Tag Archives: Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke’s billion-year-old city shows his talents and his weaknesses

They had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

Title: The City and the Stars
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Year: 1953
Rating: 3/5 stars

citystarsA city that has stood for a billion years, protecting its population on a future Earth long since abandoned and turned barren. Matter-manipulating technology capable of sustaining that city in perfect condition, and providing anything the inhabitants need or desire. Memory banks that hold each person’s pattern, allowing them to reincarnate over and over again, providing them with a new body each time. A humanity that has long ago lost much of its heritage and knowledge of its past, and now lives a safe but limited existence, frightened of the outside world and their innate human curiosity. And one unique individual who embraces his curiosity, setting forth on a quest for answers that will change his world. Such are the concepts that make up The City and the Stars, one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earliest novels (actually a rewrite of his first novel, Against the Fall of Night, with which he was dissatisfied).

The late Mr. Clarke was often capable of coming up with bold, exciting ideas, but alas, his writing style often couldn’t match them. That’s certainly the case here. The book is full of grand ideas designed to give one’s sense of wonder a vigorous workout. I probably would have adored this book if I’d read it back in the 50’s when it was fresh and new, or perhaps if I’d read it at a much younger age. Unfortunately, the storytelling here has a really amateur, pulp-era feel to it, which I can’t quite get over. Some of the situations are pretty silly, and the plot wildly zings along without much in the way of smooth transition. This is much more apparent in the second half of the book, in which Alvin can be seen firmly on Earth on one page, and hurtling through space on a suddenly discovered starship by the next page (as one example).

So the book is long on substance, but rather short on form. I suppose those two traits average out to a somewhat mediocre story overall. Other than that, I’m just not inspired to say much more about this book. It was worth reading, but I’ll take Childhood’s End over this one any day.

Two out of Three For Tommorrow ain’t bad

The trouble with modern life, Bryce thought, is that technology gives us the potential for newer and more intricate disasters every year, but doesn’t seem to give us the ability to ward them off.

Title: Three For Tommorrow: Three Original Novellas of Science Fiction
Authors: Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, James Blish
Year: 1969
Rating: 3/5 stars

threefortommorrowThis nifty little volume contains three novellas by three well-known SF writers — but not just any random novellas. These three pieces are the result of an interesting literary project, and they were written especially for this purpose. To be more specific: the authors were presented with a short essay written by Arthur C. Clarke setting forth a general theme for a story, and then those authors took that theme and did what they do best: they wrote a story based on Clarke’s essay, attempting to work within that framework while interpreting it in their own different ways, filtering it through their own unique imaginations. As it turns out, none of these three novellas are remotely similar to each other; and only one (Silverberg’s) seems to me to be a good fit for the concepts laid out by Clarke. That in itself doesn’t mean the other stories are bad. It simply means that this little literary experiment wasn’t quite as successful as it could have been. I liked two out of the three novellas, so hey, I can’t complain too much.

The essential core of Clarke’s essay goes something like this:

With increasing technology goes increasing vulnerability; the more Man “conquers” (sic) Nature, the more prone he becomes to artificial catastrophe. The last few years have brought a series of previews: the Torrey Canyon oil tanker and the Santa Barbara oil slick, the blackout of the northeastern United States, the thalidomide disaster….

To which we, several decades later, could add many more examples: Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, etc etc……

Clarke continues, focusing the concept a bit more:

But the most terrifying prospects are those which involve psychological, not just technological, factors. Remember the “Mad Bomber” of the New York subway. Think of all the airliners that have been destroyed by explosives in the baggage compartment. And don’t forget that clean-cut, all-American sniper in the University of Texas clocktower.
How is the society of the future going to protect itself from an increasing spectrum of ever more horrendous disasters, particularly those made possible by new devices (high powered lasers? drugs??) in the hands of madmen? To put the matter in one sentence: When will some Lee Harvy Oswald attempt to assassinate a city — or a world?

In “How It Was When the Past Went Away,” Silverberg really takes Clarke’s essay to heart, even zeroing in on the word “drugs” as his takeoff point. His story involves terrorists who unleash massive amounts of memory-erasing drugs into a large city’s water supply, and the effects on the city’s people. This is an all-too-realistic (not to mention all-too-scary) scenario, but it’s not the only way Silverberg scores here. He also presents a financial situation, centered around a “Credit Epidemic,” that seems eerily similar to today’s world. And one of the characters seems predictive of the modern popularity of bottle water:

He was not unaware of the little smiles they gave him when he admitted that he drank only bottle spring water, but he didn’t mind; he had outlived many of the smilers already, and attributed his perfect health to his refusal to touch the polluted, contaminated water that most other people drank.

Zelazny offers “The Eve of RUMOKO,” about a project to use artificial underwater volcanoes to create new islands for a growing population, and about the sabotage attempts aimed at it, since not everyone agrees it’s a good idea, or a safe one. And as it turns out, it’s not safe, and disaster ensues. However, that part of the story seems more like a background setting for the more interesting part. In this future world, your identity is totally defined by the information that exists about you in the Central Database. One man who helped set up the system decides to opt out, to live “off the grid.” He erases all his computerized information, so he doesn’t exist. On the other hand, he can input any information he wants (via a secret backdoor in the program), so he can be anybody he wants. He uses this ability to live as a sort of freelance secret agent, and this is very entertaining since he is endowed with the kind of irreverent and sarcastic wit that is common to Zelazny characters.

The Blish story, “We All Die Naked,” is rather disappointing. The disaster angle here is a generalized environmental decay caused by humanity trashing the planet. Against this backdrop we see a small group of people figuring out that a tipping point has been reached, and that the end of the world is imminent. The various characters face the end, singly or together, bravely or cowering, and the world crumbles, and they die, and that’s that. I’m not complaining about the pessimism there, only the style (or lack thereof) with which it was presented. This story was a dull read.

But as I said, two out of three ain’t bad. I like the concept behind this book, and I hope to find more like it.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆

Classic… landmark… masterpiece. Clarke. Childhood’s End.

Coming from just about the middle of the 20th century (1953), Clarke’s Childhood’s End is not only a prime example of a science fiction classic, but even more, it deserves to be called a science fiction masterpiece. It’s quite simply one of the best sf novels I’ve ever read, and I keep wondering what took me so long to get around to reading it. It makes me wonder what other masterpieces are out there that I haven’t bothered to read yet.

One of the things that most impressed me was how this novel departed from the common sf assumptions of the times, the optimistic attitude about humanity’s future and destiny and our ability to overcome any obstacle and achieve anything and go conquer the galaxy. Clarke dashed that view to pieces. But at the same time, the novel’s outlook is not entirely pessimistic either. Rather, it’s a bittersweet combination of optimism and pessimism. One of the prime lessons is that the end of one thing is also the beginning of another, and that what is a wondrous event from one perspective can be a profound tragedy from another, and vice versa. Clarke unflinchingly presented humanity as it faced its end; yet in that end, it also gave rise to something greater than itself. Tragically, humanity could take little solace in its extraordinary descendant species, since they were beyond all understanding. And that’s another lesson of the novel, that there may be things in the universe that will always be beyond our ability to understand and control, and we may reach a point where we will have to face that, no matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow. And, to throw in one more lesson: one generation can’t really control the next, which will inevitably end up with its own goals and doing its own thing. Clarke gives just about the most extreme demonstration of that imaginable.

One of the really interesting things about reading this book was that I got so many “echoes,” little bits of familiarity from later science fiction — themes, tropes, concepts, or images that I’m familiar with from other books or movies, that have been borrowed and re-used and changed and refined down through the years. One of the big ones was the image of giant alien motherships hovering over Earth’s cities, with all the sinister threat they imply. Another was aliens who come to conquer us, and yet another was aliens who come to help us (the Overlords fit both of these categories; there’s nothing simple about Clarke’s aliens here). Another was the presentation of a post-scarcity world. Another was the evolution of the human species and the development of super-beings.

Childhood’s End is one of those ageless novels that is as fresh today as it was in the 50’s. I didn’t notice anything that was technologically out of date. The Overlords use a “Stardrive” to power their ships, but the explanation of it is vague enough that there’s nothing to offend modern sensibilities. The use of relativistic time distortion is solid science, of course. There were some technological ideas included that were ahead of their time — what seemed to be references to CGI and virtual reality, for example.

I thought Clarke did an excellent job with the softer disciplines too, particularly in making good use of psychology and mythology. The various reactions of humanity to the circumstances seemed very believable, as was the way the Overlords manipulated human psychology to achieve their goals. And the way these aliens had become equated with certain characters from human mythology was quite incredible and mind-blowing.

I loved the way that, while humanity was facing it’s greatest tragedy, the Overlords, who seemed so incredibly advanced, were facing their own tragedy, one perhaps even worse. It was this, more than anything else, that made the Overlords so accessible, so believable as real sentient beings, and worthy as objects of sympathy.

What more can I say about this book? I am impressed. Very impressed. Why didn’t I read this years ago?

The Science Fiction Phenomenon

I found this documentary called Brave New Worlds: the Science Fiction Phenomenon, from back in 1993, which was broadcast in the UK, I believe. It’s pretty interesting, especially the commentary from various authors such as Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, as well as SF critic John Clute, some film people such as Paul Verhoeven, and others. Running time: about 54 minutes.

Note: even though in English, the videos are subtitled in a some other language, but it’s easy enough to ignore. Also, several minutes of sound are covered by static in part 2. I don’t know what that’s about, but these are the only copies I could find.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Clarke’s Hammer… asteroid, Earth, collision…. *yawn*

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1993 novel The Hammer of God came about in a somewhat interesting fashion. His 1973 classic Rendezvous with Rama started with the background story of an asteroid collision with Earth that led to the creation of the Spaceguard project meant to detect other potential problems (which is how the Rama craft was spotted). In 1992 the U.S. Congress directed NASA to begin just such a detection program, and named it Spaceguard in Clarke’s honor. This in turn inspired Clarke to write a novel devoted entirely to the asteroid impact scenario, the result being The Hammer of God.

What can I say about this book? It’s a pretty basic — almost standard — approach to the topic. An asteroid is detected. A spacecraft is sent to intercept and tries to change its course. When this fails, there’s an attempt to blow it up. They manage to break the asteroid into pieces and avert most of the disaster. Along the way there is that common plot element, the sacrifice: the crew of the spacecraft is willing to give up their lives to save the planet (even though they don’t have to follow through with it). There is also sabotage by a fringe religious group that sees the asteroid as God’s will and looks forward to being vaporized when it hits. Throw in a few abbreviated glimpses of the social reaction to such a disaster, and some futuristic technology that doesn’t matter much to the story, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of what this book is about.

In other words, there’s nothing too special about Clarke’s treatment of the subject. It’s certainly a competent novel with a sound scientific backing. But it wasn’t especially exciting or creative. There were no real surprises, no twists that would set it apart from numerous other novels or movies concerning asteroid impacts. Everything that happened was fairly predictable. The characters were not too interesting. There were no big mindblowing ideas. I definitely had a “been there, done that” feeling. I almost feel cheated.

On the plus side, it was a quick and easy read. I breezed through it in about five or six hours, which must be some kind of record for me. Then again, if the story is set on auto-pilot and goes by without making the reader stop and think, that’s not much of a compliment to the author, is it?

At the end Clarke includes a section called Sources and Acknowledgments (around 13 pages long) which was actually, to me, more interesting than the actual novel. In it, he discusses the genesis of the book, NASA’s borrowing of the “Spaceguard” name, some of the real science concerning the asteroid threat, some of the scientists involved, and some of the other science fiction works that have used the concept.

Since it only took a few hours to get through this book, I won’t say it was a waste of time. But nor was it an especially enlightening or entertaining use of that time. This novel was just sort of “there,” know what I mean?