Arthur C. Clarke Essay - Critical Essays

Arthur C. Clarke Short Fiction Analysis

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 sometimes forged an uneasy alliance between the two in his own stories. The matter-of-fact 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 man’s rise to interplanetary civilization or evokes the wonder, in suitably subdued tones, of his confrontation with extraterrestrial intelligences.

His 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.”

“Rescue Party”

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, they had been taken by surprise by man’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 man’s 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 which 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.

“The Sentinel”

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 self-destruct.

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”

His work is dotted...

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