Feb. 17th, 2017

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The Hammer Of God, 1992

This is a short story that Clarke turned into a full-length novel a year later. Astronomers spot a rock heading for Earth, and scientists launch a spaceship to intercept it and nudge it off its collision course. No relation to the short story of the same name by G. K. Chesterton, or the similarly-named-and-themed novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle from 1978.

I don't know why it took him so long to explore the scenario; he was writing about landing ships on comets over 30 years before he wrote this. On the other hand perhaps it only seems obvious in retrospect. In the 1980's, the idea of an impact killing off the dinosaurs had barely even gained traction in the scientific community, let alone for the general public. Plus, everyone was obsessed with the idea of nuclear destruction at the hands of the Soviets. Who had time to think about rocks from space?

Then, geologists found a layer of iridium sewn into the Earth's crust, and in the early 1990's they found forensic evidence of an impact crater big enough to do the job. And bingo, Clarke writes this story a year later, which uses a description of that impact as a framing device. I guess it was a blind spot for even the great "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi". He should have read Niven and Pournelle's book!

As a kid, I remember reading Orn, by Piers Anthony, and finding an "author's note" in the back of the book, confidently laying out a case for the dinosaurs dying due to temperature change, from continental drift*. I guess that was the state of the art in 1971, when Orn was written. Today that theory would be laughed at just as heartily as the impact theory was in the 80's. We've come a long way. I wonder what ideas there are today, on the fringe of science, that sound very reasonable with our present knowledge -- but will seem unworkable in ten or twenty years, after we make new discoveries that totally reframe the debate?

Here's a few I'm willing to put forward:

  1. By closely examining the DNA of a person, and the taxonomy of their gut bacteria, a computer program can predict their ideal diet, on a meal-by-meal basis. Seems sensible now; will seem childish in 10 years.
  2. The space elevator is a workable concept for Earth. Tantalizing now, will seem like a boondoggle in 20 years or less.
  3. Wormholes can be used as a means of travel or communication. Plausible now; will seem like a fairy story in 20-30 years.
  4. High-quality meat can be grown in vats, more cheaply and with less waste than well-managed pastoral farming. Seems like an any-day-now invention, but I reckon the closest we'll get will be a product of fermentation like tempeh. Not a bad outcome really, since tempeh is delicious.

It's always risky to pronounce things as wrong before they've been completely explored. I'll check back in a decade and see how I did. Terribly, I hope!

(*Now we call it "plate tectonics" of course.)

Reunion, 1971

A short one with a twist in the last four words. It's ham-handed and I might as well spoil it. An alien race makes contact, and claims that they are humans, and colonized Earth with humans ten million years ago. (Never mind our 99% of shared genes with apes, or our 50% of shared genes with all other cellular life on the planet. Did they know any of that back in 1971?) Most of the aliens abandoned the planet when the environment turned sour, leaving behind a handful of humans who had "descended to barbarism" because of a "genetic plague" that had broken out in the population and caused them shame and suspicion. The big twist: The "disease" is white skin, and the aliens are ready to "cure" it as soon as they return, so we can "join the society of the universe without shame".

This story is 45 years old, and it suffers for it. For every modern reader who would think "hah, that's a solid Take That against the white supremacists in my family!" -- there are two or even three readers who would say "Wow, you suck Clarke. The righteous response to racism is not bigger racism." And this is galactic-scale racism!!

On Golden Seas, 1986

A light-hearted mishmash about how the world governments would react to the idea of trying to pay their bills by extracting gold from seawater. Clarke gets a point for proposing that a future US President would be female. He loses that point for proposing that other world leaders would still happily make sexist jokes about her in the international media.

He keeps the tone playful here, and perhaps he is also making some clever commentary about global politics of the 80's but that commentary is lost on me now. Given how long the downtime has grown between his short stories in the 80's and 90's, I think he's actually become sick of the short-story format at this point and is using it to rid himself of half-baked ideas that he doesn't feel are worth a full-sized novel...

Improving The Neighborhood, 1999

In the introduction to this story Clarke proudly says it was the first piece of fiction to be published in Nature (which is usually restricted to very non-fictional scientific papers). He reckons it might have upset scientists who didn't know they were reading fiction.

I don't think so. The story is a dispassionate recounting of the history of a civilization of "large" "loud" beings that were so thirsty for energy to drive their machines that they accidentally blew up their entire planet, as well as its moon. Partway through it becomes clear that the narrator is actually on an alien world and the "large" "loud" beings in the story are us humans. Aside from a snide jab at how much we all love gas-guzzling vehicles, there isn't much emotion, structure, or even any real point to this story at all. Considering it was the last short story he ever published, I was hoping for something professional and clever -- something with zing to it.


The Wire Continuum, 1997

And here at last we come to the final story.

This is an episodic look at a technology similar to what Clarke wrote about in "Travel By Wire", except now we're hopping between two characters as they witness its long-haul development and integration into society. It offers an alternate history, branching off in the 1940's when we make the key discoveries, and transforming the future from there.

The basic technology - and the 'fiction' part of the 'science fiction' - is that humans and other objects can be "transported" by breaking them down into a digital signature and embedding that signature into materials at some distant place. Clarke and Baxter hand-wave the quantum mechanics and physics problems by the time-honored method of calling our attention to them, putting them all inside a black box, and then labeling the box by name-dropping a bunch of scientists and mathematicians that supposedly worked very hard on the contents and met with mysterious success. To take what should be a classic example, a "warp drive" engine is just like a regular engine, except somewhere in the traditional wiring diagram there is a large box called the "Einstein-Rosen-LaMarche-Baxter Box" that does all the currently impossible stuff. How does it work? It does that thing that Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all talked about, very fast. Sounds classy and smart, right? You would be able to understand it, if only you were well-read enough to know what Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all had in common. The author surely knows, which is why he name-dropped these specific people. (Not likely since I just made "LaMarche" up.)

Anyhoo, this story has Baxter's fingerprints all over it, since it's about the space-race and has turgid family drama very tightly knit into the narrative, as though there were something metaphorical going on that you can't quite grasp. When he integrates drama into his science it usually works out fine, and adds a very important element of human perspective to a story, but in this short form it proves a little squirrely for him. And it's clear that this is almost entirely Stephen Baxter's work. The stock Clarke characters are missing, the overt contempt for women is gone, and there isn't so much emotional distance between the narration and the protagonists. Clarke always did struggle with complex emotion in his stories, as perhaps he did in real life.

This story ends on a 2001-style note of an old man in bed, near death, encountering the future of humanity and the unknown all at once, and then doing something ambiguous that is ripe for interpretation. A pretty good story all told, and it pulls on other threads that Clarke and Baxter explored in "The Light Of Other Days," an absolute favorite of mine for its too-ambitious scope and surplus of ideas. I recommend this story, so I ain't spoiling it.

Also, I'm glad I got to this one last, because it's a good high note at the finish this project. And now that I've been through them all, I can ask some big picture questions.


What was Clarke's best decade for short stories? I'd have to say it was the 60's, narrowly edging out the 50's. But the vast majority of his short story work was during those years, so that makes sense. How about a better question: What were his best two consecutive years?

I'm gonna say 1952, and 1953. In those years we get "The Parasite," which was the precursor to "The Light Of Other Days," "All The Time In The World," which was very smartly constructed and a fun read, and "Jupiter Five," which is enthralling and reads like a precursor to Rendezvous With Rama -- at least up to the point where Clarke rips us away from the interior of a spooky alien ship and makes the story about gravity shenanigans instead. And we also get "The Other Tiger," "Encounter In The Dawn," "The Possessed," and the whack-a-doo classic "The Nine Billion Names Of God" to round things out. Each hits on a very different theme.

Here's another question: Are there any I would consider good enough to read more than once? Yes, four of them:

  • Rescue Party (1946). It's so ancient it's turned Steampunk, and that makes it fun.
  • The Lion of Comarre (1949). Puzzling out the function of an ancient city is a premise that will grab me every time, and I've forgotten the details of this one.
  • All The Time In The World (1952). It's got a buildup like one of those dank Twilight Zone episodes. Fun to re-read knowing things in advance.
  • Before Eden (1961). The Venus that might-have-been, some chatty scientists doing their thing, and a nice twist as garnish. Worth another go-round.

Which story affected me - made me think - the most?

That's a hard one. I've been able to draw some interesting thoughts out of most of his tales. But if we're talking about influencing my worldview, or changing me, in a way that I can identity as important ... well, I don't know. I want to be able to point at one or two of these stories and go, "I am a changed person after reading that," like I can with "Rendezvous With Rama," or "The Light Of Other Days," each for their own reasons. But I can't. When I look back, it's just a pleasant blur, like that feeling you have after binge-watching a good - but not fantastic - television series. So, I have to fall back to the second level: What story made me think the most, even if it didn't change me?

That's probably The Songs Of Distant Earth, which gave me a lot to work with in the form of Clarke's ignorance - about future technology, about entomology, about civic planning, and about complex human relationships and romance. Clarke wrote this in 1958, which means he was 41 at the time -- coincidentally my own age now. I find that a little bit absurd. Not for any of the scientific inaccuracy, but because of his undercooked ideas about romance and sex. He writes about it like someone half his age.

I ranted a little bit about that in my original review, and I won't pick it back up here. Suffice to say that Clarke and I don't see eye to eye.

So hey, it took a little under SIX YEARS, but I actually went through every short story Arthur C Clarke wrote and gave each one some sort of review. I'm now much more familiar with his style. Also his flaws, and I have to admit that in spite of them, his title of "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi" is deserved. He may not know how to navigate a romance, but he sure knows how to build a story, and how to expand an idea at the corner of science, and on his best days he knows how to craft a great action scene and put you in the moment. I'm glad I went on this ride.

Thanks Arthur, wherever you are!


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