The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, by Arthur C. Clarke

This is a near chronological collection of the stories of the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008). Clarke was considered one of the “big three” of science fiction writers during the golden age of the genre, the other two were Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. He’s credited with inspiring the idea of using satellites to relay information and, of course, wrote the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I tried to read this book last summer and just wasn’t in the right mental place for it. Part of the problem is that before WWII Clarke was in his teens and writing fan fiction for small British sci-fi venues. They’re definitely not his best work, but going through them this time I was better able to pay attention to his growth as a writer.

So in these stories you’ll often find nuggets of later works. There is an early version of Childhood’s End, the novel in which earth gives control to an alien race that remains hidden for years, only their voices available, because they know their appearance is similar to depictions of Satan. There is also a story that he recycled into the extended version of 2001. These are interesting looks at his development and process.

It’s also easy to spot some of the odd tricks he would use. Many of the early stories, and a few later ones, turn to O. Henry type surprise endings. He was especially fond of a kind of context switch where “I’m telling the story so you think it’s about A when it’s actually about B.” One example is a story about a discussion on the odd behaviors of aliens on a newly discovered planet. In the last few lines it’s clear these are aliens talking about us.

Clarke was fond of humorous stories, and this book includes his Tales of the White Hart stories in which a group of friends gathers in a pub called The White Hart and tell long, convoluted stories on one theme or another. Or there’s the story of alien beings who try to send a psychic message to humanity warning that the sun will soon go nova but that the aliens can save us. It’s unfortunate that the only person they can connect with psychically is a depressed drunk who forgets the message the next morning.

Many of the stories are also very much of their time. Until we were able to send probes to various planets, or were able to take more sensitive telescopic measurements of the chemical makeup of planetary atmosphere, we could only guess what was in our own solar system. Thus there was the regular thought that Venus was a place of constant rain with possible alien life forms … not the superheated rock surrounded by poison gases we know it to be now. There was also the assumption that Mars either supported or had supported in the past more aliens. It took our own science to inform us how alone we really are in the light of our sun.

But then there’s a really brilliant story about Jupiter being explored in a craft piloted by a man who had been injured and is now half mechanical and half human. He lowers his craft into the stormy clouds of Jupiter to find creatures made of bubbles and as large as three football fields, these chased by manta-like creatures that glide through the storms. As he leaves the planet the man runs through the thought that he is half machine and half human, a halfway point between humanity and what humanity will become.

Not overtly political Clarke is still a humanist and generally an optimist. There are only a few dystopian futures in these stories. Most are sometimes flawed humans continuing their push to explore space. Even Russians are treated as decent people, this from a cold war era author.

This is the kind of book you can take on in small bites. I’m all for using short story volumes to fill time on bus rides and coffee breaks. This, however, is really a book that should be plowed through to get a sense of the life work of an influential author. It’s especially interesting to read some of Clarke’s own notes on what inspired the stories or why they were solicited from publishers in his later years. Science fiction writers and fans will see the seed ideas for later tropes used throughout the genre, as well as his eventual understanding that character drives good fiction and the rest is just decoration. Important and thrilling decoration but decoration all the same. They are also informed by his education in mathematics and physics, while they’re fed by his own love of the science fiction genre.