Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 9: In France He Is Monsieur Clar-KAY

Encounter In The Dawn, 1953

Along time ago I watched an episode of The Outer Limits where the protagonist was an astronaut who was trapped alone on a newly discovered planet. He spent most of the time glued some kind of intergalactic radio device listening to the progress of a devastating war happening back home. By the end of the episode it looked like he was going to be the only surviving member of the human race, except in the meantime he's also encountered a native of the planet he's stranded on - a solitary survivor of some other apocalypse - and it's a human woman.

Not a vaguely humanoid woman, a woman with four arms and huge eyeballs, or even a woman with too much hair or bad teeth ... but a straight-up fashion-magazine human woman, about 19 years old, with shaved legs and a flattering Jane-Of-The-Jungle outfit.

In the last few minutes, he introduces himself as Adam, and the babbling woman - who is young and spunky but also as dumb as a bag of hammers (just the way they liked them in the 1950's) - reveals that the new planet is called "Earth", thus turning a sci-fi deep-space apocalypse into a lunkhead biblical origin story.

Three pages in, I was certain Arthur C Clarke was going to pull the same damn stunt in this story.

Turns out he had other things on his mind. The intergalactic archaeologists of this story encounter a creature that is obviously not human, but shows intriguing promise. Then the decline of their own space empire calls them away before their research can bear fruit, and the reader is left hanging. And perhaps that's the point: Maybe Arthur C Clarke was attempting to instill in us the same feeling of regret that his future scientists feel here, of an opportunity lost. On the other hand, maybe he just got bored with his own story. Either way it wasn't much of a read.

If I Forget Thee, oh Earth, 1951

This story tries hard not to be a big old heaping mountain of Arthur C. Clarke standard hand-wringing about the failings of fickle humanity. But no matter how intently you talk about the tiny rocks that crunch under your feet, you can't obscure the fact that you're mountain climbing.

I spent almost all the time simply waiting for this story to make its point and end, so I could move on to something more intersting.

Jupiter Five, 1953

The big premise is fantastic: An alien spaceship in our solar system, that has gone unnoticed because it's so enormous that we assumed it was a moon. Clarke does fine work getting us there and inside, carried along by the plot contrivance of two rival gangs of scientists. But then he tears his focus away from the wondrous ship and instead attempts to amuse us with gravity acrobatics. What the heck?

I'm glad he would eventually revisit this premise with Rendezvous With Rama. That's a great book. Brilliant, even. And don't get me wrong - this is a good short story too. It just doesn't keep the focus where I'd like.

At one point Clarke is describing a statue that the explorers find deep in the spacecraft, and he compares the expression on the vaguely reptilian alien's face to a painting of a famous cardinal. I googled it, and now the picture is wedged in my photo history, invoking memories of lizard people and giant spacecraft every time I thumb over it.

The Other Tiger, 1953

A short, playful, contrarian story that seems to think it's a lot cuter than it actually is. I was unimpressed. Perhaps I'd just eaten some undercooked sausage, or maybe the weather was bad.

Second Dawn, 1951

Clarke spends the first third of this story dealing with the aftermath of a war between two species on a distant planet. One of his main characters is a general in the army, who has discovered a way to destroy the minds of his enemies telepathically. This is significant because his entire civilization is a species of creature that has no prehensile limbs, and cannot use tools of any kind, so their minds are highly developed but their technology is not.

Anyway, after a bit of boilerplate Arthur-C-Clarke-standard monologue about the horrors of war and the burdens of sentient beings, the story takes a left turn and follows another character, who is in the midst of developing a new relationship with a different kind of sentient being from a different part of the planet. These are feeble creatures with very well developed hands and arms that can use a wide variety of tools, and with the telepathic guidance of the first species, they are beginning a technological revolution that seems to be highly beneficial for everyone. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, some of the characters are expressing doubt.

The symbiosis between the species was most intriguing in the ways that it was flawed. Deprive any thinking creature of its symbiote and its toolbelt and suddenly it was as useless and helpless as a barnyard animal, despite being a Wyle-E-Coyote "Super Genius". How much of our own technology has escalated beyond the ability of our own two hands to maintain? If something breaks, almost all the time our only options are to throw it away and do without it, or bring it to someone else who can fix it for us with special gear and training. In this respect, we have the same problem that the intelligent beings in the story do, without the added complication of a symbiote to make it obvious. (Unless you get wacky and think of our symbiote as electricity, I suppose.) "Helpless brain in a jar" is a state we all instinctively revile, but at the same time, we embrace it, eagerly. Gratefully.

Don't get me wrong; I don't bear any hipster nostalgia for working fields and chasing game and burning dung for heat in a dugout under the prairie. Instead, what I would rather see is a groundswell of interest in seeing how things work. All things, from indoor plumbing to outer space telescopes, from seeds to sailboats to sonatas.

But curiosity is an animal act, indulged under certain safe conditions, instilled from a young age. Clearly there is a lot of world-building yet to be done before we all feel safe enough to turn our minds to other things.

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