Clarke, Arthur C(harles) 1917–
An English science fiction novelist, short story writer, screen-play writer, and astronomer, Clarke is best known for his novel Childhood's End and for his screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Arthur C. Clarke's extensive corpus of science fiction writing is an expression of his varied interests in the limits of man's knowledge as it is approached through the scientific method. Three principal types of work can be traced in his writing….
Clarke's best known approach is precise scientific extrapolation that depends upon detailed scientific knowledge carefully explained to the reader to communicate Clarke's fascination with the possibilities at the frontiers of scientific thinking. (p. 15)
Within [his] carefully chosen, clear, straightforward plots Clarke holds character development to an absolute minimum, employing melodramatic types to focus attention on the ideas. A number of the short stories have heroes whose principal emotion is sheer fear for their lives that can only be relieved by the scientific point upon which the story is premised. (pp. 17-18)
One of Clarke's most striking hard extrapolations is "A Meeting with Medusa" (1962), and here the intense concentration on Howard Falcon … could have provided a detailed characterization. But Clarke is concentrating upon the creations of technology and speculating on the possible life forms of Jupiter…. The starting point is the events of the story, the end point is character and motivation. This approach is the reverse of modern literary custom, but it is admirably suited to the hard extrapolations in which it is employed.
The concrete projections in this type of story are set forth in matter-of-fact narrative tone, and Clarke writes briskly in stories of this type, producing either very short stories or novels covering enormous amounts of material very quickly. (p. 19)
Verbal action moves as quickly as physical action in this type of factual story…. Clarke usually frames segments of dialogue so that the reader knows their importance and the feelings of the speakers. This makes for a quick, methodical dialogue without verbal frills or subtleties. (pp. 20-1)
In dialogue as in plot, characterization, and narrative tone, Clarke is moving quickly and efficiently to build the bones upon which the real flesh of the hard extrapolation can rest: the scientific explanation of the story and the vivid and haunting descriptions of strange futures and places.
The stratagems used to explain the scientific content of these stories involve variations in narrative voice. Clarke has tried a variety of methods, seeking to combine narrative ease with a clear statement of scientific premise. One direct form has a narrator who reasons out the story as it progresses, mixing narrative with explanation…. [Clarke's] tight mixture of narrative and explanation is most effective. It is modeled not only on detective fiction, with its sudden assembly of information into a complete picture, but on the scientific experiment, where an event is viewed and then explained in retrospect. (pp. 21-2)
The dominant way of presenting this type of story has always been the team of questioning listener and scientifically competent explainer. In its early form this type of narrative began with "Tell me, Professor" but of course Clarke works sophisticated variations on this. The reader is put at ease when the question he wants to ask is asked by the "straight man" and answered in terms of the events of the narrative…. This very practical form of exposition is extremely spare, for the characters are mouthpieces from a familiar mold.
Another easy and natural format for the hard extrapolations is the omniscient narrator who...
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can tell the story and explain the scientific events at the same time. (p. 23)
On several occasions Clarke has gone beyond the omniscient narrator to speak as Arthur C. Clarke. This applies to the comic stories of Tales from the 'White Hart' but he stays very much in the background in these, making Harry Purvis the storyteller. However, in "I Remember Babylon" (1960) Clarke himself tells of an encounter in Ceylon [and creates a story that is strikingly solid and realistic]…. In many ways this story is representative of Clarke's direct approach to hard science materials, for he weaves together a number of known and practical scientific propositions in a brisk, efficient way. As in "Venture to the Moon" and "The Other Side of the Sky" sequences, he is examining the potentials of immediate science. The hard science stories depend for their excitement upon the efficiency with which precise scientific reasoning can be embodied and explained in narrative format and Clarke uses the full variety of means at his disposal.
The uncomplicated narratives of these stories are punctuated by some of the most positive "purple passages" in all of science fiction. Arthur Clarke's true sense of wonder is most vividly expressed in lyrical descriptions of the cosmos and man's present or future achievements. In story after story he draws from an imagination carefully tempered by scientific knowledge to create sweeping physical descriptions of the marvels of nature and of man. The descriptions of Saturn in "Saturn Rising" (1961), the pulsing coded hues of the squid in "The Shining Ones" (1962) …, and the images of the mighty being in "Out of the Sun" (1958) are all unforgettable moments in Clarke's writing. (pp. 24-5)
In his stories which are projections of hard science, whether presently proven or speculation based upon the limits of our knowledge Clarke works sharply and clearly, stating the bases of his speculations, explaining, reasoning and describing with energy. If there are weaknesses in this "first style of Clarke" they are inherent in the limited aims of such stories. This leads to mechanical plotting, a generally factual narration, and a lack of depth in characterization, but these traits reflect the style of the pulp magazines in which these stories were originally published, and the need to get on with the real excitement of the universe and man's ability to conquer it by bringing reason to bear in understanding its wonders. If these are weaknesses they are overridden by the skill with which the stories make scientific processes and man's observation of the cosmos an exciting adventure.
A second style of Clarke's work is the comic mode, stories that may contain and even conceal hard scientific ideas. Comedy in science fiction is best when rooted in the plot, executing an idea based on a quirk in scientific knowledge or illustrating a tiny fantasy suggested by some scientific fact. It works best in the short story where the idea does not have to be sustained, and it may work even better as an extended joke. As befits comic creations, the characters in these stories and anecdotes are often stereotypes of professions such as scientist, bureaucrat, militarist, or alien. Many of the stories have twist endings and Clarke takes particular pleasure in playing the conjurer who prepares a surprise and springs it upon the unsuspecting reader. Clarke's comic stories are colored by the British tone of his humor, featuring understatement, irony, and wit. This comedy is delicate and when these stories work they are fine, but they can also be dismal, flat failures if they do not hit their comic mark.
The plots of the extrapolations are "closed" in that they prove a point or illustrate a concept. The plots of comic writing are "closed" because they finish a joke or resolve the comic situation they have created. As comedy depends upon surprise there are often sudden reversals or changes of perspective at the finish. The suddenness is comic and may also be thought-provoking…. (p. 27)
The efficient plots of the comic stories serve to do several things. As with the hard science stories, they may expound a scientific concept, but they add a wry and comic angle. They may parody scientific logic and solutions. Some of the stories are logically impossible, and Clarke will often admit this and go on to tell them with humor and such a veneer of logic that the reader will be inclined to distrust the disclaimer. Tales From the 'White Hart' contains stories that serve as examples of both approaches. (p. 29)
Clarke can use science in the comic stories either to reveal scientific curiosities or to create a logical tone to conceal and explain fantastic flights of the imagination.
The characters in Clarke's comic stories, and who often put in brief appearances in some of his other work, are frequently comic stereotypes of professions or positions. Clarke is particularly good at describing scientists and the military, perhaps because he has had practical experience in both areas. But he is equally capable of picturing comic bureaucrats, aliens, or exceptional characters such as Buddhist monks or spinster aunts. The characters are often victims whom the reader wishes to see victimized or the meek who emerge victorious by guile or scientific trickery. (p. 31)
The general tone of the comic stories owes a great deal to the traditions of British humor. Clarke has much in common with the dry, ironic wit and techniques of understatement frequently associated with P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and some of the writing of Aldous Huxley. His wit is low-keyed and is especially effective because it allows the reader to share with him the thought that none of this amazing stuff need be taken wholly seriously. (p. 32)
The strength of Clarke's comic writing is best seen when he combines a good scientific idea with effective caricature and his dry style to lead to a shockingly funny reversal. The best stories have simple comic plots involving jealousy and love, struggles for property and the dangers of curiosity, with the additional amusement of the puzzles presented by science and by human failures to take full account of physical reality. Often the characters in these stories become victims of their own Machiavellianism. Clarke is wryly cynical about human behavior, seeing it in the larger perspective of the universe at large.
Although Clarke has written a number of highly successful comic stories his efforts can fall flat if they do not hit just the right edge of wit. (pp. 33-4)
[At times] Clarke seems to be striving to be funny and these obvious efforts are awkward and uncertain.
However, Clarke's best comic stories are very successful indeed, blending the quirks of science and the quirks of human behavior with surprise twists. Comedy injects energy into tales with strict scientific antecedents and Clarke has developed it as a delightful adjunct to fantastic speculations. (p. 34)
[Many of Clarke's works] attempt to go beyond the limits of the hard extrapolations and the humorous entertainments. It is a serious mistake to think of Clarke as a writer whose imagination is bounded by the known, a scientist of the old school who is deeply reluctant to consider anything but emphatically proven data…. [There] is no doubt that he seeks to go beyond "known" and more "practical" extrapolations to metaphysics. His writings in this third style reflect a dissatisfaction with the concrete and a longing for the unknown. It is in these free and experimental works that Clarke moves his readers most effectively; yet it is here the limitations of his abilities as a writer are most glaringly obvious, for he is attempting to describe universes and creatures at the outer limits of the imagination.
Clarke's experiments with the unknown speculate in diverse directions and unlike the hard extrapolations and comic stories they end in suggestions of further expansion in many directions. A number of stories put man's evolution in perspective, placing human history as a tiny fragment of the past of the universe and suggesting what lies ahead. (p. 35)
The general direction of Clarke's metaphysical speculations owes a good deal to the work of Olaf Stapledon whose sprawling predictive prose fictions Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) have a sweep unmatched in science fiction….
Clarke echoes Stapledon's optimism toward man's expanding abilities to comprehend the wonder of the cosmos, but he also reflects the pessimism implicit in Star Maker. This is particularly fascinating in light of the optimism in short-run projections in Clarke's fiction. (p. 36)
The characteristics of Clarke's metaphysical speculations are dominated by this aspect of open-ended plotting. Whereas his other stories are symmetrical, offering solutions and conclusions to the experiment or comic situation they propose, the mystical stories provide opening terms of infinite series. (p. 37)
Clarke's clear, methodical style, perfected in the hard extrapolations, would not seem to be the natural vehicle for metaphysics, usually the region of mystical and symbolic writing. But on the whole the reverse seems the case, for Clarke's level-headed narrators communicate the sense of wonder that is felt when one travels far beyond the known, and Clarke's own quiet, factual voice as an omniscient narrator is equally effective. (p. 38)
All of the stories that end with a reach toward the unknown begin in the mundane. People bustle about preparing space shots; briefings take place; a conference is held on the Moon to discuss a mysterious artifact; or a young man dares to visit an ancient city to prove his love. The stories move outward while the calm tone keeps the sense of concrete reality…. It is not the unbelievable that Clarke specializes in. It is the "un-thought of," presented to expand the reader's range of possibilities. (p. 39)
Clarke's metaphysical stories are not parables or symbolic in nature, then, but attempts to carry the powers of physical description out to the indefinable. Like Stapledon, Clarke seeks to communicate a sense of the vastness of the cosmos and its possibilities through stories that move outward from a core to ever-enlarging perspectives. And it is precisely at the boundaries of this exploration that Clarke, like Stapledon, fails to consistently exhibit the imaginative powers necessary to carry the reader with him. (p. 40)
The thrust of most of Clarke's mystical fiction is sentimental in its optimistic view of human destiny. Although he is only charting possibilities Clarke consistently hints that the universe will be man's and that man, coming to grips with the physical universe through science, will emerge the final victor…. Yet there is a curious wavering in this confidence when Clarke catches, perhaps from Stapledon, the sense of the awesome objectivity of the cosmos, the lack of evidence in the stars for anything approaching a benign being. Clarke dismisses conventional religion as superstition on numerous occasions…. [He] seems to want a belief that is adequate for the scope of the universe, but that belief in turn is one in which human existence is infinitesimal. It is the crux of the dilemma that Clarke is both hazy in his writing and appealing, for he captures in a naive fashion that sense of distant things that has always haunted men who looked at the stars, and he does so in the context of the modern scientist and space adventurer. This enigmatic sentimentalism may deter the trained metaphysician, but it is the stuff of appealing fiction…. (pp. 40-1)
Although Arthur C. Clarke's work can be divided into three principal styles most of his stories and novels contain combinations of hard extrapolation, humorous vignettes, and some gesture in the direction of metaphysical possibilities. In his two recent novels, Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and Imperial Earth (1976), Clarke has achieved varying blends of these elements worth careful consideration, particularly to test arguments that he is an "old-fashioned" writer, uncomfortably bound to a corpus of work stretching from 1937 to the present. Clarke's most old-fashioned position is his commitment to telling a good story in an accurately conceived and described universe, traits that seem to this writer to be aspects of most good and enduring literature.
Rendezvous with Rama is the latest of Clarke's works in which hard science plays the dominant role…. It is built upon ideas that Clarke has toyed with in earlier works, but its synthesis is a distinctive distillation of the author's writing experience. (pp. 41-2)
In Rendezvous with Rama Clarke has achieved a most successful synthesis of the styles in which he characteristically works. The hard extrapolative element is immaculately detailed in a series of practical mysteries that are solved by experiment, investigation, and revelation in dramatic events. Rama is a tangible object to the reader of the story. One does not come away questioning its existence but rather questioning the unanswered final mysteries of its purpose and the destiny of its makers. There can be no greater proof of Clarke's ability to produce rational scientific extrapolation than the mass of carefully assembled factual detail that makes Rama real to the reader. At the same time the comic elements in Clarke's writing fit nicely into the work because they provide a human scale, like the figure of a man placed in the foreground of engineering drawings. In this context almost no comic note could be out of place. So despite tiny man striving in the foreground to explain its individual functioning areas, Rama as a whole cannot be understood…. It is like a mighty and carefully prepared stage set, and Clarke's judgment in withholding the principal actors means that the suspense will be maintained in future acts of the cosmic drama. This concrete evocation of the mystery of the universe is Clarke's finest blending of the elements of his fiction.
Imperial Earth is a different sort of endeavour on Clarke's part, and its component parts do not cohere as effectively as those of Rendezvous with Rama. Yet it contains strong elements of the best of Clarke's writing and a vigor of plotting that carries the reader over uncertain sections and makes the novel as a whole a qualified success. In contrast to the unity gained by absolute concentration on a single object in Rendezvous with Rama, Imperial Earth draws most of its strength from the sheer variety of topics and ideas that it touches upon and attempts to integrate. (pp. 44-5)
Clarke has always been master of expert touches such as toilet design or the method of walking in free fall in 2001. In Imperial Earth he provides a great variety of adaptive trivia for Duncan when the latter lands on Earth. These details make the reading of the hard extrapolations like eating an unknown candy full of unexpected little delights. In this case he achieves this effect in a special new fashion, for the surprises are things that we already live with but which catch Duncan unawares…. These bits of information about the trivial problems of living in strange environments have always been one of Clarke's assets in creating lifelike, logical worlds. Their inevitable cumulative effect is heightened in Imperial Earth by the reader's immediate knowledge of the earthly context of the small problems and sudden shocks. (p. 47)
If the hard extrapolation of Imperial Earth is not so immediately impressive as that of Rendezvous with Rama, that is because it lacks the obvious coherence of the latter. Yet Clarke has created as effectively and perhaps in more detail in the later book, allowing his fascination with the logical extrapolation and the natural world to range from the depths of the sea to Titan and the Star Beasts who may lurk outside of the solar system.
The lighter elements of Imperial Earth are archetypical Clarke, combining some suitable wit and amusing observation with moments when undergraduate British humor mars the telling of the tale. (p. 48)
There can only be a reserved judgment on the mystical, open-ended aspect of Imperial Earth because on the one hand it appears to be tacked on to the novel without adequate preparation while careful examination of the book suggests that it was planned and that Clarke has created a substructure for the novel to justify its inclusion. (p. 49)
In partial defense of the way in which the mystical elements are incorporated in Imperial Earth, one can determine what appears to be Clarke's attempt to integrate many of the events in the book to give it cohesion…. [For example, all] of the images in the book are tied together in the Titanite cross that combines the mystery of hexagonal crystals with the puzzle of the pentominoes that links Duncan and Karl and which stands for the complex possible solutions to human dilemmas….
Yet the links are not entirely adequate, because they are usually submerged beneath the surface of a picaresque novel wandering from place to place and idea to idea. In the judgment of this writer Imperial Earth is a successful Clarke novel because of its variety and sharply perceived and detailed extrapolation. Its weaknesses are the lack of a structure adequately articulated to hold it together and Clarke's characteristic insertions of humor and the metaphysical in slightly uneasy fashion. (p. 50)
[In conclusion, then, the] styles in which Clarke has worked are distinctive and have different purposes. They are not always comfortably integrated in the same story; when they are, it is in situations such as Rendezvous with Rama where the hard extrapolation has natural mystical implications without any need to pin them on from the outside and where humor serves to fit man into his tiny niche in the universal scheme. Clarke is perfectly capable of the variety of styles that have been suggested, but closest to his heart and, more importantly, to his head, is the commitment to the real universe as it is understood by the laws of the sciences or as it probably exists if those laws are extended to strange places or different times. When he approaches the metaphysical he does so best through the concrete and although a good deal of his writing contains an ill-suppressed desire to find the gods through science, his abilities as a writer weaken as he approaches the metaphysical. Sensing this, Clarke has evolved a story mode featuring hard science, sprinkled with wit and turning suddenly at its conclusion to its metaphysical speculation in a breathtaking leap from hard reality into the unknown. When this technique works smoothly, as it does in Rendezvous with Rama and to a lesser extent in the potpourri of Imperial Earth, Arthur C. Clarke gains the advantages inherent in the different styles he has evolved. (pp. 50-1)
Peter Brigg, "Three Styles of Arthur C. Clarke: The Projector, the Wit, and the Mystic," in Arthur C. Clarke, Writers of the 21st Century Series, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; abridged and reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1977, pp. 15-51.
In pursuing what I call the "Odyssey pattern," I seek to define a central organizing structure in Clarke's fiction, one which bears interesting and precise analogies to the writer's cultural and social situation and hence to ours. If all literature possesses such significant structures, Clarke's work is of particular interest for its angle of vision—here is a scientist writing about the quandary of modern scientific man, drawing on deep and persistent currents of Western literature. This firm grounding in the "two cultures" alone would make Clarke worthy of our attention. As we shall discover, there is much more. (p. 3)
More than characters or wise pronouncements in Clarke (the first are usually flat, the second commonplace), the reader notices the insistence with which he returns to the same ambiguous pattern over and over. Ambiguity is not some anomaly to be excused or circumvented. On the contrary, it is the central "idea" in Clarke: an idea that is inseparable from formal configurations, one not "said" but expressed in the structural dynamics of the work itself. (p. 4)
Clarke's use of "myth" or cultural allusion might partially (or primarily) be [ironic]…. The name Bowman, for instance, might simply be an ironic reference to the hero of that earlier epic of voyage and return which serves as titular model here. In the epilogue to his Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke makes this obvious parallel clear: "When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, and identified himself in the banqueting hall by stringing the great bow that he alone could wield, he slew the parasitical suitors who for years had been wasting his estate." Will the Star Child returning to Earth follow Homer's transfigured hero? Here is another resonance ironically imparted to an already ambiguous ending, and a valuable insight into the pattern of this novel and Clarke's sense of structure in general. It is reasonable to assume that Clarke would be fascinated with The Odyssey, for the very essence of its form is ambiguity. Moreover, that form shapes and controls exactly the same oppositions that [John] Huntington and [Michael] Thron isolate in Clarke's work: the alien and the mundane, the domestic and the transcendent. In the travels of Odysseus (as with those of Bowman), beginning and end are at one and the same time coincident (Phaeacia and Ithaca are adjacent lands) and antipodal. The narrative line itself is built on two opposing and contradictory strands—progress and stasis. In the act of going out the hero is simultaneously coming back; his voyage is simultaneously an exploration of the fabulous and a homecoming. In the same manner, the miraculous and the commonplace exist together in The Odyssey. Just as the posts of the hero's fabled symbolic bed are living trees rooted in his native soil, so the transcendent grows out of the most banal everyday objects and actions: Odysseus's baths, Athena's golden lamp amid the domestic torches. In 2001 this pattern merely emerges to a new degree of self-consciousness.
A closer look, however, reveals that a similar dynamic informs the scientific odysseys of almost all Clarke's heroes. To claim that Clarke here is consciously rewriting The Odyssey—even with irony—is absurd, of course. The famous epic does, however, embody an archetypal situation. The archetype is qualified, though: "eternal" human rhythms are shaped by cultural patterns firmly rooted in Western tradition. Clarke is simply a modern heir to this tradition; in his work the older pattern has undergone significant changes in answer to the new pressures of his society. Less than a myth, but more than a simple trick or literary device, Clarke's "Odyssey pattern" is what Lucien Goldmann calls a "cultural fact." I propose to study it in terms of Goldmann's structural sociology—a method which seeks homological relationships between just such a fundamental literary structure and the mental structures or "world view" of the social group that produces an author and his works. (pp. 5-7)
For Goldmann, social group is primarily social class—his bias is that of Marxist economics. Certainly Clarke's ambiguities can be "explicated" profitably in this light: here is a representative of the scientific middle class, with roots in nineteenth-century capitalism. Torn asunder by the inherent contradictions of his class's world view, he is doomed to chronicle progress, and to deny it at the same time. Clarke's pattern, however, is both less and more than this—it touches other problematic aspects of Western cultural tradition as well. On one hand, it is curiously limited, parochial even, grounded in a literary and scientific heritage that is specifically English. American SF, grappling with the same critical relationship between individual scientific man and his world, produces a different basic pattern, one with opposite emphasis. On the other hand, it (like its American counterpart) is nonetheless the mirror of a general crisis in Western humanist tradition, to which Marxism is no more than another proposed solution with its own roots in a specific social group. (p. 7)
[His] stories and novels reflect the anxieties of humanist science facing a future it is helping to bring about. The price man must pay for continued progress is the human form divine. Technology too bears the seeds of its own dissolution: man achieves rational control over his environment, only to relinquish it to some higher, inscrutable fatality. Clarke's response to this dilemma is interesting. Instead of opting for one or the other, man or progress, he chooses both. His characters invariably go out, and this invariably leads to suspension of the human: whether they are dwarfed by the alien, or themselves lifted to another, alien plane of existence, the result is the same. This going out is balanced by a coming back, progress by preservation. If man loses his humanity, he paradoxically reaffirms it at the same time. Levels are changed in the process. What stands in opposition both to utopia and transcendence is, in Northrop Frye's term, the "individual varieties of experience." In Clarke's world, clearly, the individual who abides is not the old action hero. On the contrary, he gradually loses his function, first in the utopian world of comfort and plenty, then finally and irrevocably in the mystical resignation of the end. But as "active" man is lost, a new man is retrieved—the hero has become lyrical observer. At the limits of human experience, Clarke's new voyager can no longer affirm man's essence by acts of defiance, but by lament. He discovers that among the alien there is no place for man in his present form. As he does so, however, he in turn "humanizes" the alien by infusing it with a lyrical sadness heightened by this sense of exclusion and loss…. [For Clarke] what "makes" man in the face of blank indifference is no longer reason or knowledge, but something far more solitary and passive. In his stories and novels, the lyric beauty that briefly transforms these infinite silences is that of elegy. (pp. 8-9)
Clarke's response to the dilemma of human progress as modern science conceives it is oddly ambiguous. The split between man and such inexorable, inhuman processes as evolution appears to be more radically accepted in our century. An example is the bitter prediction of Sir Charles Darwin (a grandson of the great Darwin) in his book The Next Million Years (1952) that man can progress no farther: "to do better will require a brand new species." Clarke faces this prospect neither with the cosmic rapture of [an Olaf] Stapledon nor with a retreat to faith in man's eternity. Instead he embraces both man and his passing. His tone is rather the elegiac weariness of [H. G.] Wells's Time Traveller, who contemplates an end-of-the-world landscape barren of man, only to return to the mediocrities of his Edwardian drawing room…. [In Clarke] an individual lyrical voice is raised against inexorable, inhuman forces.
To evolution, in fact, Clarke seems to prefer entropy…. Everywhere in his fiction, man's world is literally running down—his "utopias" such as Diaspar or New Atlantis are in the final stages of heat-death. Collective man no longer struggles or resists. Pushed by "progress" or pulled by some alien overseer, he moves inexorably toward a point of stasis. But if this appears (as it most clearly does in Childhood's End) a moment of transcendence—thus of further progress—it is actually a moment of conservation of human energy as well, in a form different but abiding. As man ceases to act, his powers to observe and intuit are augmented and he rediscovers wonder in the drab existence of everyday life. Set against progress and evolutionary patterns is this closed system of human energy. Both pessimism and optimism are suspended here by what can only be called an alchemical humanism. As energy becomes unavailable in the heroic sphere, it is gradually transmuted into the gold of lyricism.
This lyrical voice reborn in Clarke is also a product of the nineteenth century. In the isolated singer of the Romantic we have what is perhaps the ultimate expression of individualism in Western literary tradition. Already in the Romantic poets there was radical rupture between the subjective "poetic" individual and the objective natural processes modern science was describing and formulating into laws. (pp. 9-10)
[The] true heir to the Romantics and their struggles with the method of science is Wells in his scientific romances. In Wells, emphases have drastically shifted. More significant here than differences, however, is the resiliency of a certain wider-lying pattern. The Time Machine, no more or less than Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," qualifies as a modern version of The Odyssey: in both there is a voyage out and back, movement between poles of the wondrous and the commonplace…. There are two contending relationships, in fact—and here we are at the heart of Wellsian ambiguity. There is evolution and entropy. (p. 11)
Clarke's work is a perfect example of this. Invariably, there is an adventure of human "progress." In some way or other a man journeys to contact with the unknown, and comes face to face simultaneously with the possibility of transcendence and the limits of his humanity. Invariably too, the going out is balanced by some sort of coming back. In these "homecomings" the voyager's wonder and resignation before the mysteries of the universe are recaptured (if only momentarily) in a trivial incident, infused into the most mundane object. "Out there," man is absorbed in human vastness; "in here," he reawakens new meaning in the everyday world, "humanizing" some microcosmic part of that greater nature. This is not linear advancement but oscillation, a form of perpetual motion. As with Well's Time Traveler, homecoming leads to a new voyage: progress/stasis/progress. Out of these interpenetrating opposites a new set of Odyssean transformations arises. The final passage from The Time Machine shows how clearly Wells set this pattern…. [Entropy] carries us to the brink—the heroic virtues have run down and are no more. Yet these ruins are shorn up by heightened poetic intuition—new insight into the gentler human qualities of "gratitude" and "tenderness." The poetry that ennobles these flowers is that of dying mankind. In extremis, the only balance struck is that of the elegaic voice brooding on shrivelled remains. Even in his farthest vision, Clarke will go no farther in the exercise of this elegaic humanism.
Over his long career Clarke has written short fiction, novellas, and novels of different lengths…. Whatever diversity there is in Clarke, however, exists only on the surface. Indeed, anyone who reads great doses of his writing is struck by just the opposite—in spite of variations in tone or length, it is all very similar. This is due mainly to the underlying persistence of the Odyssey pattern…. [The] various tones of Clarke's writing are better described as different modes of a same and unique verbal figure—the oxymoron, a surprising and transformatory juxtaposition of opposites. (pp. 13-14)
Clarke's reenactment of [a] pattern of contradictions and paradoxes in work after work seems almost a ritualistic act. Again and again his hero is painstakingly placed in his social setting, only to be yanked from it—the adventure is invariably a solitary one. More surprisingly, it is passive as well—the hero is less actor than a spectator to the drama of evolution. Clarke flaunts both evolution and relativity, for however much the protagonist may "move" in time, or see the most fearful changes, he remains firmly anchored in space. (pp. 22-3)
[Clarke's works] become tales of impotence and guilt in which the writer/scientist, through his narrative rhythms, seeks to reassert control over processes (physical and social) which he has discovered or formulated but been unable to direct, and which are now slipping entirely from his grasp. Once again the writer damns. Invariably, Clarke confronts short-term technological optimism with long-term evolutionary pessimism. Not only is human progress denied, but the efforts of man to advance are cruelly mocked in story after story: the moment chosen for revelation of man's cosmic insignificance is constantly his farthest point of technical success—a pioneering moon or space exploration. Behind such reductive processes we find the author playing god in his own creation, taking man to the brink of nothingness, only to snatch him back at the last moment unharmed. And yet, though he wields this double power of destructive scientific vision and redeeming mysticism, this author's dynamic proves sterile and self-cancelling in the end. What remains is only a helpless litany for worlds and values that are gone…. In this light, Clarke does not look forward to classless utopias or progress for the masses but backward to that contradiction in terms, the bourgeois aristocrat, the "exceptional" man of Romantic lore, the alienated artist as solitary nightingale. Clarke's golden dream is thus doubly displaced. (pp. 24-5)
Another stumbling block to Goldmann's Marxist-oriented structuralism is the fundamentally national and parochial nature of Clarke's Odyssean response. The dilemma of man in the increasingly alienating universes that modern science erects would seem a general one, arising naturally in all technologically advanced societies, and especially in those capitalist ones where such scientific visions have become enshrined as repressive myths. Yet it is interesting to note the relative absence of Wells's and Clarke's Odyssey pattern both in American SF and in the literary tradition that nourishes it. (p. 28)
To be useful in criticism, general patterns must pass the practical test: does the search for this "Odyssey pattern" in individual novels of Clarke impoverish them, or does it open their respective meaning structures to increasingly subtle and flexible analysis? The second part of this essay confronts the pattern with six novels chosen from all periods of Clarke's activity. These have been purposely selected at random in hopes that they will thus offer maximum resistence to any preconceived idea of order. They do, however, fall roughly into categories: early, middle, and later Clarke. Novels like The Sands of Mars (1951) and Islands in the Sky (1952), in spite of their dates of publication, actually plunge their roots into the '40s and the American magazine SF of that period. Less "primitive" is a work like Childhood's End (1953), where Clarke in one big step seems to have moved away from the manipulation of space opera conventions toward Odyssean adventure that is openly in the speculative manner of Wells. What appears evolutionary is actually parallel development: this strain too, with the early Against the Fall of Night, reaches back into the '40s…. If Childhood's End is Clarke's first major Odyssean adventure, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—whatever Kubrick's role in its creation—remains his most classic. Indeed, the fact that it is an omnibus work, composed consciously and laboriously out of various short pieces from this middle period, may account for its linear purity, its almost literal self-awareness of the pattern it develops. This self-conscious stance becomes more obvious in Clarke's two novels of the '70s: Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and Imperial Earth (1976). In spirit these works seem to turn away from the elegaic mysticism of Clarke's middle period back toward the creative vision of the earliest pulp-inspired novels. Both are aware of a set of conventions as manipulable counters; both weave increasingly intricate and personal figures out of them. This time, however, the raw material is more sophisticated—not the cliches of the juveniles but the Odyssey pattern itself. The goal of this fictional game seems far different in these latest novels—no longer neutral analysis of man's condition so much as pointed satire against his foibles and follies. (pp. 35-6)
However derivative novels like The Sands of Mars and Islands in the Sky may seem on the surface, they are surprisingly original creations, and in their structural dynamics already thoroughly Clarkean. Their originality does not lie in the larger narrative patterns—these are stock juvenile or "adult" space adventure—but rather in the way in which these conventional structures are subordinated to a persistent intellectual framework. Informing and reshaping the familiar cliches and themes everywhere in these two novels is an embryonic form of the Odyssey pattern. In both, a perfectly bland surface map is drawn—as readers of SF our conventional expectations would lead us blindfolded over its contours—only to be dotted with numerous and unexpected points of encounter with cosmic mystery. "Drama" lies less in resolution of plot than in a cumulation of these moments of tension between man and material limits. In these novels too—though in ways more often humorous than ponderous—man is constantly suspended at the crossroads between transcendent possibility and the pull of his lost home. What is really unique here is not so much the fact that Clarke uses "entertaining" genres—juvenile and space operas—to make more serious investigations, as the manner in which he proceeds and the inflection he gives these investigations. His attitude is essentially playful, analytical in a detached sense. In other, later novels the problem will not change—it is ever the human condition—but only the writer's stance: the mode of analysis passes from cerebral to elegaic, and finally to ironic. If Clarke's latest novels appear to come full circle to these stylized games with the convention of the beginning, it is with a different accent: the late Clarke shades toward the satirical, while these early tales are pure arabesque. (p. 37)
At first glance Childhood's End seems a very different novel in theme and form—evolutionary pretense has become transcendence, the individual adventure of boy or man a collective one of the human race itself…. In speculating about a "higher being" as far above man as man above Martian, Clarke presents a series of races not so much linked by evolution as separated by it: the only contact between such self-contained compartments is transcendental. In Childhood, however, this transcendent progress is nonetheless offset by the regressive rhythms of the old Odyssey pattern. Individual adventure does not disappear here; on the contrary, the novel is a series of such adventures—self-contained circles joined less by magical transitions than by ties of a basic human sort: those of family. (pp. 49-50)
In Childhood the familiar out-and-back rhythm continues to shape the narrative; its workings, however, have become much more subtle. What is more, this basic pattern has been transposed from the realm of space to that of time: progressive and regressive elements are incorporated in a larger interplay of sequency and simultaneity. (p. 50)
Next to the intricate clockwork of Childhood's End, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems sparsely linear, a manifesto more than a novel, the transformation of the Odyssey pattern into self-conscious formula. Drawing strongly on that tradition of elegaic response leading back through Wells to 19th century English poetry, the structure of Childhood is itself eminently lyrical in nature: through delicate interplay of repetitive and contrastive patterns, a tension that is not drama but lyrical poignancy is gradually developed around the situations leading to that final encounter between Last Man and Overmind. In contrast 2001 seems dry, intellectualized, stylized. In this later novel the Odyssean adventure of modern scientific man is transposed from the lyrical plane to one which is primarily symbolic in nature. As a result 2001 tends to develop twice removed from the materials of the adventure drama it transforms—on a level that should perhaps be called "metaphysical." The lyrical response of the heroes of Childhood is still a human response. Here, cut away from even this grounding, Clarke's symbols seem to become murky as "philosophy" or religious statement, empty as human experience.
2001 is classic only in the sense that it is the epitome of Clarkean space adventure—a restatement of the out and back pattern which not only resumes all the stock devices of the early works but seeks to reconcile them with the transcendent ending of Childhood. In more ways than one the novel betrays its composite nature—a work made of earlier bits and pieces, put together after the fact to explain a film. It reads at times like a haphazard compendium of old themes and situations: there is the "Earthlight" epiphany—the familiar globe is suddenly alien, "a giant moon to the Moon"; there is the alienation of the spaceborn—the onlooker suspended "between hope and sadness" as Earth "like all mothers" bids farewell to her children. This in fact is primarily a novel of onlooking, of these maxim-like catch phrases which themselves epitomize the experience of excessively passive encounters. In long sections of 2001, the voyager-man, as immobile as the moviegoer overwhelmed by the film's visual effects, confronts alien landscapes—Jupiter, Saturn, the Star Gate. Each confrontation is followed by its aphoristic resume: "The time had not yet come when Man could leave his mark upon the Solar System."… In skeletal form 2001 develops the same interplay of progressive and regressive elements as Childhood. Here again are a series of compartments—not only different adventures but different species as well—that are simultaneously self-contained and overlapping, evolving and not evolving. (pp. 56-7)
[The structure of 2001] neatly suspends its representative hero between transcendence and return …, but in doing so bypasses the elegaic encounter altogether. Where such exist in the novel, they are transposed to a symbolic level—emphasis shifts from human brushes with cosmic mystery to external phenomena which themselves come to stand for such encounters. (p. 59)
Both going out and coming home in the world of 2001 are paths of violence and corruption: Moon-Watcher claws his way upward only to end in Bowman's hotel-haven where home has become a sloppily-built illusion; Star Child in turn goes back to an Earth so polluted that the only "cleaning" possible is destruction. Has the encounter with the alien become here, at the same time, an encounter with our own fallen selves—not so much suspended as trapped between ape and god? This doubt echoes through Clarke's latest two novels, where a clearly skeptical view of man's capacities in the face of cosmic mystery inflects the Odyssey pattern, mitigating both adventure and homecoming. In these novels lyrical dignity gives way to satire, elegaic nobility to something closer to foolish impotence.
The theme of Rendezvous with Rama is itself the compartmentalization of man: the novel not only depicts his helplessness before the mysteries of the universe, but seeks to deflect some of the blame for that helplessness back on man as well. The analytical, satirical thrust of this "rendezvous" is betrayed not only by the frivolous overtones of the designation itself but by the microscopic nature of the situation—the space odyssey structure of 2001 is literally turned inside out here, the mysteries of outer space bounded in this floating nutshell. Once again the inspiration for Rama is a composite one…. In Rama, however, Clarke has shaped these old themes to new satirical purposes.
The Odyssey pattern is not superseded here. On the contrary, it is made to function so that its bases can be examined: if there is for man a simultaneous voyage and homecoming, what is the nature of these eternal roots to which he returns? The satirical shift is already visible in 2001, in the portrait of Floyd and the moon scientists before the slab: the lyrical encounter has become the source of wry jest at human vanity and folly; man has become the stupid tourist before the mysteries of the universe. The world of Rama is filled with such deflating moments. In its texture this is a book of empty discussions and wranglings, futile heroics, where the exhilaration of space walks has become the tasteless observation of female breasts in weightlessness…. The ending of the novel, in fact, is a piece of tongue-in-cheek transcendence. (pp. 60-1)
Imperial Earth, Clarke's latest novel, is a huge elaboration of this same reductive dynamic. As Clarke's most deeply pessimistic view of man's capacity before the infinite, of his evolutionary and transcendental inviability, it stands as a corrective to the elegaic humanism of Childhood's End. The voyage here exactly reverses that of the earlier novel—the hero goes back to Earth only to reveal human roots as shallow as space is deep. At a Pascalian middle between empty point and void of space, the accent falls less on man's lament than on his helplessness and its causes. For it seems, in Earth, that man is physically menaced on both extremes—by "Star Beasts" from without, and from within by the "fingers" of the asymptotic point drawing matter to its "death." Yet it is clear that man himself has created these menaces…. The source of flaws in this novel is man himself; throughout the book Clarke probes the blighted root with satirical fingers. (pp. 61-2)
The leisurely pace of the new novel may lead the reader to think Clarke has taken a step beyond philosophical parable or lyrical novel here, toward real men, their socioeconomic preoccupations, their lives and loves. This is not so. Economics and intrigue have served Clarke before (in the early Earthlight as well as the late Rama) as raw material to be worked into Odyssean correspondences and suspensions. If anything, Clarke's view of man in Earth is the opposite of sympathetic or tragic. Insofar as it functions on a human level at all, it is a scrupulous anatomy of man's labyrinthine attempts to escape from the physical and moral boundaries that hold him, and which may ultimately be of his own creation. (p. 62)
If the transcendent moment has any locus in Earth, however, it is in the family. On this level the novel clearly reads like a parody of Childhood's End. All the principal figures act out traditional relationships, yet there is no real blood bond between them…. The recipe is present here, not only for future triumph, but for Icarian fall. What is more, that Icarian past is a singularly banal one—his fall was a "brain burning" with a "joy machine." Nor is the look forward more reassuring—there lie the hollow voices of space. As dynasty has become a curse …, so the Odyssey pattern itself, instead of suspending man between cosmic beauty and vital past, has become a prison…. In Earth the Odyssean roots—alive still in the elegaic poetry of Childhood's End—are blasted. Man is contained in new limits no longer physically neutral or even traditionally humanist. Behind Clarke's growing satirical vision lies more than a hint of theology—the primal curse. (pp. 63-4)
George Edgar Slusser, in his The Space Odysseys of Arthur C. Clarke (copyright © 1978 by George Edgar Slusser), The Borgo Press, 1978.
Mr Clarke has specialised in the exploration of space, and so enjoys an edge when he comes to write fiction concerned with it. A story set in the future is not thereby a prophecy, and he is too good a novelist to make the confusion; but an intimate knowledge of the possible and the plausible greatly assists in that naturalising of the marvellous which is the characteristic achievement of the best science fiction.
With the heavy stuff out of the way, let it be said at once that Mr Clarke's new novel [The Fountains of Paradise] is no easier to put down than any of his others. It takes us to the 22nd century and the equatorial island of Taprobane…. (p. 119)
The book becomes an action story instead of a metaphysical romance, but the action is tense enough…. As I read I kept pushing myself further and further back in my chair, squealing with vertigo. This is not Arthur Clarke's best novel, though the blurb says he says it is; the most that can be said is that it's delightfully written, always interesting and at times almost unbearably exciting.
Two grumbles: the miles I have quoted are my own conversions; the author has gone metric. Must he? (Does he think it's more scientific?) The year of the story is 2142, and the changeover will almost certainly be complete by then, but my calendar only says 1979. And really, honestly, have we got to call it Sri Lanka? I dare says its inhabitants do call it that, but it's Ceylon in English, which is what I'm using. Next thing you know it'll be Deutschland, Ellas, Suomi and the bloody old CCCP. (p. 120)
Kingsley Amis, "Action Man," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 26, 1979, pp. 119-20.
In science-fiction terms, ["The Fountains of Paradise"] is hardly as daring as the galactic odysseys of some of [Mr. Clarke's] earlier books, but it is presented with sufficient technical detail to lend plausibility—and the more plausible it sounds, the more stupendous it becomes….
Morgan's struggle to realize his dream is presented against a curious backdrop: A highly advanced galactic civilization has already communicated with the human race through a robot probe. After leaving behind some enigmatic messages, the probe has returned to its distant home; no one knows what the next contact will bring. One might imagine a period of cultural stagnation during this time; but Mr. Clarke, ever the optimist, shows us a world civilization expending enormous energies to erect its own "stairway to heaven."
This enterprise may sustain the spirit of the human race; unfortunately, it does not sustain the novel. What little plot there is concerns the efforts of a few reactionaries to abort the project—efforts easily suppressed by Morgan and his allies. (p. 13)
Like most of Arthur Clarke's fiction, this novel suffers from the absence of a true villain. Virtually everyone we meet is decent and rational, and those who are not seem merely misguided. Even the good, clean political infighting, of the sort that enlivened Mr. Clarke's last book, "Imperial Earth," seems merely pro forma.
There is one nice Clarkean touch: A device called CORA—for coronary alarm—continuously monitors the cardiac function of people whose hearts have begun to show signs of weakness. At the first hint of danger, CORA begins to talk. (pp. 13, 25)
As in "2001" when HAL the computer "dies," a mechanical voice utters the most affecting words we hear. (p. 25)
Gerald Jonas, "Bridge to the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1979, pp. 13, 25.