Three Arthur C. Clarke novels

I picked these up as an omnibus dubbed The Space Trilogy, though in fact they are not even slightly linked narratives which take place in different versions of the near future. They are a good reminder of the strengths and also the limitations of the Good Old Days. As I’ve said before, Clarke was one of my formative influences as a teenager, and it’s nice to report that his work holds up reasonably well under a more sceptical adult gaze, despite the scarcity of women and the complete lack of non-white characters (which Clarke corrected later in his career).

Islands in the Sky

Second paragraph of third chapter:

For the first time, I turned to see what Commander Doyle had been doing during the crisis. To my astonishment, he was still sitting quietly at his desk. What was more, there was a smile on his face, and a stop-watch in his hand. A dreadful suspicion began to creep into my mind, a suspicion that became a certainty in the next few moments. The others were also staring at him, and there was a long, icy silence. Then Norman coughed, and very ostentatiously rubbed his elbow where he had bruised it against the wall. If he could have managed a limp under zero gravity, I’m sure he’d have done so as he went back to his desk. When he reached there, he relieved his feelings by grabbing the elastic band that held his writing pad in place, pulling it away and letting it go with a “Twack!” The commander continued to grin.

I had read this before, long ago, and it remains good wholesome stuff, with boys becoming men in space: our protagonist gets to stay in the big low-orbit space station, where the entire crew appear to be English and male, and experience a few other adventures but also learn some important lessons about life and about engineering (though nothing much about other matters, the only women in space being an actor making a movie in orbit and the members of a friendly family of Mars colonists). The most striking difference for me between Clarke’s 1952 future and what has actually happened is that the cost of space flight has proven to be so high that economies of scale have pushed us much more to unmanned spacecraft and also to international collaboration than he anticipated, though I am sure he approved of both developments. It’s interesting that Clarke’s Wikipedia entry has forgotten this novel completely; I hadn’t.

The Sands of Mars

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was very disconcerting, at least to an inhabitant of Earth, to see two moons in the sky at once. But there they were, side by side, both in their first quarter, and one about twice as large as the other. It was several seconds before Gibson realized that he was looking at Moon and Earth together – and several seconds more before he finally grasped that the smaller and more distant crescent was his own world.

Now this, slightly to my surprise, was a Clarke novel that I definitely had not read before – and I thought I had raided the Belfast library system of its entire stock of his works when I was a teenager. Though bound second in my omnibus volume, it was Clarke’s first published novel, dating from 1951. It’s set a few years after the establishment of a Mars colony; the journalist protagonist (who is also an sf novelist) is being sent as what we’d now call an embedded member of the team, to write up what is going on in humanity’s new outpost; the details of how journalism is technically done have dated far more than the rest of the book – there is a loving detailed description of a fax machine, an unimaginable technological advance in 1951, archaic for us in 2016. It’s also a rare case of Clarke attempting to inject some emotional energy into his story, with one of the crew members turning out to be the protagonist’s long-lost biological son, who then falls in love with the only girl on Mars; characteristically, having laid out the situation, the author doesn’t dwell on it (and didn’t really try this kind of narrative trick again in his career). He’s on much more comfortable political ground when the discovery of a new form of Martian life upsets the balance of relations between the Martian base and its Earth master’s, though here again his viewpoint is firmly rooted in what’s good for the human colonists rather than the indigenous Martians. Still, I enjoyed it, and I’m surprised that this took me decades to track down.


Second paragraph of third chapter:

He had made mistakes before—but this time, surely, there could be no doubt. The facts were undisputed, the calculation trivial—the answer awe-inspiring. Far out in the depths of space, a star had exploded with unimaginable violence. Wheeler looked at the figures he had jotted down, checked them for the tenth time, and reached for the phone.

This 1955 novel did disappoint me a bit. It’s the story of a counterespionage accountant on a lunar observatory at a moment of interplanetary conflict between Earth and The Rest Of The Solar System; obviously the Moon becomes a critical location in that conflict (and equally obviously there are Cold War parallels in the author’s mind). There are some vivid observations of base life in the observatory (where again all the staff are white men) and the high-tech battle at the climax of the plot is well described. But otherwise the whole thing is a bit subdued, and the framing narrative of the protagonist’s mission gets a particularly unconvincing resolution.

This was both the top unread book that I acquired in 2014, and my top unread sf book. Next on the former list is The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. ClarkeMerchanters Luck, by C.J. Cherryh.