A journalist accompanies a crew aboard a spacecraft that intercepts a comet and explores its core. The core generates massive electromagnetic interference (for some reason) that causes their computers to go haywire, buggering their calculations for the return flight, and they all believe they're stranded and doomed to starve ... until the journalist remembers that he knows how to build and use an abacus. He spends a couple weeks building an abacus for each crew member and they all crunch calculations by hand until they have a trajectory that gets them back into radio range with Earth, and everyone is saved; hooray!
Absolutely freaking ridiculous.
Security Check, 1957
A reclusive craftsman gets a job doing set design for a sci-fi TV show and starts turning in designs that are a little too accurate. Hijinks ensue. Amusing, but not memorable.
I Remember Babylon, 1960
Clarke gives himself a shovel-sized pat on the back for predicting the idea of a TV broadcast that cannot be subject to local censorship in this framed-as-nonfiction story, but he's buggered it up, because he's totally disregarded an obvious point: The Russians would never launch an unauthorized satellite into geosynchronous orbit over the United States, because it would immediately be seen as an act of war and all hell would break loose.
I mean, seriously, Clarke. First military chap who spots that rocket going up is going to assume the payload on the satellite is a big old dose of nuclear death. Before you know it, other rockets will be passing each other in the air. And you want to preach doom and gloom because someone might beam nudie pictures into American living rooms from space? Damn, you wrote this in the 50's for sure.
Summertime on Icarus a.k.a. The Hottest Piece Of Real Estate In The Solar System, 1960
A guy gets trapped on the dark side of an asteroid that has somehow remained close to the sun, like near the orbit of Mercury. Only a few hours before the asteroid rotates and the sun starts baking the planet. His robotic space-suit is hilariously crude, and there is no backup system to launch him on the return trajectory to his distant spaceship. Will he be rescued by his crewmates in time? Or should he just give up and depressurize his suit to avoid the torture of being burned alive when the sun rises?
Pretty exciting scenario, even if the numbers are all way off. But worth reading? Nah, skip it. Read the intro to 2312 instead.
The Songs Of Distant Earth, 1958
This was a long one, and I had high hopes for it going in, because the title sounded very familiar. Surely his well-known stories are his better ones?
It's a story about a young woman living in small city on a planet very far away from Earth, and a man who is an engineer on a space ship making an emergency pit-stop at the planet. Even though she's already in a relationship, the woman falls hard for the guy, and the guy falls not-so-hard for the woman, and the story is about how they deal with this doomed romance over a number of months while the engineer helps his crew to repair the ship and continue their mission to colonize another very-far-away planet.
As I was going, I tapped out four lines of notes to myself:
* No cities!
* Bees transported for orchards?
* World run by a computer brain?
* OMG the guy is a dick!!
Clarke has hypothesized that large cities would eventually vanish from Earth in several previous stories. His favorite justification is that once man invents an easy form of flight, geography won't matter, and so people will spread themselves out relatively thin just because they can. In a previous story it was the mass-production of the helicopter, and in this story it's a machine that can manipulate gravity directly. He glosses over all the other needs that might arise when living far away from others - food supply, energy supply, emergency services, ease of getting together in groups to work or play - by claiming that humanity either invented ways to supply them locally, or simply moved beyond needing them.
It's pretty obvious that he's projecting his own personality onto an entire global population when he makes this claim. There are many fantastic reasons for people to live very close together indeed, even in extremely large groups, and a good question to ask is one that turns Clarke's idea on its head: If effortless transportation can provide instant access to the outdoors whenever you desire, then why would you ever choose to live outside a major city?
Clarke doesn't actually propose it himself, but it's interesting to think of large cities as a kind of artifact of technology. Like, new technology has always given us ways to cram more people closer together with less waste and discomfort, but is there a new technology out there that would actually reverse the trend, and make everyone pine for the fjords? People often move to large cities to take advantage of the greater spectrum of opportunities there. Is there some future invention that would make the wilderness the go-to place for culture, employment, and socializing? I bet there were people in the late 90's who believed the internet was that very technology. Why live in a city when you can do all your work and play via telepresence?
Well, it turns out that telepresence is still an impediment to getting work done, for the vast majority of people and jobs. But that's just because the tech isn't refined enough, right? What about when we're all walking around in telepresence drones that look just like us, with senses just as vivid as our own? I'm pretty sure it'll still be an impediment, for a simple reason: Telepresence means people can get away with not paying their full attention, more of the time. And work will always suffer for it.
The next item on my list is about bees. Clarke declares that the orchards on the island where the woman lives are abuzz with bees transported from Earth specifically to enable pollination to occur and fruit to grow. He's making some gigantic assumptions about the ecology of the planet of course, the biggest one being that trees transplanted from Earth could actually grow at all in alien soil -- and that anything like soil would be there in the first place. It's pretty wacky, and it's not connected to the plot at all, so I had to wonder: Why is he throwing it in? Perhaps it's artistic, and he's trying to evoke nostalgia for Earth. The story in general is about how the vast distances in space travel can distort human culture and relationships. Yeah, maybe it's thematic. The bees are like furniture from an old victorian house: Evocative of a grander time, but a bit weird in your modern living room.
Next up is another Clarke favorite: The big computer in control of everything. He posits that the entire Earth is managed by a one giant artificial intelligence. This story is from the late 50's, after the invention of the first solid-state transistors, but a few years before the first MOFSET transistors and half a decade before the integrated circuits that would use them. So, Clarke was making a pretty big leap of faith that computers would be way, way more powerful than anyone knew.
He's a pretty smart guy for predicting that, and if computers had remained as expensive as they were (while still getting more powerful) we would probably live in a world closer to his vision. Computers would be instruments of large corporations and governments, and ordinary people would be acolytes tending them and subject to their whims. But instead, computing is cheap -- shockingly cheap. Nowadays we embed digital voice recorders in greeting cards for a laugh. You can make your own re-usable one for ten bucks. With computing power dirt-cheap and ubiquitous, the world is so much more complicated that one big artificial intelligence would have trouble just tracking everything, let alone managing it. Things have gotten even weirder than Clarke predicted!
Which brings me to item four on my list. I don't know if the humans of the far future are supposed to be callous, womanizing jerks, but the protagonist of this story sure is. He puts his pregnant wife into cryosleep, and a few weeks later (from his point of view) during an emergency landing, he spots a hot young woman - much younger than him - who seems to like him, and for months while he's repairing his ship and she's obsessing over his glamorous space-faring ways, he completely avoids telling her that he's already married, and already a father. Obviously he just wants to bask in this girl's attention and bone her a bunch of times, then ditch her when it's time to launch, returning to his slumbering, unsuspecting wife.
And that's exactly what he does. Ugh. I felt dirty after reading it. Along the way he decides to show his frozen wife to the woman, to drive the point home that she's just being used, and that they have no future together.
Now, I've certainly read stories about infidelity before, and had a whole range of reactions. But what got me here was Clarke's matter-of-fact treatment of the guy's behavior. He doesn't feel any shame, or even ask whether he should feel it, until the last possible moment before it's obvious he's dumping her. Likewise he feels no sympathy for her when he does - only for himself and how "hard" his pre-determined, self-inflicted ordeal is. No one else in the story has sympathy for her either, but I guess that's par for the course with Clarke, who wouldn't know how to construct a dialogue between two women even if he was taking dictation in a f*#@!% nunnery.
He apparently published several drafts of this short story - the second one no less callous than the first - before expanding it into a 280-page novel almost 30 years later. The novel has a similar doomed romance but hand-waves the jealousy and deception by claiming that the natives of the planet - including the girl - have a much looser sexuality and do not get jealous because they are not burdened by religion or poverty. Yeah, I dunno, Clarke. It's true I've met a number of people - men and women - who didn't seem to experience romantic jealousy. But they all either had obvious intimacy issues, or were psychopaths*. Not exactly the core of a new utopia.
(To the polyamorous: Please realize that I'm not bashing your category ... just those who are doing it badly.)