Arthur C. Clarke

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

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Childhood’s End

childhoods endChildhood’s End was first published in 1953.  However, it is just as readable and current as if it were written in the 2000s. This is the second fiction work by Clarke that I have read and was expecting greatness.  One of the most significant things about this novel is that in just over 200 pages, Clarke tells a sweeping story that is thought-provoking and curious.  It is somewhat about a first contact situation, but it expands to a much larger timeline.  This is a tough bit of writing to manage, but Clarke does it to perfection.

The novel is divided into three sections:

  • I.  –  Earth and the Overlords
  • II. –  The Golden Age
  • III. –  The Last Generation

A really great thing about this novel is that it is not possible to predict where it’s going.  Sometimes plots are so transparent that the whole novel seems a bit obvious.  Not so with Childhood’s End.  I read the first section and loved it.  It is exciting and builds the novel’s tension quite a bit.  In fact, I really began to like the character Stormgren.  His interactions with Supervisor Karellen build the tension nicely because the reader is kept in the same wonderment as Stormgren.  What is Karellen, really, and what are his motives?

The second section introduces Rupert Boyce and the alien Rashaverak.  The reader also meets the characters Jean and George – who will remain with us through most of the book.  In fact, they end up being the actual main characters. The second section is the bulk of the novel and it requires close reading.  However, I felt when I read it that I would rather go back to the storyline involving Karellen and Stormgren.  Still, I was invested in the story and read onward.

The third section is aptly named as it describes the last generation on Earth.  More or less, the point of the story is revealed, the purpose of the Overlords, and the significance of George and Jean’s children.  However, I have to say, the story – while well written – just was not exactly what I was hoping for.  I mean, it’s definitely interesting and thought-provoking, but maybe it’s just not my cup of tea. Jan Rodricks is not as interesting a character as he could be, I think. I wanted to enjoy his exploits off-world, but in the end he is a tool-character; used by Clarke just to provide a method to explain the strangeness and power of the Overlords. Clarke does manage to provide a good dose of eeriness to make the reader’s blood chill just slightly.

Ultimately, the ending of the book reminds me slightly of some of the plot threads in the TV series The 4400.  Also, because I am a fan of comic books, I felt something similar to Galactus when the topic of the Overmind came up.  (Galactus was created by Marvel Comics in 1966 – after this book was published.)  Now, I know Galactus is a world-devouring being, but something about being that much more beyond humans and even Overlords made the Overmind seem like Galactus.  So, whenever I read Overmind, I pictured Galactus, even if the analogy isn’t quite accurate.  Maybe if I had no referent for The 4400 or Galactus I would be way more astonished and impressed with this novel.  Overall, it’s not bad.  It just was not my style.  Still, this is a very worthy read.

3 stars

Expedition to Earth

Expedition to Earth

Expedition to Earth cover

This book is a collection of eleven short stories written by Arthur C. Clarke.  The book was originally published in 1953.  The copy that I read (pictured in this entry) is the 1985 edition, its cover art was done by Stanislaw Fernandes.  The eleven stories are:

  • Second Dawn
  • “If I forget thee, oh earth…”
  • Breaking Strain
  • History Lesson
  • Superiority
  • Exile of the Eons
  • Hide and Seek
  • Expedition to Earth
  • Loophole
  • Inheritance
  • The Sentinel

Each and every story is interesting and worthwhile. This collection of stories is amazing.  I say that because, as a general rule, I dislike short stories. I usually avoid them at all costs and don’t bother to try to read them.  I think short stories have gotten a bad reputation because it seems they are have become the choice product of those who actually cannot write very well.  Needless to say, the fact that I truly enjoyed and highly recommend these stories is significant because they are so far from my normal reading preferences.

The titles are okay, but in my mind, as I read the story, I simplified the titles. So, “Second Dawn” became “The One with the one-legged people.”  And “Exile of the Eons” was “The One Where Hitler Wakes Up.”  Mind you, there is nothing but a vague resemblance to Hitler in that story, and the point is not about Hitler but about reasons for exile. Here is one of the main reasons that I loved these stories:   they were science-fiction, but also philosophical.  At each story, I was particularly impressed with Clarke’s ability to write a really engaging story, focused on science-fiction themes and settings, that was also interesting from a philosophical viewpoint.  Also, unlike many authors, Clarke doesn’t browbeat the reader. The “moral” of the story (if there is one) and the “conclusion” of the story are not heavy-handed and the reader is not forced to follow the author’s position/opinion.

The stories are all written smoothly, starting in media res, without a tedious amount of background or rambling justification. This was a pure joy to read. My favorite story is “History Lesson.”  My second favorite is “Hide and Seek.”

This should be mandatory reading for all those who read science-fiction.  It should also be mandatory to all college students. It would also be an excellent book for book clubs that like to have discussion-based meetings. For those who love a good book that makes one imagine and ponder – this is a definite.

5 stars