Voyager, 2000, 558pp, £7.99
reviewed in Vector 215, January-February 2001
There are times, when a major writer comes towards the end of a long career, when the most interesting work they produce is retrospective. Certainly there is a sense that Arthur C. Clarke is in the process of closing off his career. By the time this review appears his collected short stories will be in the shops, and here, in the book before us now, is his selected non-fiction. Many of the 110 articles gathered here have been collected before, in books like Profiles of the Future and Voices from the Sky which have played as big a part in building his reputation as any of his novels. Others have not seen print since they first appeared in obscure publications such as Futurian War Digest, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and The Aeroplane; while still others have never been published before. They range in date from an appreciation of Lord Dunsany that appeared in the Futurian War Digest of December 1944, to ‘The Twenty-First Century: A (Very) Brief History’ which was published by the Sunday Telegraph in February 1999. They range in subject from scuba diving (‘Undersea Holiday’) to sex in zero gee (‘NASA Sutra: Eros in Orbit’), from matters of faith (‘Credo’) to the problem of sewage in space (‘Toilets of the Gods’) and the issue of gays in the army (‘The Gay Warlords’). It is, perhaps, not a collection to be devoured at one sitting, certain issues recur too frequently, some anecdotes become overly familiar; but taken individually there is more than enough evidence here to suggest that Clarke should be far better remembered for his non-fiction than for his science fiction.
For one thing: his prose is better. There is, particularly in the earlier pieces, a measured, rather old-worldly gentility in the writing that is a world away from the crisp matter-of-factness of his fiction, and it makes these essays a delight to read. And this improvement in the prose seems to be a reflection of his engagement with what he is writing. He has an enthusiasm for ideas that, without the necessities of plot and character, can come shining through. Few writers of popular science seem to have this genuine talent to make ideas sing, to carry the reader along with the excitement of the author. In a piece first published in Holiday in 1954, for example, he considers the astronomical candidates for the Star of Bethlehem in a way that is at least as involving and as fresh as the story (‘The Star’, probably his best) that grew out of it. And if his innate optimism about our future in space that is there as strongly at the end of this collection as it is at the beginning can grow a little wearysome at times, there is no denying the enthusiasm that convinces you that yes we will build facilities on the Moon, on Mars, that yes we will master the technological problems and head out ever out into space.
If, despite landmarks (Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, ‘The Star’, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, 2001, A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous With Rama), I’m coming to the conclusion that he has done more and better in these popular science articles than in his science fiction, Clarke himself has not wavered for a moment in his devotion to the genre. He talks about it in ways that make it inextricable from his non-fiction, and includes a number of perceptive and thoughtful essays on the subject, especially about the ways writers have got their protagonists to other worlds. (At the same time, it must be said that he should never have tried his hand at shorter reviews, either of books or of films.)
In such a densely packed collection there are bound to be duds. I was not especially enthused by the articles about diving, perhaps because I am not enthused by the activity. As the book progresses, you find articles bulked out by long quotations from other things he has written, often of only tangential relationship to the rest of the article, you find the same memories cropping up again and again, you find short articles trailing away to bitty inconclusion. And there are problems with the way the book has been put together: at times it is difficult to tell where Clarke’s prefatory remarks end and the article begins; at times the editor’s introduction seems to be part of the text; and Clarke’s famous 1945 paper for Wireless World which everyone knows introduced the notion of geo-synchronous communications satellites (it didn’t: the paper is actually about communications using manned space stations in geo-synchronous orbit) is called here ‘Extraterrestrial Relays’ though Clarke refers to it in his introduction as ‘Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?’ Despite such grumbles and gripes, however, this remains an essential collection that represents the very best of one of the most important writers in the history of our genre.