Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Arthur C Clarke Round 15: Once You Go Clarke, You Don't Give A Quark

Hah! Thought I gave up on this, aye? (Well yeah I almost did.)

Hate, aka At The End Of Orbit, 1961

This is a story about a rather unlikeable brute of a man working on a sailboat, who recovers a downed space capsule and finds that the pilot inside the capsule is a representative of the government that destroyed his home and family. He decides to get revenge by murdering the pilot, and tells the pilot of his intentions while they are both isolated underwater. The pilot has limited oxygen and the man simply delays the salvage operation long enough to suffocate the pilot, returning to the water at regular intervals to deliver taunting speeches through the wall of the capsule as the pilot slowly expires. The pilot secretly records the speeches on tape. Once the crew of the boat pries open the capsule and finds the dead pilot inside, they pass the tape to the world media.

Probably the most relevant part of this story to modern times is the idea of an evil act being recorded and then broadcast worldwide to invite judgement and condemnation of the evildoer. Public shame campaigns have become a modern form of entertainment, driving network traffic and ad revenue, and it's all too easy for my generation to imagine the nasty fate that awaits this story's nasty protagonist. Give an ape a message box to type something self-righteous, and give them the impression that it's seen by others, and the ape will spend money to do it again and again, like throwing money into a fountain and hoping that increased social standing will come splashing out.

But that's building too much on what is actually a minor twist-ending to an otherwise unremarkable story. (It ain't even science fiction.)

Maelstrom II, 1962

This one starts from a good hook, and manages to get even better:

"He was not the first man, Cliff Leland told himself bitterly, to know the exact second and the precise manner of his death..."

A somewhat implausible chain of accidents in a moon-to-Earth transportation system results in a lone traveler doomed to crash to the ground in a set number of hours. Clarke's knowledge of orbital mechanics is on full display here, reminding us all that space doesn't need warp drives and transporters to be exotic, and in fact those things would make it less exotic than it really is. I won't spoil the story (like I do with most of these) just in case you decide to read it for yourself.

Love That Universe, 1961

A really weird one. Worldwide leaders convince the entire human population to perform a meditation exercise, trying to get everyone to express "love" all at the same time, in order to send a psychic signal to the alien civilizations around them, announcing their presence and asking for intervention to save them from a cosmic disaster. Conventional methods of communication all travel at the speed of light or less, but supposedly telepathic power is instantaneous, making it the only method that will work in time.

Not my cup of tea. I'm pretty firmly against the idea of depending on telepathy to do anything counter to the established laws of physics. That may sound like a strange way of saying "I don't believe in telepathy" but I'm being careful with my description because, after all, we live in an era of technology that's only a few steps away from surgically implanted low-power networking devices that could use the internet to send our thoughts around the world and back. At some point we're going to have to admit that "telepathy" is just the magical idea we can no longer distinguish from the sufficiently advanced smartphone.

The other thing that's always bugged me about telepathy is that it can supposedly transmit feelings - emotions - directly, as something separate from the physical signs and physiological symptoms of them.

Out Of The Sun, 1958

This one is a bit of a retread for Clarke. He'd already written a short story about an alien being with a very weird physiology emerging from the depths of the sun, and here he takes the same scenario but adds in a handful of scientists doing research on Mercury. They marvel at the emerging being, accidentally getting - and recording - a good view of its interior structure. Then it dies and there's some reverent eulogizing for it, like a professor might do of his favorite dead research project while raising a glass in the local pub.

I do appreciate the difficulty of writing, and I'm sure this story stands better on its own and not the way I'm reading it: Crowded in amongst its siblings and ancestors in an almost intolerably long family line. It's been a number of years since I started this task of reading every short story Clarke wrote, and that's given me plenty of space and time between stories, but sometimes it's still not enough space when the recycling is as obvious as it is here.

A Slight Case Of Sunstroke, 1958

For once, Clarke wrote a story that didn't feature a scientist as the protagonist, or scientific research as the setting. I kept waiting for some grey-haired gentleman in a lab coat to stroll up and introduce himself, and start explaining the big plot twist with flowcharts and a stick, or maybe some quaint anecdote about his aunt Fanny using a makeup mirror in bright sunlight and accidentally lighting her cat on fire; oh those silly women what bunglers they are. Thankfully, Clarke managed to suspended his jihad on women for the duration of this story ... but only by leaving them out.

I suppose I should explain the plot, since it was pretty good for a short story. A politician in a foreign country rises to power by forming a close relationship with the local military, and to keep the troops happy, he gets them all free tickets to a huge soccer game in a bowl-shaped stadium. He also has special playbills printed, and makes sure that each soldier in the stands gets a playbill. The playbills turn out to be highly reflective, and when the referee of the game makes a particularly offensive call, all the soldiers hold up their playbills to the sun and angle the reflection down onto the field at the referee. In an instant, he is burned into a pile of smoking ash. Revenge is sweet.

It was an intriguing idea, and I contemplated doing some research and some math to see if it could work. I would assume that the playbills had about two square feet of surface area, and reflected sunlight at 50% intensity, and just to make the calculations easier I'd assume that about 0.1% of that reflected light actually got to the referee.

Then the central question would be something like this: How much energy would it take to incinerate a man-sized object, and how much square footage of land in full sunlight would it take to match that amount of energy, times 1000?

If that square footage could fit within a quarter or so of the stands of a large soccer stadium, then the trick would work, right?

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