Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Arthur C Clarke Round 17: Can't Teach An Old Clarke New Techs

The Other Side Of The Sky, 1957

This was a pretty interesting collection of short stories about life on a space station. The standout to me was a somewhat implausible one about an astronaut who brings a pet bird up into space, and one day the bird begins fainting from lack of oxygen, alerting the crew to a failure in the oxygen system and saving many lives.

I'm not sure if I liked it because the idea of a bird on a space station is kind of adorable, or because it brought up a series of questions that my skeptical mind began to chew on? Could a bird figure out how to fly, in an environment with no concept of "down"? Could a bird survive the launch into space, or would it have to be hatched from an egg on the station? Would the egg survive the launch? How would a bird deal with eating? Don't some birds tilt their heads up and use gravity to help them swallow or drink? Don't they rely on gravity to defecate cleanly?

I bet NASA has actually answered some of these questions.

The other stories were good, even if they didn't inspire so many questions. Clarke earned his lunch money here.

Out Of The Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting, 1959

A story framed as an interview with an old scientist, and based on an optimistic timeline for space exploration that has us heading off to colonize Mars well before the year 2000. A few minutes in, the old scientist describes the "second most awe-inspiring sound he's ever heard," and then announces that he's going to tell a story about the sound that beat it to become number one.

It's not that much of a story, so I don't feel bad for spoiling it, by saying that as soon as he made that announcement it was obvious exactly what the sound would be, just a matter of learning what parties were involved. Think about it: According to every trite storytelling trope in the world, what sound is a well-cultured adult male going to hear, that will immediately shove everything else he's ever heard into second place for "awe-inspiring?"

The birth cry of his first child. Duh. Damn it Clarke, you could have avoided telegraphing it so obviously if you'd just dropped the "second-most" setup. Oh well. (He's way too dead to care at this point.) Next story...

Dog's Star, 1962

A sappy not-science-fiction story eulogizing a dog. Not much reason for this to exist, except perhaps as a signpost for the beginning of Clarke's interest in earthquakes.

Trouble With Time a.k.a. Crime On Mars, 1960

I was certain this would be about time travel paradoxes, but it turned out to be a lightweight detective story, with a sci-fi flourish. The flourish is that the action takes place on Mars, which has no oceans, and so there is no convenient place to put the international date line. It just so happens that one of the cities on the newly colonized planet is laid right across the line, such that it's Friday on the East side of town when it's Thursday on the West side, and so forth. A burglar sneaks across town into a museum and waits until early morning to sneak out with a stolen artifact, only to realize that it's Friday all over again and the museum is open for business. He panics and the police nab him easily.

Undeniably silly, but reading it leads one to contemplate the international date line as it exists here on Earth, which can be very brain-bending. There's a good reason we've all agreed to stick it way out in the Pacific Ocean, and even zig-zagged it around various islands.

Cosmic Casanova, 1958

Like whoah. Some of Clarke's stories were first published in Playboy magazine (which all you young people may not realize was a monthly publication that was notorious from the 70's to the late 90's for being a source of naked-lady-pictures for curious teenage boys nationwide) and this story would fit right into those pages between the tastefully nude women and the advertisements for wine and cigars. But no, this was published somewhere else.

Here's the plot: In the far future, a man is doing the outer-space equivalent of long-haul trucking, spending large amounts of time alone on his ship, and repeatedly getting starved for sexual contact, then having a bunch of shallow sexual conquests every time he reaches a populated planet. (Yee haw!) This has repeated so many times that it's become a way of life for him, and he's developed quite a skill for recognizing willing partners and contriving a situation where they can get naked together. Then one day he discovers a beacon from a planet that's been out of contact with the rest of civilization for 5000 years, and as he heads for the planet to investigate, he starts up a remote conversation with an emissary from the planet, and she happens to be a pretty young lady. They plan his arrival on the planet so they can get some brief alone-time together, presumably for a quick bit of humpery, before she has to introduce him to the other officials. The plan seems perfect, and the man is practically salivating as his ship touches down and he runs outside to meet his interstellar booty-call, but then he gets a rude surprise.

The low gravity of the planet has affected this isolated group in a strange way over the last 5000 years: The woman is so tall that the man barely comes up to her knees.

What a tweeeest!

Well, even if the main character is a bit of a crawler, the story is still worthwhile, because the tweeeest ending makes for an interesting thought experiment. Could humans grow to 20 feet tall in a low-gravity environment, and still look more-or-less the same?

Well, evolution can do a lot in 5000 years, especially to species that have very short reproductive cycles. But reasonably civilized humans only reproduce every 20 years or so. That's 250 generations; doesn't seem like much... But I'm betting it's all a bit moot since a 20-foot-tall human would not be proportional, and would look quite alarming to anyone expecting a "normal" appearance.

Even if gravity is changed, physics still has its way. A person 4x taller would have 64x the mass but only 16x the surface area. Their whole physiology would have to be rearranged just to radiate enough heat and breathe in enough oxygen. Would they breathe, move, and speak at the same rate? Would their voice be the same, or would it be suspiciously deep? Perhaps we'd have to alter the atmosphere, the temperature, the light intensity, and the pressure, in very specific ways to try and counteract this - but how well would that work?

Would their hair be suspiciously dense-looking? With their eyes 4x larger on every side and 4x farther apart, would they still be able to focus them with the same muscles? The cornea takes in oxygen directly from the air - it contains no blood vessels - how well would that work in our re-jiggered atmosphere? Would they need redesigned tear-ducts to avoid dehydrating those huge eyeballs?

I'm not trying to make an argument from incredulity here, just saying that there are plenty of factors to consider in deciding how much a human's appearance might change if they were 4x taller, and reduced gravity does not eliminate very many of those factors.

Plus, we're already assuming that humans would naturally favor larger bodies in lesser gravity. Why would we do that? Perhaps because the largest mammals on Earth live in the sea, and they are less troubled by gravity there. ... But they also have pretty different body shapes, suited to moving through the water. It's not an ideal comparison since we're assuming a gaseous atmosphere on our hypothetical 5000-year backwater planet. Perhaps humans would get taller, and skinnier at the same time, and we'd end up with a planet full of gigantic slow-moving skeleton-people. Perhaps we'd have the Wookiee home world! (Except they'd be pretty lousy in a fight.)
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