Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 20: Makin' Sci-Fi Great Again (If You Don't Mind The Sexism)

Playback, 1963

This story stands out from just about everything else I've read from Clarke so far, because of its narrative structure. The entire tale is a monologue, delivered under mysterious circumstances that slowly clarify for the reader at the same time they clarify for the speaker.

At first we think we are hearing from an astronaut delivering a report to his superiors. Then we deduce he is in some kind of man-made medical device, recovering from a serious accident. Then we quickly realize that is wrong too, and the astronaut is speaking to an alien life form, which is responding non-verbally with images. The astronaut establishes that he is not just injured, but has in fact lost his entire body in the accident, and now only exists as a consciousness embedded in a solid-state device. The aliens offer to rebuild his body, but first he needs to describe it to them, and that proves difficult because his memory is jumbled and distorted.

He describes a vaguely human figure, then lapses into nonsense and goes silent for an unknown time. Then the aliens show him an image of his description and he is so horrified by it he declares they need to start over, but his new description is even worse. More babbling, more silence, and we realize that we are reading the stream-of-consciousness of a mind as it is disintegrates. At the very end, he thanks the aliens for trying to rescue him, then the narrative breaks up completely into gibberish.

Impressive, and arresting. And exactly the right length. Lately I've been listening to these stories while doing chores around the house, but this one was enough to make me put down my work and just listen.

A Meeting With Medusa, 1971

Progress can spoil good science fiction. This tale is the longest one Clarke ever wrote that could still be called a short story, and he imagined some very interesting aliens for it and took his time describing them, but half a century of new information about Jupiter has turned those aliens from hauntingly plausible, to hopelessly absurd. A few moments of online research confirms it as fantasy. But it's still a fun read as fantasy, so ... there's that.

And, there's more going on in the story besides the fantastical aliens. The main character is a cyborg, one of the first successful fusions of man and machine - perhaps the very first - and he's been turned into a cyborg without his consent, by surgeons working to save his life after a horrible accident. This leaves him with a bit of an identity crisis. He decides that the only way to find meaning in his life is by acting as an ambassador, in the conflict that will inevitably begin as more cyborgs - and intelligent robots who were never human to begin with - appear in the solar system and fight with humanity for emancipation. It may take another hundred years before the conflict starts, but he can wait, since his cyborg parts makes him effectively immortal.

It all sounds like the setup for a sequel, and since Clarke never wrote one, a couple of other sci-fi authors have done the job. At some point I might pick up that book, but right now man-machine conflicts seem a little played out. I think the future is going to be all about conflicts mediated by machines, rather than conflicts with them. Death by drone-strike is just the beginning.

The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told, 1966

A silly exercise in recursion; a joke rather than a story.

Herbert George Morley Robert Wells, Esq, 1967

A followup essay Clarke wrote to explain an inconsistency in the previous story (The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told). More engaging than the story itself was, but not engaging enough for me to write about.

Besides, that would be yet another exercise in recursion.

Quarantine, 1977

A story short enough to be written on the back of a postcard - and no wonder, since that was the constraint Clarke was determined to meet in writing it. The idea is simple, and silly: A robotic alien intelligence destroys the Earth as a protective measure, because every time they send probes to it, the probes get infected with a kind of logic virus, and self-destruct. It's the old "I say we take off, and nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure" scenario. What is this logic virus? Clarke only drops a hint: It involves a king, a queen, a rook, a knight, a bishop, and a pawn.

Oho, it's chess! Computers try to ... solve? ... the game of chess, and get all frizzy and go boom, just like the old Saturday morning cartoon robots. DOES NOT COMPUTE, DANGER, DANGER, et cetera. In this modern age, the average smartphone can beat the snot out of all but the world's best chess players, and rather than explode from the effort, it will only get unpleasantly warm. (Usually. Insert topical Galaxy Note 7 joke here.) I guess that alien invasion can happen after all.
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