Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 18: Arthur, Arthur, Arthur!

Saturn Rising, 1961

This story employs a character type that has been pretty common in sci-fi: The self-made zillionaire industrialist who personally finances a huge scientific breakthrough. Very popular for sci-fi writers because it's an easy character to write, and an easy way to get a bunch of scientists into a workshop, hammering doggedly at a problem with no concern about the expense. Just reaching back into my recent reading list, there are zillionaire industrialist characters in "Proxima" by Stephen Baxter, "The Light Of Other Days" by Baxter and Clarke, "Contact" by Carl Sagan ... and now, here.

I guess the archetype seemed fresher back in 1961, because there isn't much else to this story. It's pretty much just "rich guy finances vacation spots on Saturn's moons", as told from the point of view of a pilot that he consults with a few times. Pretty dull.

Also, Clarke admits in the introduction that his predictions about the environment on Saturn's moon Titan were way off: Any building on the surface would not have a view of Saturn rising, because it would be permanently submerged in clouds! Oh well.

The Last Command, 1965

A brief us-versus-the-Russkies tale delivered in the form of a "Last Command" from a war-ravaged earth to a military base on the moon. The twist ending falls into your brain about two paragraphs in, and the story just can't make itself short enough for the waiting to be worthwhile.

The Shining Ones, 1962

It took me a while to decide whether to spoil this story so I could more fully discuss it, or just give a summary. Then I realized that there have been such excellent adaptations of this story, in literature and cinema, that simply comparing it to the works it inspired would also spoil it - and possibly the other works as well. So I feel like my hands are tied either way. I guess the best point I can make is, if you've read Rendezvous with Rama and its sequels, this story is an interesting blueprint of Clarke's vision for the aliens in those novels. I look forward to seeing them on the big screen if Morgan Freeman's project ever gets enough traction.

The Food Of The Gods, 1964

A quaint little tale about the way food culture might change in the far future. When all food is synthesized from machines, the idea of eating animals - or even plants - may seem barbaric. I can't help pointing out that in the time since this story we've discovered that food - and our own digestion - is a whole lot more complicated than anyone would have guessed, and now it seems crazy to believe that a mechanical device could synthesize a better bowl of salad from scratch more quickly and more efficiently than a farmer could grow it with soil and sunlight. Especially if the farmer is a modern farmer using genetically-engineered crops. Millions of years of relentless optimization creates a pretty high bar for chemists to clear!

On the other hand, it's worth considering the secondary point Clarke makes in the story: A good way to synthesize appealing food might be essential when humans move off-planet, because soil and properly-filtered sunlight are pretty rare in space, and even if you launch the soil up there it's a huge pain keeping it viable for long.

An Ape About The House, 1962

I had low expectations for this story going in, based on the title. How insightful could a tale about a trained primate be, if it was written 50 years ago? I pictured three scenarios: First, Clarke could oversell the natural abilities of primates to make some kind of comment on the callousness of animal treatment in the 60's. "Hey, who solved professor Farnsworth's equation that he left on the blackboard last Friday? Oh my goodness, it was Mr Bananas! We've all been so wrong about you!!" I wouldn't buy it, and the story would annoy me. Second, Clarke could undersell his primates, making them into sullen brutes, and then introduce some fanciful medical technology - an implant, or a helmet, or something - that makes them hyper-intelligent. No doubt he'd spend most of this story describing how the humans had to destroy the apes or risk enslavement. A version of Planet Of The Apes six years ahead of the film, perhaps. Also not compelling.

Or third, Clarke could get his treatment of primates spot-on, and we could all learn a Very Important Lesson about treating our close evolutionary cousins with respect and empathy. This scenario would probably end on a sad note, since it couldn't help pointing out how terrible we've been at learning this lesson in the real world - with poaching, habitat destruction, abuse and exploitation by zoos and circuses, and so on. Not exactly a fun read.

But instead, Clarke found a personal angle that was more amusing than I expected. His story revolves around a genetically augmented version of an ape, in the future, that a well-to-do household employs as a housekeeper. There are still some edgy questions about slavery and personhood to grapple with, but they get muddled by the genetic tinkering. The ape's "owners" treat her almost exactly like a 20th-century household would treat a slow but disciplined maid. She is granted humanity - but not quite autonomy.

The head of the household, a rather shallow woman who seems to live to throw dinner parties and one-up the other neighborhood wives (Clarke uses his hatred of women like garnish around a meal), has the ape doing basic household chores at first, but eventually she decides to play a trick on one of her socialite competitors, and uses her housekeeper as the means. Her competitor likes to paint, and often shows off the paintings at gallery events. The woman has some painting skills of her own, so she decides to mock her competitor by holding her own gallery event, and claiming that all the art was actually painted by her primate housekeeper. To make the scenario seem real, she teaches the ape how to sit in front of an easel and slap paint onto it with a brush, and then brings her socialite friends over to see "the artist in action".

Everyone buys it, and the word gets around, and her competitor is thoroughly humiliated. Seems like an easy victory, and the end of the story, except one day while the woman is out, her competitor sneaks over to her house, locates the ape, and commands her to do a painting on the spot so she can see the proof with her own eyes. The ape dutifully sits down at the easel and starts messing around. To everyone's surprise, the resulting artwork is quite good - better than the woman or her socialite competitor - and the story ends with another gallery showing, this time heavily attended, and filled with authentic paintings from the world-famous artist ape.

Cute, humanizing without being preachy, and mercifully short. Well played, Clarke. It could have been worse.

The Wind From The Sun a.k.a. Sun Jammer, 1964

The prosaic title hides the juvenile origins of this story, in a 1960's magazine aimed at teenagers, no doubt filled with other gee-whiz adventure stories uncluttered by boring adult crap like philosophy and romance. A rich inventor builds a solar sail, and flies it in a race against other solar sails, on a route around the Earth and out past the moon. He's got some friendly competition from a Russian cosmonaut who has his own modular sail design. The Russian discards pieces of his sail at key moments in the race to try and overtake our hero, and it's neck-and-neck until an unexpected solar flare endangers them both, forcing them into a draw.

I listened to this while coasting across town on my recumbent at night. It was like a too-serious episode of "Wacky Races". Couldn't hold my attention. In fact, when the comparison came to mind, I went to Wikipedia to find a link about "Wacky Races", and ended up reading about that cartoon and its spinoffs for longer than it took me to read "The Wind From The Sun" in the first place! Oh Jimmy Wales, you rogue!
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