Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Reading Arthur C Clarke - Early stories

As part of my recent enthusiasm for short stories, I've started on some classic science fiction stories. I mentioned Clifford D Simak last week, and I'm going to be reading more of his books soon, but I decided to take a fresh look at a rather more well known name in the field of science fiction - Arthur C Clarke. He's written many classic novels, but also many excellent short stories, and like many classic authors, many later novels started out as short stories.

There are a few of his short stories available online (I've already talked about 'Rescue Party'), but I decided to splash out on 'The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C Clarke', which includes all 104 of his published short stories in chronological order. It's quite expensive in paperback, but a bargain at £7.99 on Kindle. Here are my thoughts on the first few stories.

'Travel by Wire' was his first published short story, published in December 1937 in Amateur Science Fiction stories, what seems to be a short lived small press type magazine. Clarke would have been 20 at the time, and you can tell as it has a jokey vibe, relating student pranks and rivalries between different science faculties (though interestingly he didn't go to university until many years later). This story is based on the idea of a Star Trek style transporter (albeit 30 years before Star Trek did it), sending people down telephone wires and re materialising them at the other end. Told in a humorous way, it also has an amusing little twist at the end. Told in the first person (though often using collective 'we'), it is also very short, probably no more than 1500 words. It may be three quarters of a century old, but I really enjoyed it, and but for the mention of dates and a couple of quaint anachronisms it could have been written yesterday.

'How We Went to Mars' is another first person narrative, starting with: 'It is with considerable trepidation that I now take up my pen to describe the incredible adventures that befell the members of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society in the Winter of 1952'. This was written in 1937 when national space agencies had not yet become interested in space, but amateur rocket societies were springing up everywhere. This tongue in cheek story is about a rocket from one of these societies which launches (with several members of the society on board including the narrator), aiming for Earth orbit. Unfortunately they lapse into a temporary coma, aren't awake when they need to break and overshoot. They are now heading to Mars... This is something of a tongue in cheek story, and is for many reasons now very dated. It is still however worth reading for a glimpse of a time when rocket technology was starting to come of age, and Amateur Rocket Societies were a big thing.

Sometimes, my thoughts on a story are indelibly linked in my mind with where I was when I read it and I read this story while sat in the sunshine on the deck, sipping a Starbucks coffee overlooking the boating lake at Center Parcs. I always like reading in the sunshine. Anyway, 'Retreat from Earth' isn't much about sunshine, it is about aliens who come to colonise Earth. A well trod path you might say (albeit not at the time it was written). But it is also about Termites, and it is a story about humanity's origins. This is also the first of Clarke's stories to be written in the third person.

'Reverie' is a strange inclusion in a book of short stories, as it seems to be an article about the state of science fiction (in the 1930s). It's quite short however and is certainly interesting, not least because it would not really be out of place today.

'The Awakening' is an early story about cryogenics, and one dying man's wish to be put to sleep for a hundred years in the hope that a century's advances in medical science will find a cure for, well, death. It's story that has been told many times before, but this could well be the first, and it is a good story too.

'Whacky' is the next story, and is one I really don't get, maybe it is just wacky! If someone has read it, perhaps they can explain it to me.

Arthur C Clarke sold 'Loophole' to Astounding Science Fiction in the closing months of the Second World War, and it was published in 1946. It is an example of the 'don't underestimate us humans' story, and is told in the form of a series of memos (I'd actually call them emails as that's what they look like, except for the fact that at this point there was a long time before they were going to be invented) between various alien military and political figures about a surveillance of Earth and the human race. Short and punchy, this is an easy, enjoyable read.

The next story is 'Rescue Party' which I've talked about previously - you can read about it here. Anyway, that's it for now, more soon.