Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review of A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke

If there is any stranglehold on literature that speculative fiction has, it’s the lack of limitations answering the question: what if?  Fantasy a complete expression of this facet, it is science fiction which tugs lightly on the reins lest the imagination escape reality entirely.  Jupiter that reality, in 1972 Arthur C. Clarke penned the novella A Meeting with Medusa for anyone who ever wondered what being in the gas giant’s atmosphere may be like.  Awash with vivid visuals, it is only the fantastic elements which threaten to run away with the story.

Howard Falcon is a top dirigible pilot, and at the outset of the story is found captaining the world’s largest Queen Elizabeth IV above the Grand Canyon.  At 1,500 feet in length, piloting the massive, multi-chambered blimp is no easy task.  It is thus when scientists plan the first manned trip to into Jupiter’s atmosphere, Falcon is their choice for pilot.  A significant percentage of the unmanned probes having disappeared exploring the planet, Falcon is aware of the risk but is willing to take it for the glory of being the first human in Jovian skies.  His planetary entry successful, what he discovers thereafter belongs truly to speculative fiction.

The greatest success of A Meeting with Medusa is the sensuality of place.  The description of Jupiter’s atmosphere rich, Clarke gives the reader a strong impression what it might be like traveling the chemical clouds and swirls of gas.  Electrical storms a phenomena considered normal on the gas giant, Falcon’s experiences of St. Elmo’s fire, radiating spokes of electrical light, and the pulses of color emanating from deep below on the invisible surface are almost palpable, making one yearn for a similar viewport on Earth.

But given the novella is Silver Age material (despite being published in 1972), the titular ‘Medusa’, when finally appearing, drains a bit of the story’s integrity.  Extrapolation becoming speculation, exploration likewise becomes adventure.  Strongly in the vein of Jules Verne’s brand of sci-fi (particularly given the dirigible aspect), Clarke channels the originator of such voyages extraordinaire­ to effective yet unnatural effect.

In the end, A Meeting with Medusa is a good but not great novella rooted in hypotheses on what being in Jupiter’s atmosphere might be like.  Clarke tossing in a couple of sci-fi conceits to spice up the story, what results is a vivid Silver Age imagining of life on our solar system’s largest planet.  Effectively building a sense of wonder, there is even time for a little post-humanism…

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