Why Don’t I Like Stuff By Arthur C Clarke?

07 Sep

Arthur C Clarke is supposed to be one of the giants of Science Fiction. However, I’ve been very often disappointed by his stuff. Why? And does anyone else feel the same way? Or do most people just say “Arthur C Who??”

Here’s what I mean :

Series : Space Odyssey
Titles : 2001, 2010, 2061, 3001
Authors : Clarke
Plot Summary : Immensely powerful aliens decide to destroy the human race. We stop them.

I really can’t recall my impressions of 2001 the book, written in 1968. I found the movie slow – especially the opening scene. The later scenes in the movie were thoroughly enjoyable. Likewise, I don’t recall much of my impression on 2010 the book, written 14 years later. In 1987, Clarke wrote 2061, just a normal science fiction story – nothing particularly epic or earth shaking, but entertaining enough. In 1997, however, the numbingly disappointing novel 3001 was released.

3001 is disappointing in many ways. Its depiction of life in the fourth millennium has no imagination. There are too many references to 20th century culture and persons coming from 31st century lips. It’s as if, with the exception of a few neat inventions (artificial gravity, brain caps, and so forth) there’s been no development (or change of any kind) in human culture over 1000 years. Even the names most characters have would fit right in to the 20th century.

This book put me off reading Clarke for a while – at least until I picked up The Trigger, which was co-authored by Arthur C Clarke and Michael Kube-McDowell. But more on that later.

Series : Time Odyssey
Titles : Time’s Eye, Sunstorm and Firstborn.
Authors : Clarke, and Stephen Baxter
Plot Summary : Immensely powerful aliens decide to destroy the human race. We stop them.

I picked up Time’s Eye at the library, and decided to give it a go. It started out as quite an interesting book – people from disparate eras of human history are thrown together into a mixed-up mosaic of the earth. I was looking forward to seeing how they worked it out. Unfortunately, the book went downhill towards the end, spending far too much time (ie, more than zero) on minor characters’ sordid activities, or on little vignettes that were inconsistent with the rest of the story, and far too little time ensuring the story was a good one. Nonetheless, against my better judgement, I borrowed the sequel and read that too. It was bitterly disappointing.

Sunstorm is a work produced without care or attention by a publishing industry that knows that it can effortlessly make $$$ from a couple of famous names. Firstly, there are the plot holes. The aliens attempt to destroy earth by launching a huge gas giant planet from another solar system at our sun. It strikes around the time of Christ’s birth, setting up huge oscillations in the core, that result in an enormous coronial ejection in 2042. Clarke has avoided breaking the known laws of physics in his story – no faster-than-light travel, for example – but has carelessly broken known laws of mathematics, viz, the chaos theory that ensures that no matter how accurately the aliens launched their planet, they could not use it to control the behaviour of the sun’s core even a decade out.

This is besides the fact that the aliens had much more reliable means available to them. They could have lobbed their  gas giant directly at earth, for example. Or if their goal was to scorch the earth but keep it in orbit, they could have send two much smaller planets winging their way towards the solar system, one to knock the earth’s orbit so it passed within Mercury’s, and the second to fix it up again. The aliens in the book would have realised this, and given the motivations ascribed to them, would have preferred this method.

Then, there are the errors in the book. There are blatant spelling errors that any copy-editor should have picked up. There’s the silly idea that an artificial intelligence, even an emergent one, can exist on any hardware at all. There’s an irritating attempt to be politically correct in a blatant way that detracts from the plot.

I was almost ready to forgive when, in a very late chapter, my home city of Perth, Western Australia, was chosen as the site of a space elevator at the end of Sunstorm. A flimsy reason to like a book, I know, but I was grasping at straws. The straw was whipped out of my grasp when the author informed the reader that the spaceport was 200 miles out to sea (fine), west of Perth (fine), in the Pacific Ocean. I mean come on! These guys might be famous dudes who can make more money for their publisher than a money tree plantation. But at least, at least, read their book once before you send it to the printing press!

I haven’t read Firstborn. Judging from Wikipedia’s plot summary, it fails to properly conclude the series. Perhaps they had another instalment planned, but Arthur C Clarke passed away before it could be written. Well, every cloud has a silver lining.

Series : None
Titles : The Last Theorem
Authors : Clarke, and Frederik Pohl

This is the last book ever written by Arthur C Clarke. I saw it on the library shelves after I had read Sunstorm, and (like a glutton for punishment) picked it up. Reading inside the dust jacket, I learned :

Plot Summary : Immensely powerful aliens decide to destroy the human race. We stop them.

I put the book back on the shelf.

However, there’s only so many books in the library, so eventually I decided to give Arthur C Clarke another chance, on the basis that this one had a different co-author. I borrowed the book and read it.  From the beginning, it looked like it was going to be another disaster, but no. The Last Theorem is an enjoyable, light-hearted romp through the life of the main character – thoroughly enjoyable, with the exception of those parts that seem clearly to be written by Arthur C Clarke (more space elevators, more sordidness, more bad geography but this time cheerfully acknowledged).

To test the theory that the book’s good qualities are not due to Clarke, I next read a book by Pohl, The Space Merchants (Actually, Pohl & Kornbluth – my library didn’t have any solo-Pohlo.) It was an enjoyable, dramatic romp through a short period in the life of the main character. So Pohl & Kornbluth (1958) is, in my opinion, a better author than Clarke & Pohl (2009)

I think I will, regrettably, scratch Arthur C Clarke off my list of “authors I want to read”. I still recommend The Trigger, and perhaps I’ll read Clarke’s early work when I next get a chance. But I shall be very wary of late books by famous authors in future.



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