TT: Arthur C. Clarke — More Than “Hard SF”

JANE: Last time I asked you which authors gave you the “sense of wonder” feeling.

ALAN: Arthur C. Clarke can do it to me every time. I think the best examples from his body of work are Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars. The latter in particular still has the power to move me almost to tears, despite the fact that I must have read it at least a dozen times.

Wonders of Outer Space

Wonders of Outer Space

JANE: Can you go into a little more detail?  Some of our readers on are on the younger side and may not be familiar with Clarke’s work.  I think we owe them an idea of what is “wondrous” in his work.

ALAN: Certainly. Childhood’s End starts very conventionally with an invasion of the Earth by aliens who quickly become known as the Overlords. They initiate a utopian golden age, but there is a time limit on it. Initially, it isn’t clear just what this means, but eventually we learn that the Overlords are, if you like, nursemaids here to guide and supervise as humanity evolves into a new order of being.

Ironically (slight spoiler here) the Overlords themselves are not capable of achieving this new state and remain relentlessly curious about what is involved; hence their appearance as nursemaids to those species about to achieve it. It’s this thinking about what might be the next stage of evolution that gives the novel its impact (though it’s not short of spectacle either!). There’s a spiritual depth to it combined with a sense of poignant yearning, particularly on the part the Overlords who are forever denied access to what might possibly be the gates of heaven, however you care to define that particular can of worms. Clarke was a thoroughgoing atheist, but his novels are full of religious speculation.

JANE: I hadn’t read this one…  I may need to add it to my ever-growing list.  Funny thing, these days when Clarke is mentioned, it’s almost always in the context of “hard” SF.  I think more stress should be put on this element of religious, philosophical speculation.  I certainly would have read more of his work!

ALAN: Clarke himself had a degree in physics and was always interested in exploring the limits of technology.  (In one novel he defined the ideal machine as something that contained no moving parts; that way there was nothing to wear out!). But he had a spiritual side as well, and an almost Buddhist appreciation of the sanctity (and beauty) of life. This manifests again and again in his better novels.

JANE: You also mentioned The City and the Stars.  Again, I’ll be honest and admit my ignorance.  Can you tell me a bit about it?

ALAN: The City and the Stars explores similar concerns to those of Childhood’s End. The story takes place in the city of Diaspar, one billion years in the future. The Earth is so old that the oceans have long ago evaporated and humanity has all but died out. As far as the people of Diaspar know, they are the only city left on the planet. Diaspar is completely enclosed. Nobody leaves. Nobody enters.

All the citizens have lived many lives – when their time comes they are reabsorbed into the central computer’s memory banks, only to be re-born later. But Alvin is unique, he has had no prior existence, and he is insatiably curious…

What Alvin finds outside Diaspar forms the bulk of the novel. The novel dates from the 1950s, but Clarke’s speculations haven’t dated at all.  Again, he is really talking about spirituality rather than technology and those concerns are timeless. When Arthur C. Clarke died, this was the novel that I chose to re-read, the novel that I wanted to remember him by.

JANE: Now that I think about it, I realize I actually haven’t read much Clarke.  I read Rendezvous with Rama and was very excited – until I wasn’t.  The ending left me decidedly flat.  It turned me off to Clarke in a big way.

Yet that was a very popular book.  How did you feel about it?

ALAN: It started out well, but really it didn’t go anywhere. It was just a travelogue. The giant artefact arrived in the solar system, a group of people went and explored it, they left, and it went away again. Clarke had lots of clever ideas about the way that Rama was put together, but really, nothing much happened at all in the story. And the final punch line, clever though it was, cheapened the book by turning it into a shaggy dog story. So it remains one of my least favourite of Clarke’s books. I think he was looking hard for significance, but that this time he didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

JANE:  I’m sorry that this was the Clarke novel I read first.  I can see now that I need to go try other of his works.

ALAN: There are several really good ones that I think you might like. The Songs of Distant Earth is particularly good in terms of the sense of wonder feeling we’ve been talking about (it’s also Clarke’s own favourite of all his novels). It is set in the far future, on Thalassa, a colony world that was populated from Earth many centuries before the opening of the book. Now, in the timeline of the novel, the Earth’s sun has gone nova, destroying the solar system. Some starships managed to escape before the catastrophe, and one of them visits Thalassa – a brief stop on its way to its final destination.

The themes of the novel are both apocalyptic and utopian (by any definition, Thalassa is a utopia), together with an examination of the effects of long-term interstellar space travel and the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life.

I suspect that one reason why Clarke likes this novel so much is because he also used it to explore the passions of homosexual love. Clarke himself was homosexual, and there are hints of homosexual relationships in some of his other work, but in this novel he allowed himself to deal with the topic explicitly. Clarke has often been criticised for his cardboard characters (a criticism I disagree with strongly), but you certainly can’t say that about this novel. The passions are very real and the book is all the stronger for it.

The novel was much admired by Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells fame) and in 1994 he produced an album of music inspired by the story.

JANE: Okay…  I’m adding it to my list.  Any others?

ALAN: I’m also very fond of Imperial Earth which follows one Duncan Makenzie on a trip to Earth from his home on Titan, ostensibly for a diplomatic visit to the U.S. for its 500th birthday, but really in order to have a clone of himself produced. Thematically, the novel has a lot to say about the nature of change and transition. It also examines ideas of sexuality and attitudes towards race (again, there are hints of bisexuality as a way of life and, quite a long way into the novel, we learn that the protagonist is black. Not that anyone cares…)

And The Ghost from the Grand Banks is a wonderful bit of fluff about raising the wreck of the Titanic in time to celebrate the centenary of the sinking in 2012. There’s nothing very deep (pun not intended) about this book – but it’s marvellous fun.

JANE: Fun sounds good…  And you’ve reminded me of something I want to bring up later on.  (Scribble…  scribble.)

ALAN: But that’s enough from me. What about you? What stories inspire that “sense of wonder” in you?

JANE: Ooh…  The answer to that is actually much more complicated than naming an author.  Perhaps we can get to it next time.


5 Responses to “TT: Arthur C. Clarke — More Than “Hard SF””

  1. Peter Says:

    This is a really good time to (re)discover Clarke, since with the announcement of a TV mini-series (yeah, I’m dubious too) of Childhood’s End a fair bit of his work is being re-released.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    My favorite Clarke stories are in Tales from the White Hart. Don’t know what that says about my lowbrow tastes, but not so much sensawunda there.

    Part of my problem is that I know enough to be jaded. Just yesterday, I learned about the Supergroups that are replacing kingdoms as the main branches of the Tree of Life. Neat stuff that I’m not going to explain here (the new terms are annoying, but learnable. Frackin’ cladists). So I see this radical reorganization, which makes it clear that multicellular organisms arose something like four or five separate times in four or five separate ways, and I get a real sense of wonder. Life is just so neat, and so good at taking bugs and turning them into essential features. Wow.

    And then I turn to McDevitt’s A Talent for War, after reading about it here last week. It’s a good book, a hybrid between a cozy mystery and a space opera. Nicely done, but the details (especially his dating system) are jarring. It’s just too cozy in the face of millennia, light years, and planets that aren’t properly alien. Worse, I’m reading it now, so a lot of presumably innocent choices, like the confederacy, and the romantic rebellion of underdogs led by a genius general, and the classicism, have a distinct dog-whistle political note that sounds sour now after the events of the last few months. It’s a book where everyone sounds like a white male, whatever their stated gender and skin color are. Good book? Yes. Sensawunda? Not so much. Sorry.

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    One that hasn’t been mentioned is “A Fall of Moondust” (1961), nominated for the Hugo, first SF novel to get into a Reader’s Digest condensed book version. Story of trying to rescue a passenger tourist moon vehicle sunk under dust after a moonquake. But the first Clarke book that stirred a sense of wonder in me wasn’t even fiction; it was his “The Conquest of Space,” a gift to me from a great-aunt who belonged to the Book of the Month Club (it was an alternate selection), back in 1951 when I was still in grade school. It was full of new concepts to me, what was known then about the planets, how they might be colonized, the difference between “galaxy,” “universe” and “cosmos,” and so much else, complete with illustrations. To say it expanded my sense of wonder about space is like saying Angelina Jolie is a woman; it’s true, it just doesn’t tell the whole story.

    • janelindskold Says:

      A FALL OF MOONDUST sounds familiar… I may need to see if I read that one.

      Wouldn’t it be neat to do an alternate history using what was known about the planets etc then, as if it was all there was to know?

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Asimov did something like that long ago, when a paperback publisher re-issued his YA “Lucky Starr” books (originally as by “Paul French”). Each was set at a different place in the solar system, and he did an afterward in the new versions about all that was wrong with the original settings.

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