The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke

Second paragraph of third story (“Retreat from Earth”):

So, forty million years after the last of the old ones had gone to his eternal rest, men began to rear their cities where once the architects of a greater race had flung their towers against the clouds. And in the long echoing centuries before the birth of man, the aliens had not been idle but had covered half the planet with their cities, filled with blind, fantastic slaves, and though man knew these cities, for they often caused him infinite trouble, yet he never suspected that all around him in the tropics an older civilisation than his was planning busily for the day when it would once again venture forth upon the seas of space to regain its lost inheritance.

I got this at the end of 2014 because I had had the idea of writing up three sfnal views of 2015 by Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein; these would have been the Asimov short story “Runaround”, Clarke’s original short story version of “Earthlight”, and the Heinlein novel I Will Fear No Evil. However, I discovered that “Runaround” wasn’t very interesting and I Will Fear No Evil wasn’t set in 2015, and dropped the project before getting to “Earthlight”. As it turns out, I liked the original version of “Earthlight” much more than the novel (which I reread only this summer); it much better constructed and pacier, and I would go so far as to call it the best discovery in the collection for me. However, I could also see why Clarke revised it so heavily for publication as a novel – the science had dated really rather rapidly after the 1951 publication. It’s a shame that he took most of the steam out of it.

Otherwise this was mostly a reunion with old friends – almost all of the best stories by Clarke have been printed elsewhere in other collections that I own or have read, and one can see certain themes rise and fall (a lot of unsuccessful marriages at one point). I had not previously read many of the Tales from the White Hart, and I fear I did not have cause to regret that lapse. I was struck by how concentrated Clarke’s successful story-writing career actually was, despite his longevity: the first really good story is probably “The Fires Within”, from 1947, and then there is a steady rate of production with 87 stories in total from there up to “A Meeting With Medusa” in 1971; then the last stories are from 1977, 1984, two in 1986, 1992, 1997 and 1999, which is about one every four years on average.

But the good stuff remains very good, and it’s nice to revisit material that had a formative effect on my thinking as I grew up, even if its limitations in terms of gender representation are a bit more obvious to me now.

This was both the most popular book acquired in 2014 on my shelves, and also the most popular unread sf book. next on both lists is Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch.