lee); Rama Revealed, 1993 (with Lee); The Hammer of God, 1993; Richter 10, 1996 (with Mike McQuay); 3001: The Final Odyssey, 1997; The Trigger, 1999 (with Michael Kube-McDowell); The Light of Other Days, 2000 (with Stephen Baxter); Time’s Eye, 2004 (with Baxter); Sunstorm, 2005 (with Baxter).
Nonfiction: Interplanetary Flight, 1950; The Exploration of Space, 1951 (revised, 1959); Going into Space, 1954; The Exploration of the Moon, 1954; The Coast of Coral, 1956; The Making of a Moon, 1957; The Reefs of Taprobane, 1957; Voice Across the Sea, 1958; The Challenge of the Spaceship, 1959; The Challenge of the Sea, 1960; The First Five Fathoms, 1960; Indian Ocean Adventure, 1961 (with Mike Wilson); Profiles of the Future, 1962; Indian Ocean Treasure, 1964 (with Wilson); Man and Space, 1964 (with others); The Treasure of the Great Reef, 1964; Voices from the Sky, 1965; The Promise of Space, 1968; First on the Moon, 1970 (with others); Into Space, 1971 (with Robert Silverberg); Beyond Jupiter, 1972 (with Chesley Bonestall); Report on Planet Three, 1972; The Lost Worlds of 2001, 1972; The View from Serendip, 1977 (autobiographical); 1984: Spring, a Choice of Futures, 1984; The Odyssey File, 1985 (with Peter Hyams); Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the Twenty-first Century, 1986; Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography, 1989; How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village, 1992; By Space Possessed, 1993; The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars, 1994; Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays, 1934-1998, 1999; From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis, 2003 (Ryder W. Miller, editor).
Poetry: The Fantastic Muse, 1992.
Clarke, Arthur C. Astounding Days: A Science-Fictional Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.
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