BooksOfTheMoon

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 5 stars

What I loved about this book is its sense of wonder. David Bowman is an explorer and Clarke has a wonderful way of reminding the reader about all the completely amazing things that could almost be taken for granted by long time readers of SF. Whether it’s the speeds at which interplanetary spacecraft travel, the magnificence of the solar system or passage of time, he reminds us that human frames of reference are almost meaningless.

This is Clarke at his most dramatic, from the first encounter with the monolith 3 million BC to the emergence of the Star Child and the sense that everything’s changed. Brilliant.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857236644
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1968

Tales From The White Hart

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 5 stars

Although a fan of Arthur C. Clarke, I’d never heard of this collection before reading Charles Stross’s short story A Bird in the Hand on his blog (well worth reading itself), which was written in homage to ‘Tales from the White Hart’. I’ve encountered a few of the stories before in other collections, but never as a set, and I must say that I really enjoyed them.

The humour in these tall tales and shaggy dog stories is evident right from the word go, many of them are build-ups to a single pun delivered in the last line (and as someone who loves puns, I heartily approve) and even where it’s not, there’s always a good end to the story. The conceit is that Clarke himself is recording these stories, told by Harry Purvis, at a pub in London that was a mix of writers, editors and scientists (primarily physicists and engineers).

Amongst the humour, there’s place for some genuinely touching stories, with ‘The Man Who Ploughed the Sea’ being a great story of a rich man who’s running out of time, and all he wants is a yacht. ‘The Reluctant Orchid’ is genuinely creepy right up until the point it switches and baits and becomes hilarious, while ‘The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch’ is just good old fashioned farce.

Much like Spider Robinson’s ‘Callahan’s’, the ‘White Hart’ never existed, but if it did, it’s a place I’d love to stop for a drink some time.

Book details

ISBN: 9780283979101
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Year of publication: 1957

The Space Trilogy

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects three short novels by Arthur C. Clarke under a general ‘colonising the solar system’ theme.

The first, Islands in the Sky (4*), is one that I remember reading as a teenager and being disappointed by. Upon re-reading, however, I really enjoyed it. Part of the problem that I had with this book first time round was the cover blurb, which made it sound awfully exciting. And, with the best will in the world, it isn’t. A teenager wins a TV gameshow trip to anywhere in the world, and through a legal loophole manages to wangle his way to the innermost of the space stations that girdle the earth. The book tells of the various adventures that he had there. This is all good, enjoyable stuff, but it’s also a book where problems are solved with solid Clarke-ian engineering, by sensible men who probably smoke pipes. I wish I could go back and warn my younger self to ignore the blurb on the back and appreciate the book for what it is.

Then we have The Sands of Mars (4*), about half of which isn’t actually set on the red planet at all, but on the ship taking our protagonist there. There’s a lot of description of life on a spaceship, the sorts of problems that might occur, then similar sorts of things on Mars itself. Again, very solid engineering and science, apart from the big whoppers of life and (something Clarke ruefully acknowledges in the foreword), there being no mountains on Mars! This book also has more of a story than ‘Islands in the Sky’, introducing politics between Mars and the homeworld.

The final book, Earthlight (5*) is the best of the three. It retains an everyman narrator, in common with the others, but has a much stronger story, with conflict brewing between Earth and the Federation that comprises Venus, Mars and the outer moons. Central to this conflict is that heavy metals are rare in the solar systems, and that Earth is hoarding them, preventing the colonists from getting access to them. However, a discovery on the moon could change everything, and war may be inevitable. While being set mostly in a lunar observatory, full of scientists, this book is still pacier and more political than the other books, and filled with some marvellous turns of phrase.

All three books here were written before the start of the space age. While they get some things right, there’s obviously a lot that they got wrong, most notably the extent to which human space exploration and colonisation throughout the solar system would have progressed. Still, all three books are optimistic visions of humanity achieving greatness despite the odds, and very enjoyable reads.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857987805
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2000

Imperial Earth

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

The ruling family of Titan are invited to Earth for the 500th anniversary of the American republic and the youngest scion, Duncan, is sent. As we follow his journey, we encounter politics, singularity-driven spaceships, zero-gravity sex, the wonder of seeing Earth with fresh eyes and more.

Starting on Titan, we get Clarke’s famously precise and yet poetic descriptions of the landscape and the technology needed to maintain life on that harsh, forbidding world. As Duncan travels to Earth we see some of his history and an old love affair as well as rivalry with an old friend. On Earth itself, as Duncan slowly adjusts to life at the bottom of a harsh gravity well he has the once in a lifetime opportunity to see the mother world with his own eyes, dabble in local politics and get try and figure out what his old friend/enemy Karl is up to.

Despite being written in the 1970s, at times this book has a real Golden Age optimistic feel to it. From the suggestion that nation states are outmoded and the few that remain are tolerated as eccentrics rather than any threat, to the tubes that link major cities in North America (something finally being seriously discussed) and the removal of the profit motive as the driving force behind much of Humanity, Clarke’s world is one that is infinitely better than our own. Throw in casual acceptance towards sexuality and relationships and this world of 2276 is sounding more and more appealing.

Duncan’s final speech in Congress, the speech that he’s travelled so far to make, is also tinged with Clarke’s trademark awe-inspiring wonder. Kilometre-long space-based radio telescopes beyond the solar ionosphere, speculation as to the sorts of things such telescopes might pick up and, above all, optimism for the future of Humanity.

I love this sort of stuff and Imperial Earth ends up being a very satisfying read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330250047
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 1975

The Lion of Comarre and Against the Fall of Night

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This volume contains two of Clarke’s earlier short works: The Lion of Comarre and Against the Fall of Night. I mostly acquired it for the latter, as its expanded version, The City and the Stars is one of my favourite stories and I wanted to see how the original compared.

I wasn’t disappointed, either. The two stories are actually pretty similar, although obviously Night has less depth to it. Characters and broad plot outlines are pretty similar but City gives them more space to breathe and fills in details skimmed over in Night. Comparing the two, I think I prefer City, although this may be because it was the one that I encountered first, although I think that the larger word count does give the story more breadth and depth, particularly in the Seven Suns section.

I enjoyed The Lion of Comarre as well. The two stories were put together because they share similar themes, although Lion is set in the nearer future than Night, but also looks at a utopian society that may be stagnating and introduces change to it. I was quite amused by the opening sequence where Richard Payton’s father tries to talk him out of joining a lowly ‘engineering’ profession in favour of the arts. Its inversion of roles reminded me of Monty Python’s Nothern Playwright sketch and made me smile.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330266581
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 1968

The Light Of Other Days

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

When I was a couple of chapters into this book, I felt that I was going to struggle with it, since I was finding the characters unmemorable (and, when I did remember them, irritating), the plot thin and none of the really big ideas that Clarke is famous for. I was wondering if this was just another senile-period damp squib. However, I’d heard good things about it, so I stuck with it and was eventually rewarded.

A driven media entrepreneur, Hiram Patterson, creates a way to use artificial wormholes to view any point on earth, and he uses this to scoop his media rivals. The book starts getting interesting once a) the ‘wormcams’ are able to look backward in time (due to the nature of spacetime equivalence at the quantum level, Patterson’s genius son David realises that as well as moving in space, the wormholes can move in time) and b) the technology becomes democratised and available to the mass populous.

It’s at this point that the book starts tackling issues like the complete lack of privacy that becomes just about inevitable, and how now that everyone can become a peeping tom, society starts changing. We see extremes from a group called Refugees who use extreme technology to try and hide from the wormcam observers to the ones who go to the other extreme, eschewing any form of privacy, up to and including clothing (there’s one scene that depicts a pair of teenagers having sex on a park bench in public, uncaring of the watchers).

The book suggests that people eventually beyond this and start using the technology in large “wiki” projects to eradicate corruption and crime, and stripping the mythology of the past to see what historical figures were really like, rather than the myths that have built up around them. However, call me cynical, but I’m not sure that if we had access to such technology we’d ever get beyond the peeping tom phase, extrapolating from similar high hopes for the Internet.

I continued to not find the human characters hugely interesting throughout the book, but couldn’t ignore them for the ideas entirely. I suspect this may be Baxter’s work, since Clarke’s characters are often just narrative vehicles and entirely ignorable, but trying to force them to have their own story dragged the book down for me. The end, seeing Hiram’s two sons, David and Bobby, ‘travelling’ far into earth’s past as they followed their ancestors into geological time was a breathtaking journey showing me that Clarke still had what it takes to evoke my sense of wonder as effortlessly as he did forty years earlier.

So, hard work in places, but definitely worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780002247535
Publisher: Voyager
Year of publication: 2000

Tales From Planet Earth

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This is a collection of Clarke’s short stories mostly from the 1950s and ’60s, but with forays into the ’80s and even ’90s as well. There are a good mix of stories, from very short and playful (such as Publicity Campaign) to almost novella-sized, deep and emotional (such as The Road to the Sea) and many in-between things. As a fan of Clarke I really enjoyed just about all the stories, few of which have aged in any significant way (although, of course, they will have in lesser ways). A great collection to dip into.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099690801
Year of publication: 1989

Prelude to Space

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

Written in the early 1950s, this book tells the story of Mankind’s first spaceship, the Prometheus, a nuclear-powered vessel that will take its crew of three to the Moon. In this (now) alternative history, Britain is still a major player in the space industry while there is no ‘space race’ between the superpowers, but all nations worth together in an organisation called ‘Interplanetary’ for their common goal. Our perspective into this world is Dirk Alexson, an historian sent from the University of Chicago to write the first draft of history for this pivotal moment in Human affairs.

Looking back it seems impossibly naive, but as Clarke points out in his post-Apollo preface, until America was frightened out of complacency by the “beep, beep beep” signal from Sputnik 1, it didn’t have any real ambitions for space and Britain’s Interplanetary Society was at the forefront of space exploration.

Clarke gets a lot wrong but somehow I’d still like to live in his world, where a reusable nuclear-powered craft is launched on a high-speed acceleration track in the Australian desert to the chimes of Big Ben and the superpowers work with the other nations of the world towards a new frontier purely for the joys of exploration and science rather than national interest.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345341020
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1950

The Last Theorem

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 1 star

I’m a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke, but 3001 The Final Odyssey and now this have tested my loyalty. Both were written in the latter years of Sir Arthur’s life (The Last Theorem was the last book published before his death) and both had good ideas that were poorly executed.

The EM shockwave of Earth’s nuclear tests spread into space and eventually reach a race of mega-beings, called the Grand Galactics who immediately dispatch one of their client races to eliminate this upstart race. Meanwhile, young mathematician Ranjit Subramanian discovers a short, elegant proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem and becomes embroiled in a secret organisation.

I really wanted to like this book, there were many good ideas but the writing was very poor, the pacing was very uneven and the characterisation was thin. The galactic invasion plot and the Earth-based plots never really meshed properly and the end was a complete mess, with no tension having been built up, and the conclusion just happens out of nowhere, leaving me wondering if a chapter or two had been missed out.

A disappointing end to a long and fruitful career.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007290024
Publisher: Voyager
Year of publication: 2008

The City and the Stars

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 5 stars

The city of Diaspar has stood for a thousand million years, its eternity circuits protecting it against the ravages of time and entropy as the city itself nourishes and protects its immortal citizens. In this changelessness Alvin is Unique, the first person to be ‘born’ in millions of years. Although Diaspar is all that remains on a dying Earth, Alvin is determined to get outside and see the world for himself.

I first read this when I was an impressionable youth, and goodness me did it leave an impression. This is Clarke at the height of his powers, effortlessly creating vistas of space and time on a truly awe-inspiring scale. Diaspar is a wonderful creation and is a character in itself, not just a setting and Alvin’s exploration of it reveal the city organically. The protagonist is sympathetic and you feel for him on his journey of self-discovery. Sometimes I felt that he was taking the changes that were happening in his life a little too much in his stride, but I can’t apply the standards of my civilisation to one that’s had megayears to refine both body and mind.

This is space opera at its best, with huge backgrounds but still focussed on the individuals at the centre of the story.

Book details

Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1956

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