Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Arthur C Clarke Round 21: The C stands for Celeritas. (Nothing can exceed the speed of Clarke.)

Dial F For Frankenstein, 1964

The beginning of this tale is the ending to the amusing cult film "Lawnmower Man". If you know the latter, don't bother reading the former. Actually the plot for this story has been so thoroughly rehashed and explored in so many other stories that it's not even worth summarizing here!

Neutron Tide, 1970

Oh my god, it's a short story whose only point is to make a ridiculous pun. Ack!!

The Steam-Powered Word Processor, 1986

A charming story told in fragments, as though excerpted from multiple accounts, about a clergyman who becomes obsessed with steam power and decides to construct what he calls a "word loom." It's a monstrous room-sized tangle of gears and pedals, and when he plays it like a church organ, it spits out typeset sermons for his congregation. Of course the project ends in explosive disaster, as one might expect from any project involving steam and/or rockets.

This era of Clarke's short story writing shows a lot more playfulness than his earlier work, and it's a welcome change. This particular tale has an almost Terry Pratchett feel to it.

Transit Of Earth, 1971

An astronaut, stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue, ruminates about his mission and his fate while performing his last assigned duty: To record the transit of Earth and its moon across the face of the sun, from the vantage point of Mars - an astronomical event that follows a 284-year cycle.

I was hoping this tale would be better, justifying its length - but nothing happens while the astronaut slowly consumes his remaining air, except for the transit itself. No rescue arrives, no aliens intervene, and the astronaut is totally resigned to his fate. How depressing. What was the point of this story?

The Cruel Sky, 1966

When reading these stories so long after they were written, it's tempting to believe that every time Clarke talks in fantastical terms about a new technology, it's the first time anyone has talked about it. So with this story, it's tempting to think that this is the first time anyone has really explored the idea of a personal gravity field manipulator: A solid-state device you can wear like a backpack that cancels the effects of gravity for the wearer. Wow; this could change everything! Why hasn't anyone explored this before?

But if I give Clarke a little less credit as the fountainhead of all new future inventions, I start to notice the way his very specific predictions don't hold up to scrutiny. Not on a scientific level - it's easy to get a scientific hypothesis wrong, as any scientist will tell you - but on a social level, at the level where the science meshes into society, and society is transformed. That level is the most fascinating to explore, and also the core of science fiction in general, which is no coincidence. And like any human being, Clarke's vision is clouded by his personal context. His vision of future society - of the way society would or should be transformed - is defined by his surroundings. "What are people around me struggling with, that they shouldn't be?" "What are the current taboos, and is it right to eliminate them, or reinforce them?" "What are my own biases, and will future humans have them too?"

Most of the time Clarke shies away from these things, choosing to talk about technology without involving the social politics. And I understand why, because when he does try to make a social point he bungles it half the time. His contempt for women is legendary, his ideas about the inevitable and eternal nature of war are very of-his-time, his attitudes about animal intelligence are very hit-and-miss, and his scientist characters often behave like boys in a tree fort role-playing their action heroes, rather than the safety-conscious, highly collaborative professionals they should be. That last problem is what comes up in this story. The Cruel Sky has two scientists as protagonists, and Clarke wants us to accept a number of points at face value:

1. One of the scientists is "world famous", strictly for being a very good scientist. The media hounds him in public.
2. The personal gravity field manipulator is the work of this one scientist, working almost completely alone, in secret.
3. This scientist knows his invention is hugely important for humanity, but he also wants to make a splash unveiling it - like he's P. T. Barnum showing off some new circus act - so he takes the only two prototypes of the invention and uses them to climb Mount Everest in secret at night.

All these things are vital to establish the scenario: Two guys alone in the mountains at night, with little chance for rescue. It's an adventure story! But, all of these things are also totally ridiculous, for a reason that every modern scientist knows:

Amazing new inventions are always the result of a huge collective effort. An entrepreneur or a showman might claim the spotlight to unveil it, but the scientists involved are quick to acknowledge their collaborators at every opportunity, because their careers live and die on the strength of their collaborative ties. One of the most famous modern entrepreneurs is the late Steve Jobs, and people credited him with a lot of things - a lot more than he actually did - but even Big Steve with his obsessive showmanship would also take time out at the end of many keynote speeches to have the developers and engineers stand up, so the audience could give them all a round of applause with the world watching. That example rests at the top of a mountain of others that collectively make the scientists in this short story - climbing Mount Everest and risking their lives (and those of the inevitable rescue crew) - look like jackasses.

But, by Clarke's personal view, scientists are ignored and frustrated eggheads, so they need to act out, with theatrics and derring-do, and be world-famous. He sees scientists of his own time a certain way, and imagines the way they will correct for it.

What's especially frustrating about this story is that Clarke puts major effort into his trapped-in-the-mountains scenario, and spends no time at all discussing the implications of his gravity field manipulator for society. It would revolutionize every aspect of the world economy, and almost every scientific discipline. Everything from farming techniques to space travel to dance parties would be changed. Clarke could have bent his considerable imagination to the task of describing this, maybe with just a handful of well-chosen examples. Instead he says nothing. Some guys get into the mountains with less effort than usual, they get lost, then they get rescued - the end.

As I said earlier, Clarke's vision for how some new invention would change society is rooted in his own context. It can't be perfect. But it can at least be compelling, and I wish he'd indulged it more here. At this point I've gone through almost all of his short stories, and looking back, I can say with confidence that he is at his most entertaining when he breaks away from the standard adventure story format and just writes about people coping with change, like in "The Songs Of Distant Earth", "The Light Of Other Days", "Second Dawn", "Sleeping Beauty", et cetera. That's what keeps me coming back. His reach may often exceed his grasp, but it always inspires a great discussion.
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