Arthur C. Clarke Clarke, Arthur C(harles) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Peter Brigg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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)


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George Edgar Slusser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kingsley Amis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.