Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 14: Can't Get Enough O' Super Golden Clarke

Cold War, 1957

A silly story about a submarine captain who attempts to grow a gigantic artificial iceberg on the hull of his submarine and then push the thing onto the Florida beach as a practical joke. Clarke seems to think that one could create an iceberg by inflating a gigantic plastic bag with "supercooled air", laying it across a scaffolding, then spraying water at it. Maybe he did some math that I haven't done, but my gut feeling is that the process would totally fail.

Icebergs form in weather where vast areas of the sea and the sky are below the freezing temperature of regular water. (Saltwater can be well below the freezing temperature of regular water and remain a liquid.) If you had to spray water on a floating bag, the skin of the bag would have to contend with the heat in all the surrounding atmosphere, and you would need to be constantly pumping the air inside the bag through whatever you're using as refrigeration machinery. You'd need to make some incredibly cold air to overcome that constant loss.

Then consider that Clarke intends to do this in the ocean. Where is he getting the water? He can't just draw it in from the sea, that water is incredibly salty and will be very resistant to freezing. Did he invent some kind of instant desalinization technique back in 1957?

I suppose this story worked as intended since it got me thinking about the physics. Other than that it was not memorable.

Who's There, 1958

An astronaut takes a spacewalk in what appears to be a haunted spacesuit, in this brief and smartly constructed story. I enjoyed it despite knowing it was completely ridiculous, and in spite of guessing the plot twist only a few pages in. (A couple of red herrings could have eliminated that problem, I think.)

The Man Who Ploughed the Sea, 1957

One of Clarke's good-old-boy scientists goes on a meandering trip down the American coast and winds up on a boat that is actually a piece of prototype mining equipment, extracting tiny amounts of various elements from seawater. Clarke must have been obsessed with the ocean this year. Then more scientists get involved, and there's a sliver of dramatic tension as Clarke whips up an intellectual competition between them. If not for that tension the story would just be a plotless guided tour, past a few mildly interesting exhibits in a museum of technological spitballing.

The idea of extracting minerals from seawater has been repeatedly explored in the intervening half-century, but the general problem is always the same: None of the filtering techniques are passive enough to justify the energy expenditure in sorting out one atom of uranium from, say, 500 million water molecules. Plus the elements are usually bonded to others and require further work to separate.

Still, it's an intriguing idea. And it's unfair to fault Clarke for not being a fortune teller or a strict scientist. He was a writer, not a scientist.

Let There Be Light, 1957

This isn't really science fiction, and it isn't really a murder mystery since the murder is admitted at the very beginning. Harry Purvis just tells the story straight, explaining how a scientist decides to get revenge on his cheating wife by using a searchlight to blind a speeding car and cause a fatal accident.

With a little reorganization, this could be the plot to some overly-dramatic radio crime drama from two decades earlier. It would have suspiciously loud footsteps, interstitial organ music, and the constant noise of a thunderstorm. When the detective and his pretty assistant wander out onto the moors to examine the crash site, there would be enough twittering insects, yipping animals, and croaking amphibians to populate an entire zoo.

Also, the whole thing would be sponsored by "Clarke Brand Cigarrette Holders", and the detective would take a smoke break right in the middle of the story and ramble for almost five minutes about how durable his cigarette holder is.

Sleeping Beauty, 1957

This is a little story about a guy who gets an injection from his mad-scientist uncle, in order to eliminate his snoring, and instead it completely eliminates his need for sleep. At first it's a blessing, but eventually the sheer boredom of staying up all night - every night - frustrates him so much that he asks his uncle to reverse the condition. Instead, his uncle accidentally drops him into a coma, then inconveniently dies and takes all his research with him, so no one knows how to wake the guy up.

The story ends with the guy peacefully inert, and the rest of the family carrying on without him. There's some framing intrigue about his conniving wife and a promised inheritance, but it's not worth considering. We've already established at this point that Clarke does not think much of women and this is just fuel for the fire.

Perhaps I'm supposed to make some exculpatory aside about this story being a product of 1950's-era gender views - like I shouldn't be complaining if I deliberately read stories from an earlier era - but that wouldn't be honest. I read this stuff and it bothers me. None of the science, or the ficton, behind any of these stories actually requires that women be portrayed less like human beings and more like housecats wearing clothing, which is what Clarke does. No, really; women seem to exist in his stories as finicky pets who divide their time between chasing shiny things and throwing hissy-fits. Clarke is a man of far-flung scientific curiosity - why did he feel the need to dress-down his work with this unnecessary patronizing?

Still, I would rather focus on the central idea of the story, so I'm going to do that now. How would I react if I could do without sleep? Well, I have access to some pretty amazing modern technology, and I'm already a bit of a night owl, and I live in a big city. If I didn't need to sleep, I would probably spend each day like so:

  • 4:00am to noon: Put in a day at work. Schedule all my meetings to end before noon.
  • noon to 4:00pm: Engage in some kind of volunteer work, or a second job, involving the outdoors.
  • 4:00pm to 8:00pm: Take off via bicycle to some relaxing part of the city - a park, a coffee shop, a lake or hillside with a view. Walk, hike, chat on the phone, or bring someone along. End with dinner.
  • 8:00pm to 4:00am: Do home projects. Read and write, mostly, or arrange music, or fuss with electronics, or root around in the garden. I love stuff like this; I'm a major homebody.

Sounds great, really. How would you divide up a 24-hour day? Would you go crazy? Run out of things to do? What could you accomplish if you never had to stop for a nap?

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