The Pacifist, 1956
When I was a kid I had a silly fascination with making the computer - a cold and impartial box of wires and plastic - spew bizarre insults onto its screen, in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS, or better yet, blurt them out loud in a mangled metallic voice, indiscriminately, to anyone passing by. Family members and fellow students, mostly.
It took a certain amount of obsession to get the computer to sound angry, by messing with the stream of raw phonemes that made each word, and my friends and I were divided on which was funnier - a robotic voice that sounded hostile, or one that called people things like "cack-headed pie crust snorter" in a flat, dispassionate monotone. We could never settle the debate, but as time passed, we did uncover a general rule: The more realistic the voice technology got, the funnier it was to call people hideous things with it in monotone.
We still amuse ourselves with stuff like this 25 years later, of course. The joke of making your phone fart and then excuse itself is today's variation on the theme.
Anyway, this short story is about an extremely early occurrence of a computer being manipulated to spew insults, and though it's fiction, I found it totally believable. It was a short, fun, read - and oddly nostalgic.
Publicity Campaign, 1953
This story was just long enough to make a funny point. Hit-it-and-quit-it, as James Brown would say. A mass-media advertising blitz to raise awareness of an expensive new "alien invasion" movie reaches its peak, just as an emissary for an actual alien race attempts to make contact by showing up in person and strolling around. Violent hijinks ensue, repeatedly, and the leader of the expedition blows a gasket and sterilizes the entire surface of the Earth. That'll show 'em!
Yes, there's the usual Clarkeian hand-wringing just under the surface, but this time he kept the tone light and fleet enough that I didn't mind.
Venture To The Moon, 1956
A series of short tales woven together, all about the antics of scientists on the moon. Just about all the science was shown to be inaccurate over the next decade, but it's hard to care when the stories are so entertaining.
This is Clarke writing to his strengths, using a scenario he's very comfortable with: What happens when you get a bunch of excited good-old-boy scientists together and drop them in the middle of an exotic phenomenon? Investigation - the forming of questions and the a-ha moment of discovering the answers - is the extent of the plotting here. Manly competition is the extent of the drama.
Actually, Clarke did extend the drama beyond manly competiton, in one part, and the result is kind of distateful. He brings in the only female character anywhere in the series of tales, and she turns out to be a repugnant gold-digger. Way to win hearts, Mr. Clarke.
The Ultimate Melody, 1957
A just-about-short-enough story about a scientist who invents a machine that reads brainwaves to zero in on the "ultimate melody", a tonal composition that is so incredibly catchy that it jams the brain of any listener into a permanent loop. I can't decide if this story was too long for such a paper-thin premise, or too short instead. Imagine the crime you could commit with a recording of that song and a good pair of earplugs. Imagine the havoc you could wreak on the battlefield.
Remember that Monty Python skit about a joke so funny that it made people die laughing, and how it was instantly militarized and used in the war effort? Clarke could have rolled in that direction and told a nice satirical tale long before the Pythons came along. Or imagine an orchestra passing out sheet music, only a few bars per person, and then playing it at a concert. Imagine them getting it slightly wrong, and causing everyone in the audience to babble incoherently for days, instead of merely going catatonic. Or scrambling their vocabulary around for some reason. Imagine some curious parishoners throwing the Bible through a borrowed analysis engine and discovering that various passages had a similar scrambling effect. One of the people involved could get overexposed to the "right" passages and turn into a prophet, then they could make the process repeatable and generate an army of whacked-out prophets, all claiming to know different versions of the future.
So many directions to go in!