At its ambitious best, Clarke's grave and lucidly written fiction vaults metaphysically across millennia and contracts the near-infinite arc of astronomical time. It gives us not the usual picturesque bric-a-brac of sci-fi - the invading aliens, dogfighting spaceships and feuding interstellar empires - but the long, immortalising perspective within which humanity's brief lifespan looks either newly irrelevant, or newly purposeful and complete.
All his finest books share the same, dwarfing John Martin-ish visual perspective, the sense of tiny human figures suspended against visionary galactic immensities, transfigured at the supreme moment by the ages and the stars. Again and again, in Against the Fall of Night or A Space Odyssey or the Rendezvous with Rama novels or his last-days-of-the-human race classic Childhood's End, we seem to hear in our heads, as we read the final pages, the age-old biblical testimony: To describe Clarke as a mystical fabulist may sound perverse when there is so much in his work that appears hostile to the religious view, or at least unsentimentally agnostic.
But beneath its progressive science, its apparent faith in the rational calm of the technological mind, his writing has always been disturbed by that ancient, bedevilling sorcerer's itch: Long before magic realism, Clarke's science fiction found ways to make the outwardly miraculous an expression of an inner emotional need without violating the literal, technical integrity of the accepted external world.
In a factual essay, "The Obsolescence of Man", written in the early s, Clarke had speculated: Perhaps, as the mystics have suggested, it may also discard matter Something of the precocious child, eager but unhappy in the world, still clings to his fiction. It's as if, from the start, the rooted intractability of human affairs distressed him, and he turned instead to a new dispensation, far in the future, when the tarnished experiment of "civilisation" - with all its congen ital warfare and wearying psychic division - is approaching its end, about to make the quantum jump to a realm of pure intelligence, something closer to the Buddhist ideal of integrated spiritual creation that I suspect Clarke at least half-believes.
A Space Odyssey was first released, before concluding, in a shrewdly far-sighted review which is quoted in full by Piers Bizony in his judicious and well-informed account of the film's production, Filming the Future , that director Stanley Kubrick and Clarke had nevertheless "made it the poetically just place to go". Probably, at the same time, a shade too much of the conceptual credit for the film's half-luminous, half-baffling structure went to Kubrick, too little to Clarke, who had in fact selectively plundered a number of his earlier works in order to bring to the screenplay a narrative and philosophical audacity unheard of in mainstream commercial cinema.
As those early, appreciatively tuned-in college-student audiences instinctively understood, the film's shape was poetic and metaphorical, not straightforwardly dramatic. The transition from the shrieking, war-hungry man-apes brandishing their bone-clubs, agog at the sense of infinite possibility that strategic murder creates for their species, to the effortless technological super-sophistication of a half-empty Pan-Am space cruiser, waltzing the heavens with insolent imperial grace, gave us, in a single provocative jump-cut, a taste of Clarke and Kubrick's scepticism and restlessness.
It demonstrated their fascination with the umbilical cord connecting the barbarous past and the far-seeking, ambitious future, their urge to make their audiences think philosophically. It's interesting to see how the seeds of virtually all his major novels are scattered across Clarke's Collected Stories , in tightly wrought tales of serendipity or suspense that, while they contain seductive pre-echoes of the metaphysical breadth Clarke would achieve in the longer form, reveal him also as a twist-in-the-tail, punchline-addicted contributor to sci-fi periodicals such as Thrilling Wonder Stories and Science-Fantasy.
The central ideas of originate in a series of small-scale but ingeniously plotted anecdotes of discovery or confrontation - the alien pyramid, unearthed from the lunar surface, signalling to its maker the news of the human race's first giant leap beyond the earth in "The Sentinel"; the visiting star-voyager benignly steering prehistoric man towards the uses of technology in "Encounter at Dawn". Clarke, "Preface," Earthlight New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. David Young, The Heart's Forest: Yale University Press, , p.
My thanks to Professor Raymond G. McCall of the College of Wooster for pointing out this passage to me. Signet, , Yet Clarke later says of the Master, "He was a good man, and much of what he taught was true and wise. In the end, he believed his own miracles, but he knew that there was one witness who could refute them. The robot knew all his secrets: On one of the worlds they visit, Alvin and his companions find an obelisk honoring the Master Clarke explains that he wrote "a short story about a meeting in the remote past between visitors from space and a primitive apeman.
Clarke preferred the title "Encounter in the Dawn"; it was also entitled "Encounter at Dawn. Significantly, too, in that it suggests the importance of the theme, Clarke had already written "The Sentinel" in The Lost Worlds of , p. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama New York: Har-court Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Charles Scribner's Sons, One of the three best-known "hard" science fiction writers of the mid-twentieth century, Arthur Charles Clarke, was born on 16 December in Minehead, Somerset, England, in farming country.
His early love of astronomy coincided with his introduction to science fiction and fantasy, in the pulp magazines of Hugo Gernsback and via the more literary tradition of H. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and especially the novelist-philosopher Olaf Stapledon. In high school Clarke contributed science fictional sketches of his own to The Huish Magazine — before leaving for London to become a government auditor.
Disliking his job, he felt more at home with other science fiction fans and members of the British Interplanetary Society BIS , then in its infancy. In technical journals he also published some papers resulting from his work as a Royal Air Force instructor in the new technology of radar, including his now famous suggestion for communications satellites in stationary orbits. After the war Clarke attended King's College, London — , to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics.
Active in the British Astronomical Association, he also served for three terms —, — as chairman of the revived and growing BIS, and he seized every opportunity to propagandize for space travel, in the assumption that Britain would play a significant role in it. This phase of his career culminated in his first book, Interplanetary Flight , and its successor, The Exploration of Space , a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, which made him the foremost popularizer of space travel.
Nine more books and many articles on space would follow. Clarke's professional debut as a science fiction writer also took place right after the war, with nineteen stories sometimes under pseudonyms preceding his first book of fiction, the novel Prelude to Space Although several of his short stories and four early novels took place in science fiction's "consensus history" of man's expansion into space, overseen by the presence of Astounding editor John W.
Some of his early stories also were essentially jokes, of the "shaggy dog" variety, or "ghost stories" as Eric Rabkin calls them. This whimsical streak climaxed with the publication of Tales from the White Hart. The jokes continued after the mid's, as did the near future scenarios and the more mythic tales, but this period marked a break in Clarke's career.
A marriage in , to Marilyn Mayfield, did not last long a divorce officially came about in , but his fascination with Ceylon now Sri Lanka and the sea did. Introduced to the undersea world by the young photographer Mike Wilson, with whom he would collaborate on six books and a film, Clarke also discovered the Indian Ocean "island paradise," which has been his home since After publication of another sixteen short stories and The Deep Range , his science fiction production slackened, and the sea and the East began to play a somewhat larger role in his work, beyond the facile Odyssean parallel with space already evident.
Making the movie of A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick probably earned Clarke his greatest fame and widest audience, but other honors have not been lacking. The science fiction community awarded him prizes for the short story "The Star" ; the novella "A Meeting with Medusa" ; and two novels Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for "the popularization of science" in was the first of several honors resulting from his "invention" of Comsats, numerous lecture tours, and nonfiction works now surpassing twenty books.
By the 's, academic critical interest in science fiction virtually guaranteed that Clarke would be the subject of numerous books and articles delving into his fiction, science writing, and those autobiographical snippets that can be drawn from his many prefaces and forewords and from a miscellaneous assemblage of nonfiction, The View from Serendip But the Clarke canon consists almost equally of "scenarios" and "jokes," the latter mainly being restricted to shorter forms. Algis Budrys once complained about Clarke's predilection for scary stories with surprise endings, which often failed either to scare or to surprise.
Rabkin's description of these as "ghost stories" may be more apt, indicating that it is all in fun and connecting them to the more explicitly humorous tall tales. Certainly the scare-potential of ants ruling the world "The Forgotten Enemy," , of a traditional bogeyman on a distant planet "A Walk in the Dark," , or of a kitten in a spacesuit "Who's There? Interspecies miscomprehension is a subject for humor in other Clarke tales, ranging from paranoid fantasies of possessed people "The Parasite," and lemmings "The Possessed," to a bare awareness of each other's existence between humans and beings below the Earth's surface "The Fires Within," The failure to understand humans is dangerous to aliens only in Clarke's first two professional sales , "Loophole" and "Rescue Party.
Even contrasted with the aliens' numbers and technological sophistication, this future Earth is still notable, by our present standards, for its accelerated development, culminating in an Exodus fleet, which the aliens deem unprecedentedly large as well as technologically primitive, relying on mere rocket power. Adrift and in need of rescue themselves, after a swift departure from the Solar System, the aliens jest about the potential danger these newcomers may pose to the vast Federation, leading to the low-key punch line: Typical of Clarke's explicit jokes are Harry Purvis' tales of implausible inventions, from anti-gravity "What Goes Up," and intimidated carnivorous plants "The Reluctant Orchid," to aphrodisiac recordings "Patent Pending," and insanity-producing music "The Ultimate Melody," in Tales from the White Hart , allegedly told to a pub full of science fiction aficionados.
Not every reader's palate may be sensitized to this special form of humor, but Clarke's predilection for it has been evident from his schoolboy days to the present. Clarke's scenarios for man's exploration and development of the Solar System are noteworthy for their transparent style and matter-of-fact handling of technical details fully familiar from his contemporaneous nonfiction writing. Other rescues of helpless astronauts are made possible by flimsy sunshades inside the orbit of Mercury "Summertime on Icarus," , by the weak gravity of the Moon "Maelstrom II," , and by a battery of abacuses when computers break down "Into the Comet," Two cycles, each consisting of six short-short stories, best illustrate Clarke's public-relations work.
In the first cycle, "Venture to the Moon" , the commander of the British spaceship Endeavour chronicles a joint expedition of the United States and Russia, while the second cycle, "The Other Side of the Sky" , gives an insider's view of the building of space stations. Each story is a vignette illustrating a single point—such as the Moon's potential uses for advertising, archery, and vegetation; the value of canaries for detecting bad air; the favorable chances of surviving a brief exposure to vacuum; and the evanescent glimpse of what might be the hulk of an alien spaceship.
Like his other contributions to the "consensus future," these human-interest stories have little or no plot complication. The static situation of an astronaut abandoned on Mars is charged with memories and allusions to previous explorers, Captain Cook and Admiral Byrd, in "Transit of Earth" Equally static is the elegiac "'If I Forget Thee, O Earth …'" , in which a ten-year-old boy gets his first trip outside the base on the "dark side" of the Moon to get his first glimpse of radioactive Earth and learn the lesson of exile.
In "Death and the Senator" a dying opponent of American space stations refuses a lifesaving offer by the Russians' orbital hospital. Even the obvious potential for drama of a race to the Moon between sun-powered sailing ships is short-circuited by a solar flare in "Sunjammer" , and in Clarke's best-selling novel, A Fall of Moondust , the drama consists largely of doing one's best to survive until rescuers can devise and execute a plan to release the passengers of a sightseeing tour trapped in a pocket of lunar dust.
The characters are stereotyped, but the narrative crackles with wit, and the reader's fun is partly in trying to solve the problems posed before the rescuers do. Clarke's reluctance to tell a traditional action-adventure story in the pulp tradition may be credited to his literary allegiances and a desire to downplay the thoughtless romanticism evident in such tales of derring-do.
Whatever the reason, his few attempts at melodrama are not very successful—from two Venus-bound astronauts deciding who will survive on their limited air supply "Breaking Strain," and an expedition to an artificial Jovian satellite "Jupiter Five," to the kidnaping of the UN Secretary-General "Guardian Angel," ; Childhood's End , He is more clearly in his element in those novels that attend to the first stages of settling the Solar System, as seen from an outsider's point of view.
A historian of contemporary events observes preparations for the launching of the first Moon-rocket, a predominantly British effort from an electromagnetic launching track in Australia, in Prelude to Space A science fiction writer accompanies a ship to Mars just in time to see the colony approach self-sufficiency, in The Sands of Mars In Earthlight ; shorter magazine version, , an accountant turned ineffective spy investigates the lunar observatory in time to see a fruitless battle—between an impromptu fleet of the interplanetary Federation and a hurriedly erected Terran fortress—presage the independence of the Moon, which is rich in mineral resources.
All three works are lowkey and antiromantic, except in such lyrical passages as point upward, outward, and toward further technological progress, and in the effective dwarfing of man's puny battles by the discovery of a supernova, in Earthlight. With their deliberately distanced central characters, all three are debilitated by the necessity for long lectures and flashbacks and by awkwardly motivated departures from the primary viewpoint.
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Technically superior is Clarke's first juvenile novel, Islands in the Sky , in which a teenaged TV contest winner visits the "Inner [space] Station. Unabashedly a sightseeing story, this book rehearses propaganda pieces about low-gravity environments, and ends like its predecessors with the protagonist's yearning to participate in further colonization of the planets.
Not inconsistent with this consensus future, Clarke's stories of exploring the sea run in tandem with those concerned with space. The protagonist of The Deep Range ; expanded from a short story, is himself a grounded astronaut, Walter Franklin, with a wife and children permanently separated from him on Mars. In one of Clarke's rare attempts at a love story, Franklin's new Eurasian wife is wooed, won, and retired to homemaking from a potential career in ichthyology, but the major interest in the story is in the details of underwater farming and whale-herding. Remarkable also is the Scottish-born leader of a world-sweeping Buddhism, the Mahanayake Thero of Ceylon, who successfully puts an end to the butchering of whales, in part from his conviction that extraterrestrials may well judge mankind by its actions toward other creatures.
Communication with "aliens"—dolphins—is the object of the research base in Dolphin Island , Clarke's second juvenile, in which an orphaned teenager is adopted by dolphins and dolphinologists near the Great Barrier Reef , one of the author's favorite skin-diving areas. The mechanics of getting Johnny Clinton to the island from the newly grown "forests" of Oklahoma by stowing him away on a hovership! Other "people" of the sea, in a follow-up to Franklin's questing in the deep, include the giant squid of "The Shining Ones" , whose methods of electronic communication point toward the Jovians of "A Meeting with Medusa" Clarke's joke-stories do not lack for aliens.
Even some of his scenarios feature extraterrestrial life forms and artifacts. But Clarke's aliens seem more at home in stories with a mythic cast, often suggesting an advancement over man, which is technological, spiritual, or both. Here his acknowledged debt to the British philosopher Olaf Stapledon is most pronounced. A hint of this may be gleaned from "Before Eden" , in which primitive life on Venus is wiped out by the detritus of human visitors; from "Castaway" and "Out of the Sun" , with their barely conceivable energy life forms; and from "History Lesson" , in which Venusian explorers find man's last "time capsule" and identify human life and culture with the antics of a Walt Disney cartoon.
Human beings of the far future have something alien about them, too. In "The Lion of Comarre" , an advanced scientific society is rescued from stagnation by a young hero. He must first overcome the mechanized "dream-factory" of Comarre a previous rebel had set up, and separate its knowledge of the mind from its deleterious effects. Closely related to this fairy tale is Clarke's fine novel, Against the Fall of Night magazine version, ; book form, ; revised expansion in as The City and the Stars. As he returns to Earth to digest what he has learned, the ending suggests the coming of a new equilibrium of city and country, mechanical and mental, past and future, human and alien, Earth and space, in keeping with the fairy-tale construction of the novel.
This book has more than a little in common with the classic Childhood's End , in which devil-shaped Overlords act as midwives to the transformation of man's last generation of children into part of the mature "energy-state," the Overmind a concept borrowed from Olaf Stapledon. The last stages of recognizably human existence are spent in varieties of utopia, short-range kin to stagnant Diaspar and Lys.
Clarke prefaced the narrative with a disclaimer, "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author," as well he might, since Ouija boards, telepathy, the end of space travel, and aliens keyed to traditional human religious concepts are foreign to his consistent overt positions. But many readers have trusted the tale more than the teller, among them film director Stanley Kubrick, who enlisted Clarke's collaboration on another tale of transformation.
Clarke's contribution to A Space Odyssey was anchored not only in his earlier "mythic" or "visionary" novels, but also in two low-keyed short stories. Clarke's novel tends to be explicit where the film is elliptical, displaying less mysticism than Kubrick's vision. But the film and the novel both include alien-tutored apemen, the lunar transmitter, a sentient computer that deliberately kills the spaceship's astronauts before it can be dismantled, rectangular monoliths, and astronaut Bowman's transformation into a superhuman baby. Clarke critics find in these stories a mythic core for his fiction, sscontextualizing both his scenarios of space travel and his satires of technological complacency.
According to this interpretation, achieving space travel is a necessary but not sufficient condition for man to transcend his human limitations. Certainly Clarke has sought imaginatively to transcend man's Earthbound condition; he has alluded approvingly to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's dictum that man "can not live in the cradle [Earth] forever" and to J. Ber-nal's provocative suggestion in The World, The Flesh, and The Devil that star travel may demand experienced human minds in what might be called "post-human" bodies.
Traditional symbolism drawn from religion and literature is also at home in Clarke's fiction, along with astronomical and technological figures, as is particularly evident in two of his best-known stories. There is little characterization and not much story, but the contrast and complementarity of Eastern goals and Western means effectively questions our complacency once again. The ending is a marvelously quiet punch line to a low-key story of technical detail: Clarke may sympathize with the lamas, as he does with the Buddhist veneration of life, but it is not evident that he takes the ending of this tall tale seriously.
Beginning with "it is three thousand light-years to the Vatican," the Jesuit astrophysicist who narrates "The Star" reflects in that story on the findings that have troubled his faith. From all the evidence the crew have gathered, it seems inescapable that this nova, which destroyed a civilization except for remnants left in a vault on the star's outer-most planet, guided the Wise Men's way to Bethlehem. Putting aside the problem of a star's always being "in the east," as in the biblical story, Clarke's narrative shows astrophysics confronting Christianity with a difficult question: Although the narrator's faith is troubled, his trust in science—like Clarke's—is not.
Overt dependence on "Grace" is difficult to demonstrate in a writer who consciously opposes mysticism and organized religion in favor of the individual's quest for scientific knowledge and enlightenment. Clarke may seek to speak for the human race's "cosmic loneliness," as Thomas Clareson asserts, but he also speaks for the loneliness of the individual mind.
When a man nicknamed "Ego" since his youth maintains an office called his "ego chamber," and writes largely cerebral adventures, in which close human relationships play almost no significant role, we should take him at his word, as Jeremy Bernstein reports, "that he has always been more interested in things and ideas than in people. Those giant stairways often spiral , pyramids, towers, or monoliths no doubt have Freudian connotations, as Rabkin points out, but they are also obstacles, challenges, stages in ascent along a "great chain of being.
Transcendence, in his latest works at any rate, is more explicitly naturalistic, even as its expression is more elaborately artistic. Howard Falconer, in "A Meeting with Medusa" , moves in the direction charted by Bernal, from man to cyborg, after a dirigible disaster, which has made him uniquely suited for an expedition into Jupiter's atmosphere. That he is losing contact with other humans and is at the same time unable to establish contact with the electrically communicating squidlike Jovians is ironically emblematic of Falconer's position "between two worlds.
Magic among the stars
Transcendence seems totally beyond man in Rendezvous with Rama , when an asteroid-sized, hollow cylindrical alien spaceship passes through the Solar System to the curiosity and consternation of twenty-second-century mankind. The sexually mixed, English-speaking crew of the Endeavour , the only ship near enough, explore the alien craft, while experts fuss at a distance and the Mercury colony, fearing attack, sends an automated bomb. The reader puzzles with the crew over specifics of Rama's construction, appropriating what our scientific knowledge is capable of, baffled by the rest.
Utterly insignificant to the ship and its "biots" biological robots , they disembark just before it closes in on the sun to refuel for the next leg of its journey. Dwarfed by the ship's scale, with its three gigantic stairways, its central "Circular Sea," and its phallic electric thunder-generating needles, Captain Norton nevertheless compares himself with the intrepid Captain Cook. With comparable equanimity he accepts the fact of his two wives cf. Other variations from traditional monogamy are also hinted at. Part myth advanced aliens , part scenario planetary colonization , part joke a "ghost story" ending suggests more alien ships will follow , Rama with its intense visual and stylistic precision reflects a new artistic peak for Clarke at age fifty-six.
The transcendence of history may be a subtheme of Imperial Earth , the closest he has come to a traditional utopia. Twenty-third-century Earth has at least lived up to Clarke's nonfiction forecasts, having eliminated such present-day features as overpopulation, pollution, energy shortages, urban blight, war, even farming, almost government. Duncan Makenzie, second-generation clone of his "grandfather," Malcolm a founder of the Titan colony , visits Earth in He meets some Earth politicians; an "old flame" who was more interested in his older friend and rival, Karl Helmer; and Karl himself, whom Duncan's guards inadvertently kill atop a communications tower with a spiral staircase.
Duncan finally returns to Titan with Karl's plan for an alien-listening network to maintain Titan's importance and economic function when its atmosphere is no longer needed for spaceship refueling. Called "Project Argus," it will be one to ten thousand kilometers in diameter an immense engineering job looking forward to Clarke's next novel. Consisting of thousands of stiff wires projecting from Titan's neighboring Saturnian satellite, Mnemoysyne, it resembles a sea urchin Duncan has killed, convincing him that he has had "a momentary glimpse in the Mirror of time" in turn recalling Clarke's explanation for mankind's "racial memory" of devils in Childhood's End.
But rather than clone himself according to plan, dark-skinned Duncan brings home a clone of the blond Karl, to replace dynastic stasis with a more random succession. Breeding could have been just as effective, but normal biological ties seem to get in Clarke's way. The narrative is sometimes tedious; connections between parts and between actions are often schematic rather than clearly motivated. This structural peculiarity of Clarke's, explicit also in Childhood's End and , is given metaphorical justification by the "pentominoes" puzzle explained in Chapter 7. The loose construction, moreover, allows for digressive descriptions of Earth's surprises for Duncan, which have attracted professional futurists to the book.
Clarke claims that The Fountains of Paradise is his last novel; if so, it is a fitting culmination of his career. Centrally it is the tale of "master-builder" Vannevar Morgan, who erects the "ultimate bridge" from Earth to a space station in synchronous orbit. Morgan's daring impinges on hubris, and his luck is tantamount to fate; even his demise is that of a hero, risking his weak heart on a successful rescue mission up the incomplete tower. Metaphorically, he stands for the active side of his creator; the observer side is Johan Rajasinghe, famous diplomat retired to his eyrie on "Taprobane" Sri Lanka moved southward to straddle the Equator.
Clarke effectively employs the lore and local color of his adopted homeland, including a Buddhist monastery that must give way before the forces of technological progress, thanks to some ill-advised meteorological meddling by one of its own members. Clarke's geometrical conception of novelistic structure is also effective, as he brackets Morgan's story with interwoven chapters set in the past and future. King Kalidasa second century A. In changing man's relationship to the universe, it demolishes his uniqueness, and questions his "religious" behavior.
But it is only a precursor of the Starholmer, who arrives after a ring around the globe has been extended from the Tower of Kalidasa, and most of Earth's population has retreated to the inner planets during a time of solar cooling. To the Starholmer's question as to why the people did not resist, as did the colonists on Mars, rather than sending only their children to Earth, the world-brain Aristotle begins its reply with a line from Ecclesiastes, "For every thing there is a season.
That may be symptomatic of Clarke's overall contribution to science fiction. Less hectoring than Heinlein, less trivializing than Asimov, he has shared his vision in a lucid, sometimes poetic, resolutely anti-melodramatic style. He conceives of man as on a continuous odyssey, facing that giant stairway as a challenge his heritage demands that he accept, and in doing so, to live in such a way that neither aliens nor his descendants need be ashamed. Bridging East and West in his lifework, as well as all those gaps bravado patched over in his first novel, Clarke has proved a worthy successor to Wells, Dunsany, and Stapledon.
The Science Fiction of Arthur C. Ohio University Press, Establishing Literary Criteria for Arthur C. Much of Arthur C. Clarke's fiction is oriented towards rapid and simplistic plot development in the way that most pulp fiction is, frequently to the detriment of any other literary values; yet his fiction deserves more critical attention than its faults warrant. Noting this, Michael Thron has argued that we should judge the value of Clarke's fiction, not by literary standards, but by the value of the ideas it contains , and many of the other critics in Joseph Olander's collection of essays seem to agree implicitly with this judgment, mixing esthetics with scientific and philosophic appeal as criteria in applied criticism.
Eliot points out that great or even good fiction of any genre is not remarkable for the quality of the ideas embodied in it; King Lear and the Divine Comedy , he says, do not offer much in the realm of abstract thought, and their power does not come from the strength of the reader's shared belief in the social and religious philosophies presented in the works. Clarke varies only slightly from this norm in offering somewhat new scientific ideas as well as elaborating on old philosophical ones.
Certainly, his value as a popular scientific thinker who can help the reader understand the implications of space travel and research is without question. His "Death and the Senator" is a good hypothetical scenario of what could happen if the United States did not continue its space research. It is one of his most reprinted stories largely because of this aspect of relevancy or even propaganda. The scientific ideas in the story are significant enough for it to have been read before the U. House of Representatives Committee on Astronautics on March 14, But as literature, it is sentimental and predictable: The theme is not new, nor is it particularly well-realized, and the work suffers from a lack of character development and imagery.
The science fiction story's lack of traditional literary merit is often dismissed on the basis of generic criteria. Asimov's defense of the genre's poor characterization is typical:. Science fiction stories are notoriously weak on characterization as compared with mainstream stories. At least, so the critics say.
I am always struck with impatience at such cavils. Even if it be true, there happens to be a good reason for it. The characters are a smaller portion of science fiction than of the mainstream…. The double task of building the background society and developing the foreground plot is extremely difficult, and it requires an extraordinary amount of the writer's attention. There is that much less attention that is, or can be, paid to the characters. There is, physically, less room in the story for character development.
Surely a critic must allow for generic strengths and weaknesses. Yet defenses such as Asimov's seem to justify science fiction's independence not only from one, but from nearly all of the traditional literary qualities of other narrative genres: In defending this independence, Asimov takes the extreme and, I think, untenable stance that all perennially popular narratives from the Iliad on down endure only because of well-developed plotting which is, not surprisingly, Asimov's own strong suit as a creative writer But this sole criterion cannot explain why the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer are popular, while their similarly plotted sources are forgotten by all but scholars.
Lewis's view seems to fit the facts better, given the transience of most plot-oriented popular fiction: Much science fiction falls into this category, as the majority of works in any genre must. Lewis describes only one kind of narrative which can succeed on plot alone: But it would be dangerous indeed to set up mythological significance as the main esthetic criterion for any serious fiction, for as Lewis suggests, one man's myth is another man's silly story.
Lewis uses this criterion mainly to explain why otherwise undistinguished fiction, such as Dr. Hyde , may have enduring appeal. While individual science fiction stories may achieve mythological significance, the majority of good science fiction does not—even the bulk of what anthropologists term myths do not meet Lewis's test. And most science fiction, including Clarke's, opts for the opposite end of the spectrum, for suspense or surprise, for identification or empathy with characters, and often for comedy, all of which Lewis sees as antithetical to the mythic mode Only occasionally can mythic appeal explain the quality of a science fiction story.
Asimov's and other current defenses of science fiction on generic grounds exceed what other serious genres claim in denying traditional literary criteria.
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This is deplorable because it mitigates against recognizing traditional literary merit when it occurs, as it does more and more frequently in science fiction today; and because it works both to trivialize and to isolate the genre from serious fiction. Lately, critics attempting to analyze the question have begun to perceive that solely generic criteria are a problem, but they have been leaning precariously toward nonliterary criteria as a solution.
While George Slusser, for example, has recognized the difficulty in adopting unusual criteria, he nonetheless takes a stance which emphasizes Clarke's sociocultural relevance as an esthetic standard of criticism. He has named Clarke a significant writer because he follows Lucien Gold-mann's dictum:.
To Goldmann "the great writer is precisely that exceptional individual who succeeds in creating in a given domain—that of the literary work—an imaginary universe which is rigorously coherent or almost so, the structure of which corresponds to that toward which the group he represents is tending. Great writing … is alive to the point of actually being a "constitutive factor" in shaping … [the group's] consciousness. Slusser does not suggest that this is genre-specific criticism, although it clearly favors science fiction.
Yet according to this theory, Brave New World and Animal Farm edge out Othello as major works of art; indeed, any fiction which predicts accurately becomes major as long as it is influential and "more or less coherent. This is perhaps an overstatement of the case, but it exemplifies the well-known difficulty in attempting to combine a sociological evaluation of literature with an esthetic one. These and other critics have written much practical criticism of value about Clarke; but their special criteria for judging Clarke seem unable to pinpoint his literary merits.
Indeed, much of Clarke's work may have little exceptional literary merit, a circumstance which is surely one root of critical gymnastics on his behalf. And while in practice each literary work or genre may invite the reader to attune standards to its particular merits, Thron and Slusser suggest entirely nonliterary criteria by which to judge science fiction.
However, like most science fiction apologists, they do not take Marxist or other non-formalist stands. Instead, both critics speak of ideas or sociological relevance as if they were formal or esthetic aspects of Clarke's work. Yet a reading of "Death and the Senator" will confirm that interesting scientific ideas alone do not provide an esthetically enriching experience. While Thron and Slusser have isolated several generic characteristics of science fiction which may account for its popularity as a throwaway genre, both critics define these characteristics as cri-teria which, if adopted as a measure of quality, would be as limiting as judging a mystery story by whether it has an unguessable ending.
Some science fiction will predict the future accurately, some will predict inaccurately, and some will predict little at all e. But accurate social or technological prophecy is a generic peculiarity that has no inherent relation to the literary quality of the piece, something which even hard-science fiction proponent Asimov recognizes 19, Science fiction cannot become widely recognized as serious literature unless we can evaluate it by literary criteria, preferably the same criteria applied to other serious genres.
This should not be troublesome in Clarke's case, for his best writing is effective as traditional literature. He can use traditional literary techniques skillfully, and does use them to form intertex-tual relationships with himself and with other authors. This places him in the mainstream, not only of genre fiction, but of the English literary tradition.
Critics such as Thron have surprisingly mentioned Clarke's lack of imagery , while others such as Thomas Clareson have gone on to praise Clarke's remarkable descriptions of outer space. But imagery and structure are closely interwoven. Clarke's imagery is developed well and abundantly in thematically resonant ways consistent from text to text, frequently in passages which appear to be straightforward description or narration. For example, alien beasts resembling sea creatures flourish in Clarke's fiction, and they represent both the fascination of the stars and their unknowability.
A typical meeting with seemingly oceanic life-forms takes place in Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa. At first he is uncertain whether they are alive or not. When he decides they are, he begins likening them to Earth creatures he is familiar with: Later, he decides the forest of mushrooms is animal, not vegetable, and so christens it a jellyfish, a medusa.
The appellation also alludes to the Greek hag who turned all who looked at her to stone, thus defying human sight and knowledge. Clarke's medusa can do the same; she lives on Jupiter, where no man dares to go because of the extreme temperatures, and even the reconstructed metal body of the explorer, Falcon, allows him only a tantalizing glimpse of her mysteries.
Like the mythical medusa, the jellyfish also represents a hazard to the curious. Although the analogies the narrator makes about the medusa help him in comprehending what he sees, they also prove dangerously false. When the mantas prey on her, he convinces himself to side with the mantas, since only predators develop brains, and are therefore closer to being human than the jellyfish is.
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Just as he resigns himself to her death, the medusa upsets his predictions: The narrator leaves, never having noticed that his propensity to draw analogies has failed him as often as not. The cosmos as sea is one of Clarke's recurring metaphors, and the sea creature is a corresponding metaphor for the unpredictable and dangerous alienness of the stars. Clarke's development of this image-pattern is a literary device rather than a novel idea. The trope is emotionally effective and thematically resonant; but the idea, that it is dangerous yet inevitable to try to understand the unknown by making it analogous to the known, is trite.
Throughout his descriptions of space, Clarke uses simile, metaphor, and simple comparison in much the same way his narrator in "Medusa" uses analogy to understand the unknown. One can get a clear image of the monstrous jellyfish which is "like a forest of pallid trees, like giant mushrooms that had never seen the Sun" Clarke 2: The landscape of Jupiter is visible because of Clarke's constantly shifting direct and indirect references to earth: Though they looked solid, Falcon knew that anyone who stepped on those white mountains would go crashing through them as if they were made of tissue paper" Clark 2: The descriptions of space which form the bulk of "The Star" and other stories are filled with similes that make the cosmos visible: In his best work, he does not use the common practice in science fiction of comparing one unknown to another to give a sense of conviction to the story e.
Instead, his similes are partly Homeric in function, though not form, juxtaposing the homely with the grand to emphasize the grandeur and strangeness, but also making them graspable to the ordinary man. Both the disjunction and continuity of man's world and the cosmos are emphasized in this method. The alternative method argues total disjunction from man's present world, and self-containment, a refusal to refer to the present without exaggerated emphasis on the difference between the two eras "Yes, they had only nuclear power back in the twentieth century.
How could people live like that? Such techniques usually remind us of the fictionality of the science fiction world, and Clarke uses the latter method extensively in his less effective fiction, particularly in his earlier writings. But Clarke's mature method links our world to what is to come, making it believable. His vivid descriptions of space depend heavily upon literary tropes for their beauty and effectiveness.
Clarke's "The Awakening," contains another typically evocative description of vastness, not of space, but of time. The first paragraphs of the story set up a situation in which a dictator decides to hibernate until a cure for his heart disorder is found. Then follows this description of time passing quietly and massively in geological eons which dwarf the human concerns which they counterpoint:. After what by some standards would have been a little while, the earth's crust decided that it had borne the weight of the Himalayas for long enough.
Slowly the mountains dropped, tilting the southern plains of India towards the sky. And presently the plateau of Ceylon was the highest point on the surface of the globe, and the ocean above Everest was five and a half miles deep. The Master would not be disturbed by his enemies, or his friends. Slowly, patiently, the silt drifted down through the towering ocean heights on to the wreck of the Himalayas. The blanket that would some day be chalk began to thicken at the rate of not a few inches every century.
If one had returned some time later, one might have found that the sea bed was no longer five miles down, or even four, or three. Personification combined with the biblically simple vocabulary and tone form here what Clareson calls the "mixture of familiarity and otherness" 62 which informs Clarke's vision of time, much as simile and comparison elsewhere convey the same mixture in his unique vision of space.
These descriptive paragraphs are by far the best thing in the story, greatly overshadowing the twist ending in which the man awakens and immediately dies of a heart attack upon discovering "that the long war between Man and Insect was ended—and that Man was not the victor. The scientific and philosophic ideas in the story are not profound and were not new when the story was written; and literarily the ending seems tacked on.
It is impossible to ignore the lucid and evocative descriptive passages which shine out above the grinding mechanics of the plot. Even with its momentary brilliance, however, the story is fairly routine. Yet more than once Clarke has managed to make all the elements in his story work together, as he does in "The Star. If his novels and short stories are important as literature, they should somehow contain narrative patterns and literary tropes which form the basis of other important literature.
Despite arguing for new criteria, Slusser's examination of the voyage pattern in the Space Odysseys of Arthur C. Clarke places Clarke clearly within a literary tradition. John Hollow has also noted Clarke's roots in such poets as Tennyson and Houseman, and Slusser has mentioned his similarity to Keats. However, we can go one step further and find a highly developed relationship between Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations" and Clarke's "The Star" which shows clearly the value of applying literary, rather than sociological, scientific, or philosophical criteria to Clarke's fiction.
One of the central tropes of Clarke's work, that of children on a beach in juxtaposition with a vision of eternity, seems to come, not from Houseman or from H. Wells, or from Keats, but from Wordsworth's ode. The debt is particularly strong in "The Star," in which Clarke places his narrator in circumstances ironically parallel to those of Wordsworth's narrator, gives him a vision of children on the beach which is similar to Wordsworth's, yet turns Wordsworth's tropes inside out to defy and reverse Wordsworthian meaning. This parallel may seem extraordinary, simply because no one thinks of looking for such a connection between a mainstream work and science fiction.
And this is probably why no critic has seen it previously. Yet given Clarke's education in English schools in the early part of the century, he must have read a considerable amount of Wordsworth, including this famous poem. This virtual certainty combined with strong textual parallels would make a convincing argument that one mainstream author was ringing changes on another mainstream author's score. And as Stanley Fish points out, to discover that a recognized work is better than anyone thought it was should be a sure way of gaining acceptance for one's views The parallels between Clarke's story and Wordsworth's poem are strong enough to persuade the reader of the possibility that the two works interact in this fashion, and open the door to the consideration of other such parallels between science fiction and the mainstream.
For the Wordsworthian narrator, the child's "first affections" will allow the man he has become to transport himself metaphorically:. One scene is still before my eyes—a group of children on a beach of strange blue sand, playing in the waves as children play on Earth. Curious whiplike trees line the shore, and some very large animal is wading in the shallows yet attracting no attention at all. Many writers have described figures on a beach, but several key features point to a clearly Wordsworthian basis for Clarke's passage: The achingly nostalgic context of the vision is much different from Keats or Houseman; and the lack of a progressive vision at different points in time eliminates Wells as a primary source.
This vision and many other correlations between Wordsworth's poem and Clarke's story lay the groundwork for Clarke's final disruption of Wordsworth's metaphor. Both works introduce us to troubled narrators, the source of whose mental turmoil is at first unclear, but becomes clear as the works progress. Intimations" relates the narrator's subjective search for the faded glory of nature, which derives from "our life's Star," the soul.
In the process of his investigation, he finds the vision of eternity, the filmstrip of the children on the beach, just as Wordsworth's narrator discovers the metaphor of the children during his progress. But this vision is not the end of the Jesuit's discoveries, any more than it is the end of Wordsworth's discoveries in his poem.
Wordsworth's narrator finds new ways of placing himself within nature, as nature's center. Clarke's narrator finds unexpected confirmation of Wordsworth's anthropocentric universe which is morally insupportable: God did favor mankind above all races, blowing this star into destruction in order to signal to man the birth of the Christ child. Wordsworth deliberately confuses nature-as-metaphor-for-self with nature and self as two separate entities. The poem's narrator makes a metaphorical search through his subjective universe for the light of "our life's Star. It is this pathetic fallacy turned into a principle of philosophy which Clarke turns topsy-turvy.
The idea of anthropocentrism which is unquestioned and comforting in Wordsworth is questioned and dis-comfortable in its morality in Clarke. Clarke's objective universe parallels Wordsworth's subjective one. This reversal of Wordsworth's tropes de-anthropocentrises nature without removing its wonder and emotional impact. Because Wordsworth's narrator searches for some way to feel immortal by regaining a state of mind, his vision of the seashore is undetailed and almost entirely metaphorical; there is no sense of a remembrance of an actual occurrence.
In Clarke's story, the vision of the children on the seashore is detailed and concrete. Clarke's children, like the nature which surrounds them, cannot be appropriated as metaphors for the self. They are or were real, and the narrator remembers them only because he actually saw them on a filmstrip. Clarke underlines the otherness of the vision: Clarke's narrator empathizes with the dead race with painful acuity, but recognizes them as irretrievably alien. He is not even momentarily tempted to project his own changed view of nature onto the universe.
The stars shine with "undiminished brilliance" throughout his spiritual difficulties. The glory remains in the flower. And despite his strongly emotional and subjective response to nature, no pansy will ever ask this man a question.
Instead, he asks himself why a civilization had to be destroyed when it was in "full flower. The universe cannot speak, yet continually demands to be recognized as the foundation of ideas about God and man. Both narrators struggle to resolve a newly felt estrangement from nature; the Jesuit leaves the question unresolved because he sees a comfortingly subjective nature as emotionally irreconcilable to morality, requiring a cold-hearted acceptance of man's right to primacy in the universe.
Clarke implicitly rejects Wordsworth's metaphoric approach to nature as a philosophy, and hence he also rejects his resulting resolution, leaving instead an open ending. The Jesuit's painful moral paralysis is the result of realizing that these beings with whom he and the reader empathize will remain forever separate from us because our only way of retrieving unity with the cosmos requires us to assume a philosophical stance which rejects our brotherhood with the beings who inhabit it.
Clarke's overall strategy in "The Star" is intertextual. The method of its intertextuality is also clearly literary—a reversal of tropes—and it is extremely well done. In a very Bloomian manner, Clarke has disrupted Wordsworth's text with his own, thus moving into the mainstream of fiction. The story also has a definitely literary structure of some sophistication. It carefully embodies its stance in literary tropes, such as in the journey towards the star and the truly poignant, rather than merely sentimental, vision of the children on the beach.
Other sheerly literary values abound. The juxtaposition of the coldly beautiful objectivity of space with the intensely subjective vision of the narrator is powerful in a literary way, unrelated to the values of the ideas it embodies. The first person narration vividly conveys the disembodied, alienated voice of the main character, the Jesuit; and in this story the cardboard nature of the other characters on the spaceship is a literary merit, since it enhances the intense subjectivity and isolation of the Jesuit, who feels closer to the cosmos and the dead civilization than to his own shipmates Clareson 67ff.
It could be argued that "The Star" is important because it presents Clarke's idea of God, and much attention has focussed on this aspect of the story and of Clarke's fiction in general. However, the story presents no definite image of God, but rather a challenge to the morality of viewing God and the universe as man-centered, a challenge to the Romantic view.
Other critics interpret the work variously. Slusser and Hollow disagree entirely on the nature of the Jesuit's problem. Hollow thinks the supernova does not prove the Christian God's existence 18 , while Slusser feels that proof of the existence of a Christian God coincides with proof of cosmic indifference Roger Bozzetto suggests that science has taken on God's comforting and humanistic moral validity The basic disagreement about Clarke's ideas result from literary ambiguity rather than philosophical brilliance. As the narrator points out, the problem of God's power and man's questions appears in the Book of Job.
There is nothing philosophically new here. And Clarke himself had already treated the scientific aspect of the Star of Bethlehem in an essay entitled "The Star of the Magi" before he wrote the short story, making a second statement scientifically redundant. While the scientific bent of Clarke's imagination is a necessary element in his fiction, if he and other science fiction writers are going to receive serious critical attention, critics should judge the genre by accepted literary criteria.
Being a science fiction writer does not entitle one to special nonliterary criteria. And despite Clarke's many failings, his work at its best has more than sufficient merit to warrant such attention. Analyse de L'Etoile de A. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. Writers of the 21st Century Series. The Best of Arthur C. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Against the Night, the Stars: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, An Experiment in Criticism. The Space Odysseys of Arthur C.
Popular Writers of Today 8. San Bernardino , California: Clarke , edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. Taplinger Publishing Company, When I bought a paperback copy of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End in , it was from the twenty-sixth printing. And when my next door neighbor saw my copy of the book, she still remembered how "overwhelming" she had found it when it first came out twenty years before.
Professional critics have also praised Clarke: James Blish, for example, finds Childhood's End "as serious and as rewarding as anything [its author] might have attempted outside our field. What is the key to the book's power, its durability, its vitality?