Arthur C. Clarke: Three Early Novels

Cover of An Arthur C. Clarke Second OmnibusAll human communities, wherever they may be in space, follow the same pattern. People were getting born, being cremated (with careful conservation of phosphorus and nitrates), rushing in and out of marriage, moving out of town, suing their neighbours, having parties, holding protest meetings, getting involved in astonishing accidents, writing Letters to the Editor, changing jobs…. Yes, it was just like Earth. That was a somewhat depressing thought.

Arthur C. Clarke, Earthlight (1955)

I was just about to write that Arthur C. Clarke required no introduction, but these days he perhaps does—a generation has reached maturity in the time since the publication of his last solo novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, in 1997.

Clarke was for decades one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers (the others were Asimov and Heinlein), and was the only one of that trio I’d have been eager to dine with. I’d certainly have given Asimov a go, if invited; but I’d have travelled long distances to avoid Heinlein. There was a constant gentle humanity to Clarke’s writings, largely missing from the brash Asimov’s and the deeply self-satisfied Heinlein’s.

Clarke’s heyday was probably from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties—from the time he cooperated with Stanley Kubrick in the production of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) through to the publication of The Songs Of Distant Earth (1986). That period saw the publication of his classic novels Rendezvous With Rama (1973) and The Fountains Of Paradise (1979). In later years, he moved on to co-authoring novels with other writers. Some of these cooperations were successful, like his work with Stephen Baxter; some less so, like the execrable Rama sequels penned with Gentry Lee.

Clarke has also left us a legacy of stunning short stories: “The Sentinel” (1951), “The Star” (1956), “The Nine Billion Names Of God” (1953) and “Sunjammer” (1964) being only the first four that came to mind as I was typing this paragraph.

The three novels I’m going to write about here date from the same period as those classic short stories: The Sands Of Mars, Earthlight and A Fall Of Moondust. My own copies are collected in a Sidgwick & Jackson hardback edition from 1968—the clumsily titled An Arthur C. Clarke Second Omnibus.* But all are readily and cheaply available in e-book form. They’re of interest (to me at least) because they’re Clarke’s take on the future exploration of the Moon and Mars, written before or during the very early days of spaceflight, years before humans had actually set foot on the Moon.

For reasons best known to themselves, Sidgwick & Jackson arranged the novels in reverse order of original publication, but I’ll review them in chronological order.

The Sands Of Mars (1951) follows science-fiction writer Martin Gibson as he travels from Earth to Mars on the inaugural voyage of the passenger vessel Ares. Gibson is the only passenger for the trip, acting as what would now be called an embedded journalist. Otherwise, Ares is operated by a small shakedown crew, who view Gibson with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. Amusement, because Gibson’s early science-fiction writings about space travel in general, and Mars in particular, have now been overtaken by reality; suspicion, because they’re not sure what sort of story Gibson will write about his voyage. Clarke develops the flawed character of Gibson with a real warmth and humour.

Almost a hundred pages elapse before Gibson actually gets to his destination, the small Martian colony of Port Lowell. During those early pages, Clarke plays amusingly with Gibson’s anxieties and embarrassments as he finally participates in the reality of spaceflight, which is rather different from what he had imagined in his writings twenty years previously. There’s very definitely a knowing wink from Clarke in this section, as if to say, “Yes, and of course I’m pretending I know how it will really be. But what sort of things am I getting wrong, right now?”

The dynamic between the crew and Gibson becomes particularly amusing when the crew realize that the Ares has been pierced by a tiny meteor, no larger than a grain of sand, which has produced a very slow leak of air. This is an entirely routine event for them—but unfortunately the hole is in Gibson’s cabin. Fearing the dramatic spin Gibson would put on such an event, the crew come up with a distraction for him (a spacewalk), so that they can swiftly put a rivet into the tiny hole without Gibson ever knowing what happened.

But there are also characteristic Clarkean “sense of wonder” passages during the space flight:

The Ares was not, unfortunately, passing very close to the Moon, but even so it was more than ten times as large as Gibson had ever seen it from the Earth […] And surely—Gibson bent suddenly forward, wondering if his eyes had tricked him. Yet there was no doubt of it; down in the midst of that cold and faintly gleaming land, waiting for the dawn that was still many days away, minute sparks of light were burning like fireflies in the dusk. They had not been there fifty years ago; they were the lights of the first lunar cities, telling the stars that life had come at last to the Moon after a billion years of waiting.

When the story finally reaches Mars, it begins to show its age, since this is Mars as understood in the 1940s—with a denser atmosphere than we now know it has, and plant life on its surface. Gibson has various adventures, and gradually comes to respect and admire the resourceful Martian colonists. There’s a plane crash and a rescue, a benign conspiracy, a surprising discovery, and even a romance. It’s all rather satisfying, in a low-key sort of way, but it spends a lot more time on the nuts and bolts of space travel than would any contemporary novel.

And there is always Clarke’s eye for quirky detail. Here’s his description of the little domed Martian colony (which grandly names its few narrow streets after famous streets on Earth):

With its rows of uniform metal houses and few public buildings it was more of a military camp than a city, though the inhabitants had done their best to brighten it up with terrestrial flowers. Some of these had grown to impressive sizes under the low gravity, and Oxford Circus was now ablaze with sunflowers thrice the height of a man. Though they were getting rather a nuisance no one had the heart to suggest their removal: if they continued at their present rate of growth in would soon take a skilled lumberjack to fell them without endangering the port hospital.

Earthlight (1955) is set on the Moon in the twenty-second century. Colonies on the Moon and inner planets are well established, and there is a human presence in space out as far as Saturn. A resource war is brewing between the Earth-Moon system on the one hand, and the planetary colonies on the other. The action takes place in and around an astronomical observatory in Plato crater, a lunar settlement called Central City, and a secret research base in the Mare Imbrium. The main point-of-view character is Bertram Sadler, a counter-espionage agent assigned to hunt down a spy among the staff of the Plato observatory.

This one, too, was written before the dawn of the Space Age, and Clarke spends more time describing the nuts and bolts of lunar colonization than a modern author would feel necessary. But Clarke, of course, always has his own unique take on things:

The view was now rather disappointing, as it usually is when one descends to the lunar lowlands. The horizon is so near—only two or three kilometres away—that it gives a sense of confinement and restraint. It is almost as if the small circle of rock surrounding one is all that exists. The illusion can be so strong that men have been known to drive more slowly than necessary, as if subconsciously afraid that they may fall off the edge of that uncannily near horizon.

The first half of the book is largely devoted to Sadler’s efforts to identify the spy, combined with a sort of guided tour of lunar life and installations. The second half revs up into a series of set pieces—a battle between space-borne forces and a lunar fortress; the rescue of the crew of a damaged spacecraft; and the final, long-delayed unmasking of the spy.

In particular, the story is distinguished by the earliest dramatic introduction of one of Clarke’s narrative preoccupations—that fact that human beings can survive brief exposure to the vacuum of space. In Earthlight, Clarke gets a few things wrong—he has his characters hyperventilate with oxygen before their exposure to vacuum, which would do essentially nothing to prolong their survival; and his characters stay conscious for far longer than would be possible once they undergo decompression. He would revisit the topic in a very short story entitle “Take A Deep Breath” in 1957, and then again in the novel and film of 2001: A Space Odyssey (by which time he was correctly assuming a time of useful consciousness of only ten to fifteen seconds during vacuum exposure).

There’s also a fraught encounter with a lunar “dust bowl”—a concept that Clarke would later use as the basis for his novel A Fall Of Moondust.

There are, as ever, failures of prediction. In this one, Clarke assumes we’ll still be developing photographs in a darkroom in the twenty-second century, and there’s a certain irony in the way he describes the situation:

Jamieson was still wiping developer from his hands when he arrived. After more than 300 years, certain aspects of photography were quite unchanged. Wheeler, who thought that everything could be done by electronics, regarded many of his older friend’s activities as survivals from the age of alchemy.

And the role of women in Clarke’s vision of the Moon is limited, to say the least:

It was merely to be expected that all six of the girls in computing, after some weeks in a largely male community, now had reputations that could only be described as fragile.

A Fall Of Moondust (1961) is based on an idea, briefly explored in Earthlight, that was a real source of concern for early spaceflight engineers—the possibility that the smooth, flat areas of the lunar “seas” might represent accumulations of extremely fine dust; dust so fine that it would flow like liquid in the hard vacuum at the lunar surface, and simply engulf any spacecraft that landed on it.

Clarke’s story, set on the Moon after human settlement there, features a “dust-cruiser”—a vehicle that floats on a lake of such dust, moving around with the aid of submerged propellers. The dust-cruiser Selene, taking a group of tourists sight-seeing on the fictional Sea of Thirst, is struck by an earthquake which cases it to “sink”—falling into a transient hollow in the dust surface, which then fills and flows over the vehicle, leaving it buried fifteen metres deep. The story then unfolds in two strands: below ground, the plight of the 22 buried passengers and crew; above ground, the efforts to locate the missing Selene and then to rescue its personnel before their air runs out. It is, in essence, a science-fiction “disaster movie”, vaguely reminiscent of Airport ’77.

It has a lot of what were now becoming the usual Clarke ingredients. He messes with his readership’s expectations of how the future should be, for instance when he gives the reason the Selene‘s captain is keen to call his craft a “boat”:

When he used that word, no one would mistake him for the skipper of a space-ship—and space-ship captains were, of course, two a penny.

Another example of Clarkeish subversion occurs when he allows the story of one of the trapped passengers, an Australian scientist named McKenzie, to continue for some time before he reveals that the character is a full-blooded Aborigine. Those of us who remember the casual racism of the 1960s will be able to appreciate what a startling effect that achieved, back when it was first published.

Then there is Clarke’s trademark wry humour. Here, he teases those over-wrought space artists who had depicted the lunar surface dotted with cliffs and towering mountains:

There was not a single lunar crater whose ramparts soared as abruptly as the streets of San Francisco, and there were very few that would provide a serious obstacle to a determined cyclist.

Cover of Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke(Perhaps Clarke was later amused to see exactly the wrong kind of lunar mountains depicted on the cover of the Pan paperback edition of Earthlight.)

Elsewhere, he describes the annoyance of the television-camera operator who is obliged to use electronic trickery to add visible stars to the lunar daytime sky, because the public on Earth expect to see them—despite the fact that the bright reflected light from the lunar surface makes them invisible to either human eye or camera lens. Remember, Clarke was writing this before anyone had ever set foot on the Moon—but he presciently spotted the ignorant “Where are the stars?” question beloved of those who, in the teeth of the evidence, imagine that the Apollo landings were faked.

There are the usual incongruities for those of us living sixty years after Clarke wrote this story. In Clarke’s future, people are happily smoking inside lunar habitats and stomach ulcers are still an intractable medical problem. And the female characters fare little better than the “girls in computing” of Earthlight—in this one, they are either wives, fretful old maids, or pretty stewardesses.

These are all good fun—full of incident, plot twists and wry observation of the foibles of humanity. The Sands Of Mars certainly has the most humour, but is the most dated. A Fall Of Moondust is genuinely tense in places. But all are worth (re)reading for the glimpse they give of a clever and kind man, speculating on humanity’s future in space.

* I wrote about the first Arthur C. Clarke Omnibus when I reviewed his novel Childhood’s End (1953).

Clarke previously mentioned a person surviving vacuum exposure in The Sands Of Mars; but given that the person is a fictional character in Gibson’s early writing, it’s not clear if we are meant to take this as a serious proposition.
I‘ve previously written about the physics and physiology of vacuum exposure. See my posts Human Exposure To Vacuum Part 1 and Part 2 for a full discussion of the underlying science.)

3 thoughts on “Arthur C. Clarke: Three Early Novels”

  1. I am sure that I have read all three of these novels but my first read would have been about 50 years ago and the only one I can really recall is “A Fall Of Moondust”. These old novels are still enjoyable to read despite discoveries and advances that have proven there premise incorrect. I just put my mind into neutral and enjoy the writing and the imagination of the author. They are still just a fun read.

    His short stories were certainly very well crafted and oned like “The Nine Billion Names Of God” still resonate with me. I am now off to read your review of “Childhood’s End” as I think I missed it when I first looked through your site.

  2. I find that the erroneous assumptions about the future which appear in all vintage SF helps to transport me back to the time they were written, or the time I first read the stories.
    I found myself suddenly filled with nostalgia for the chemical ceremony involved in developing your own photographs, for instance. My father would barricade himself into the kitchen with a red light bulb and a draught excluder to prevent light leaking under the door, and it was an exciting moment in my young life to finally be permitted to view the mysterious rites, and to watch photographs developing into visibility before my very eyes.

  3. I read your piece about “Childhood’s End” and I am sincerely grateful that I never saw the mini-series you mentioned!

    Re-reading “Golden Age” SF takes me back to my teenage years and memories of reading on the big verandah around our old wooden house. Or of lying in my bed late at night reading while the rain drums on the tin roof.

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