Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review of The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 by Arthur C. Clarke

His first short-story appearing 15 years before his first novel, much of Arthur C. Clarke’s oeuvre is to be found in short fiction.  In fact, despite the success of the novels that were to come—Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and The City & the Stars among them, Clarke produced as much short fiction in the middle and end of his career as the beginning.  Thinking he had reached the point so many other successful writers do, i.e that which the author has honed their skills to the point they can focus on novel-length works, in 1973 Sphere decided to publish Clarke’s best-of short fiction.  Little did they know he would nearly double the number of short stories that would come.  The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 must therefore be taken with a caveat: everything hereafter is in reference to the first half of Clarke’s writing career.

From the first story Clarke ever had published to his most recent novella as of 1971, The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 is a retrospective that loosely covers Clarke’s evolution as a writer. There are some gaps.  From the ridiculously simplistic to the more complex, the collection also reveals the transition of the genre.  The six pages of “Travel by Wire!” is a brief, minimalistic glimpse of transferring matter via electrical cable while A Meeting with Medusa is a hard-science adventure of the first manned flight in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  Several of Clarke’s other collections more organic in form (i.e. collections resulting from the natural rather than forced accumulation of material), The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 may not be the best place to jump in, but does contain a handful of quality stories.

The appeal of the collection to modern readers of science fiction depends largely on what expectations they bring to the table.  If the reader is looking for retro science puzzles of one or two dimensions, then it’s highly possible The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 will be enjoyable; it’s difficult to go wrong with Clarke if Earth’s knowledge extrapolated into unassuming tales of space are your cup of tea.  Mars’ moon an interesting hunting ground, “Hide and Seek” is the story of a space ship seeking a secret agent on Phobos.  “Into the Comet”, with its abacus computing; “Summertime on Icarus”, with its tale of an astronaut stranded on a planetoid whose horizon line is about to sizzle him whole; and “Sunjammer” and its solar sailing—all utilize physics and astrology in easy-to-read, (semi-)thrilling stories.

And there are more conventional stories.  “Refugee” draws British royalty into the wonder of space; “Venture the Moon”, actually a mini-collection of linked vignettes, light-heartedly looks at humanity’s first trip to the moon; “Second Dawn” is one of Clarke’s first alien stories (if not the first) that tells of a highly intelligent species with little technology of their own and how they go about getting additional technology; “Retreat from Earth” is a one-off pulp era/B-movie look at insects; “Castaway” and “The Awakening” are early pieces that would go on to have influence on later Clarke works, their protean forms incomplete; “Hate”, is the story of a pearl diver whose enmity against Russians meets a big surprise; and “Death and the Senator”, despite its atypical structure, tells a familiar tale but in a science fiction story of medical proportion.

The best of the collection, however, are certain.  “The Sentinel”, precursor to 2001: A Space Odyssey, describes a scientist’s discovery of a strange artifact on the moon; “History Lesson”, a story about an ice age that engulfs a planet later discovered by aliens; and “The Star”, the story of a species fighting against a fate which dooms their race are the highlights.  These stories most effectively express Clarke’s innate humanism in the context of space, and despite all of the intelligent speculation on science, are what make him the writer of regard he is.

Interestingly, the collection excludes “The Nine Billion Names of God”, “The Forgotten Enemy”, “The Wall of Darkness”, “The Lion of Comarre”, “Before Eden”, “The Food of the Gods”—all of which are among Clarke’s better known stories, leaving me to conclude one of the following scenarios was in place: the editor’s view of ‘best-of’ was not along lines of popularity, rights were not available to certain stories, or there were space limitations.  Anyway you look at it, however, some of the significant pieces from Clarke’s early oeuvre are missing.

In the end, The Best of Arthur C. Clarke 1937 -1971 is a dated collection in more ways than one.  Gollancz’s 2000 The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke makes apparent the 30 additional years of success Clarke would have publishing, while presentation in the stories which are included is literally of another era.  Possessing a mid-20th century style and approach, the majority of the stories are simple, and do not extend themselves beyond basic scientific puzzles or quandaries.  This is not to say Clarke uses what is today common knowledge or lacks the skills to present the puzzles in interesting fashion, rather that his type of story has been usurped by higher expectations for sophistication, i.e. realistic characterization and desire for less-than-standard endings.  That being said, Clarke’s culture and intelligence can’t help but leak through, and at times take over the stage.  “The Sentinel” and “The Star” are as powerful statements about the human race and space as can be in sci-fi, and for this may be worth the collection alone.

The collection’s contents:

“1933: A Science-Fiction Odyssey” [essay by Clarke]
“Travel By Wire!”
“Retreat from Earth”
“The Awakening”
“History Lesson”
“Hide and Seek”
“Second Dawn”
“The Sentinel”
“The Star”
“Venture to the Moon”
“Into the Comet”
“Summertime on Icarus”
“Death and the Senator”
“Sunjammer” (aka “The Wind from the Sun”)

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