Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 10: Mo Clarke, Mo’ Physics Problems

The Nine Billion Names Of God, 1953

Clarke must have felt pretty snug when he managed to work the big twist in this story into the last word of the last sentence. Other than that sleight-of-hand and some snappy dialogue, there isn't much to this story beyond the somewhat iconic title.

Armaments Race, 1954

Another cute story from Clarke's pub-full-of-scientists setting. Not science fiction, though. I had a feeling well before the end that he would never even try to explain the technological breakthroughs involved, and that drained my enthusiasm. Anyone can describe something fantastical. It's the plausible explanations that I find compelling.

No Morning After, 1954

In his stories, long or short, Clarke spends a lot of his time wringing his hands over the collective failings of the human race, through the mouthpiece of his characters. After a while he begins to sound like Eeyore from the Hundred Acre Wood.

In this particular story, the human race faces imminent death from a sudden solar explosion, and for ludicrous science-ey sounding reasons, a benevolent alien race that stands a chance of saving us can only make contact telepathically, and only through the mind of one thoroughly drunk human being. The human assumes he is hallucinating, and basically tells the alien race to go screw itself.

If it were funnier, it would be a black comedy, but Clarke overplays his hand - or should I say, over-wrings his hands - and the story remains mere tragedy.

Kaboom; world ends; we all die! Are you listening, rest of humanity? Booo! Carry on.

The Star, 1955

This story is told entirely through the interior monologue of one scientist on a spaceship, as he ruminates on the discovery an alien civilization in ruins.

The aliens anticipated their fate and built a gigantic monolith on the outermost planet of their solar system, completing it just before the other planets were engulfed in a supernova. For me, the setting invokes very strong memories of a computer game I played years ago called Alien Legacy. It too, was full of monoliths and artifacts from a tragically extinct alien species, and it was great fun to go digging through them and piece together the clues.

As an aside, it never stops being amusing to encounter the anachronisms in Clarke's world. Here we have a robust spacefaring civilization that has explored countless worlds ... and recorded everything on miles of magnetic tape and chemical film stock. Yeah! Why not!

The Deep Range, 1954

This was a bizarre exploratory work about whale farming. (That's FARMING, not FARTING!) A guy goes down in a sub, with a couple of dolphin sidekicks, and "protects" a pod of whales from one of their natural predators, thus ensuring that the great underwater farmlands of the future Earth are kept wholly for the engorgement of human stomachs. You can probably tell I wasn't very impressed with this tale.

I was also a bit surprised at my reaction. Why would I find the idea of fencing and policing large parts of the ocean to be so upsetting - or implausible - when just about every scrap of exploitable land surface has been utterly transformed by this same practice? Well, it's not the use of ocean space that's upsetting to me in this story. It's the firm line drawn between participants. Humans are masters, dolphins are pets, whales are cattle, sharks and orca are vermin. The master is in charge, the pets obey, the whales are grateful (until they are eaten presumably) and the sharks and orca are violently slaughtered, with prejudice.

It makes sense the story conveys these things because it's obviously constructed as an analogue of cattle ranching. But dolphins are not dogs; they do not live to serve. Perhaps some future custom-bred dolphins, but not the ones that winnow the oceans today. Likewise, whales are not as bonehead-stupid as modern cattle - and while I suppose "future whales" could be just as dumb as posts, that actually begs the point I'm trying to make: Humans are generally uncomfortable killing and eating an animal that's intelligent, or exhibits behavior too reflective of our own. Our modern ears are too familiar with the sound of whalesong to condone factory farming of these huge beasts.

(This is a pretty recent sea-change, pun intended. Humans have been hunting whales for at least 8000 years. Here; read about the International Whaling Commission!)

Attitudes towards predators have morphed since the 50's as well. It's no longer the most desirable outcome to just run out and shoot anything that tries to dig under the fence. These days if you're a clever farmer you trap the animal, or study its life cycle or biology and find more efficient ways to deter it from invading. In other words, violence is wasteful and tends to be pushed farther down the list of options. Not always - an infestation of rodents is still best solved with a cat - but then you go out and patch the hole in the grain silo.

Yes, Clarke's story can be interpreted through the attitudes of his time. That's a sensible thing to do. But I'm glad the times have changed. I read his "what if" scenario and the first thing I felt was a sense of loss, for all the genetic diversity that would need to be stomped out by millennia of directed breeding for whales-as-cows, dolphins-as-sheepdogs, et cetera.

Call me a hippie.

I was surprised to learn that Clarke decided to revisit this and create a full-length novel with the same premise, and name. I don't think I'll read it.

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