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October 2006
Locus Magazine
posted Saturday 23 December 2006

Yesterday's Tomorrows:
Arthur C. Clarke and George R. Stewart

by Graham Sleight

Note: this essay has been reposted here, with a link for submitting comments

2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (NAL, 221pp, hc) 1968; (Roc 0-451-45799-4, $7.99, 320pp) 2000; (Orbit 1-85723-664-5, 6.99, 266pp, pb) 1998.

Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 0-15-176835-8, 303pp, hc) 1973. Cover by Hal Siegel; (Gollancz 0-575-01587-X, 256pp, hc) 1973. Cover by Bruce Pennington; (Bantam Spectra 0-553-28789-3, $7.99, 288pp) 1990; (Gollancz 0-575-07733-6, 6.99, 235pp, pb) 2006.

The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 310pp, hc) 1956; (Muller, 256pp, hc) 1956. Cover by George Salter; (Gollancz 1-85723-763-2, 6.99, 256pp, pb) 2001.

Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke (Ballantine, 217pp, hc) 1953; (Del Rey 0-345-34795-1, $6.99, 224pp, pb) 1987; (Pan 0-330-31661-3, 4.99, 200pp, pb) 1990.

Earth Abides, George R. Stewart (Random House, 373pp, hc) 1949. Cover by H. Lawrence Hoffman; (Millennium 1-85798-821-3, 6.99, 312pp, pb) 1999; (Del Rey 0-345-48713-3, $13.95, 368pp, pb) 2006.

In a 1989 introductory piece for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke talks about the context in which it was written, quoting his own words in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1974):

In the Spring of '64... the lunar landing still seemed psychologically a dream of the far future. Intellectually, we knew it was inevitable; emotionally, we could not really believe it...The first two-man Gemini flight (Grissom and Young) would not take place for another year, and argument was still raging about the lunar surface...

For once, a cliché is precise: the rest is history. The film and novel that sprang from Clarke's collaboration with Stanley Kubrick came out in 1968, and their influence on SF and the wider culture can hardly be understated; and Apollo 11, "a dream" five years before, landed on the moon in July 1969. But, since all reviewing is first-person, I should also state my own perspective. I was born in 1972, a couple of months before the last landing of Apollo 17. I have no memory of our moon-landings: it's something that I've been told happened, like Gettysburg. The space programme provided me with two vivid images in childhood: Skylab's fall to earth in 1979, with bits of metal raining down on the Australian outback, and of course the Challenger disaster in 1986. I'm always wary of deducing too much from biography, especially my own, but it doesn't seem too outlandish to suggest that someone born in 1972 is going to read 2001 in a fundamentally different way from someone who was around when it was first published. (I should add, also, that I know SF readers too young to remember the Challenger disaster: the wheel never stops turning.)

2001 has a particular problem, almost too obvious to be stated: that it tied its vision of an outward-expanding humanity to a particular year that has now passed, and that is certainly not remembered for passenger flights to the Moon. Every time you run up against a date in the text, for instance a sign saying "WELCOME TO CLAVIUS BASE, US ASTRONAUTICAL ENGINEERING CORPS, 1994," you find yourself with a sense that you're being told the wrong story, a story that's failed to come true. Moreover, you find yourself passing judgment on the author's irrepressible optimism about the possibility of space travel and how much it's become mired in real-world constraints.

But advocacy of our destiny beyond Earth is by no means the only note that Clarke wants to strike. Very early on in the book, in the section set in prehistoric Africa, he describes the famous alien monolith:

Now there was only a uniform, featureless glow in the great slab, so that it stood like a block of light superimposed on the surrounding darkness. As if waking from a sleep, the man-apes shook their heads, and presently began to move along the trail to their place of shelter. They did not look back, or wonder at the strange light that was guiding them to their homes — and to a future unknown, as yet, even to the stars.

Calling the viewpoint there omniscient almost feels like an understatement. Clarke is signalling right from the start that his narrative and the people within it are cupped in the hands of something greater than them — something almost too great for language to describe. The series of jump-cuts that govern the novel and film gain their force from the knowledge that no matter how much time they span, the story is engineered by something greater. When you see, in the film, the thrown bone becoming the orbiting space-station, on one level you're present at a demonstration of authorial control. But on another level, you're being told that the story (in this case, the alien intelligences behind it) will knit these disparate events together in the end.

Clarke has two very different impulses as a writer: describing the props and tools of space exploration, and taking this longest of long views. Of course, as a thinker about the first he's made more contributions than most of us could imagine, most famously in the theoretical work behind the geostationary satellite. But it's the nuts-and-bolts sections of 2001 which have dated most badly, which is perhaps no reflection on Clarke — rather on how much we've failed to live up to his dreams.

The transcendent side of Clarke comes more into prominence as 2001 goes on, especially in the last sequence beyond the star-gate. But the novel is also more explained than the film, crucially in the section between David Bowman's deactivation of the rogue computer HAL and his final departure from the ship. A huge but elegant infodump from the puppetmaster Heywood Floyd not only makes clear what's happening but also clarifies why Bowman acts as he does in venturing out of the ship. His final act is not, as in the film, that of an affectless manikin irreparably scarred by HAL's betrayal, but a logical and rational conclusion to all the upward steps of exploration humanity has taken earlier in the book.

- - -

Rational exploration is also a hallmark of Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Clarke's next novel. It illustrates one of his great strengths, the ability to create the most striking visual imagery from the simplest elements. Here Norton, the commander of the expedition exploring the vast alien artefact Rama, makes his first sortie into its interior:

Even the millions of candlepower of the flare could not light up the whole of this enormous cavity, but now he could see enough to grasp its plan and appreciate its titanic scale. He was at one end of a hollow cylinder at least ten kilometres wide, and of indefinite length. From his viewpoint at the central axis he could see such a mass of detail on the curving walls surrounding him that his mind could not absorb more than a minute fraction of it; he was looking at the landscape of an entire world by a single flash of lightning, and he tried by a deliberate effort of will to freeze the image in his mind.

That image, of the tiny human figure standing illuminated in an alien blackness, can stand as emblematic for all of Clarke's work. The action of Rendezvous with Rama, the slow process of human explorers working out the origins and nature of the artefact, receives such detailed attention that one forgives Clarke for the things he seems not to be interested in: outlining the inner lives of characters to differentiate them, for instance. This may be a deliberate aesthetic choice rather than an inability on his part. All humans will look much the same when compared to the vastness of the universe, illuminated by flarelight for a second. Olaf Stapledon, one of Clarke's clearest influences, seemingly made the same choice in books like Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Yet the individual does matter in Stapledon, as witness the final scenes of Star Maker, when the narrator returns home after his cosmic voyage and sees the worth of "our little glowing atom of community."

Rendezvous with Rama is an easier book to believe in now than 2001, partly because it's set in the 22nd century, and putting faith in the prospect of a fully space-faring Earth civilisation then is easier than imagining manned flights to Saturn five years ago. And while it does hit the transcendent note more than once, such epiphanies are reached through gradual exploration. It's clear quite how influential it has been on subsequent novels of (to use Roz Kaveney's term) Big Dumb Objects. Even though a book like Greg Bear's Eon (1985) may be very much more complex in its ambitions, I'm not sure that this represents pure gain. Clarke is, in many ways, and without wanting to be pejorative, a writer who seeks simplicity, the epiphany that encompasses everything.

- - -

Twenty years earlier, Clarke had written a book which is almost all epiphany, and which, because of its far-future setting, requires his nuts-and-bolts side hardly at all. I first got to know The City and the Stars (1956) in a reissue from the first Gollancz classic SF series in about 1986: it has a beautiful Peter Goodfellow cover illustration showing the eponymous city trapped in a giant star-shaped crystal. The illustration, like the book, works but risks being too simple in making its point: that the city of Diaspar's stasis cannot last forever.

The story, of the hero Alvin's gradual breaking of that stasis, was scarcely a new one even in the 1950s. What Clarke did that was distinctive was to find a way to make the Stapledonian perspective of eons into something storyable. Alvin is able to have his revelations about the nature of the universe and then move on and do something with them, even if not to affect the large-scale outcome. In Stapledon's books, the narrator is pure viewpoint; Clarke's protagonists are something more, even though they don't end up "winning" as a result of their efforts — unlike, say, the protagonists of Doc Smith. Clarke affords a worth to simply being there and observing change. Moreover, he always depicts the observer as part of a community, with obligations to that community. The City and the Stars expresses this in remarkably pure form, but for me its far-future setting makes it a little too abstract, too removed from a world describable in detail.

- - -

Childhood's End (1953) is the novel where Clarke managed to reconcile his wish for transcendence and his delight in the specific; to my mind, it's his greatest. Its famous opening imagery, of invulnerable spaceships hovering over Earth's great cities, is only the start. The working out of the relationship between the alien "Overlords" and the humans below is a model of rationality. Many little tales are embedded into it, like the description of how the UN Secretary-General Stormgren almost manages to glimpse the hidden physical form of the Overlords. When the Overlords are finally revealed as resembling mythical images of the Devil, it's an explicit rebuke from rationalism to religion: a superstition has become explicable, and therefore null. (Just after this revelation, we're told that, "It was a completely secular age. Of the faiths that had existed before the coming of the Overlords, only a form of purified Buddhism — perhaps the most austere of all religions — still survived. The creeds that had been based upon miracles and revelations had collapsed utterly."

That does beg the question, though, of whether Clarke's secular world is replacing religion with a transcendence that is, as it were, religion-shaped. The evolution in Childhood's End of a subspecies of children with powers to become godlike certainly answers some of the same needs as religion. It provides a story of a life beyond the physical world, a larger narrative that makes sense of the sufferings preceding it. But it's very far from being a consolation. The Earth is destroyed in Childhood's End, and the Overlords can only look on; almost every human who has even lived is excluded from the transcendence; and the "Overmind" which is the human destiny is scarcely describable in language. Or rather, it's only describable from the outside, as when the viewpoint character Jan stows away on an Overlord ship, travels to their planet, and sees a mountain surrounded by a vortex of light: "it was then that he guessed, for the first time, that the Overlords had masters, too."

So transcendence itself isn't describable in stories, but the path to transcendence is, and that's the subject of many of Clarke's finest novels. Transcendence inevitably means throwing off some things, and so those books become elegies for what is passing — in the case of Childhood's End, for the entire world as we've known it. Clarke created or arrived at a tone for such events that seems to me uniquely science fictional. It's derived from Stapledon and Wells, of course, and much imitated by others later. But I wouldn't be surprised if that, rather than his technological speculations, isn't his most enduring legacy.

- - -

A somewhat different kind of elegy is embodied in George R. Stewart's only SF novel, recently reissued by Del Rey. Earth Abides is so unusual and graceful that one can imagine it being rediscovered every few years to find a place in readers' lives. The story itself is almost beside the point: a virus has suddenly devastated the human population, and we follow Isherwood Williams, one of its survivors, through the ruins of California. The core of the book is its calm, eloquent view of the environment shifting as the tide of humanity retreats. It's scarcely a Stapledonian long view — the book only covers the span of Isherwood's life — but it's enough to convey the relative smallness of a single human.

The cuts in the hills and the long embankments for the road — they will still show as narrow valleys and ridges even after ten thousand years have passed. The great masses of concrete that were the dams — they will remain like the dikes of the granite itself.

But the steel and the wood will pass quickly. The three fires will take them.

Slowest of all is the fire of rust that burns at the steel. Yet give it some short centuries, and the high trestle that spans the canyon will be only a line of red soil on the slopes below.

Faster by far is the fire of decay that feeds on the wood.

But fastest of all is the fire of the flames.

There's a Biblical cadence here: those almost-repetitions ("the fire of the flames") and the quick recourse to metaphor ("the fire of rust") conspire to give this an implacable rhetorical authority. Stewart's concern was, to use a contemporary word, ecology, and the sense that humans should see themselves only as leaseholders of a landscape that they are lucky enough to occupy for a brief span. Unlike Clarke, though, there's no sense of an authorial hand engineering a particular outcome. The processes Stewart describes are those we know about anyway, of wind and rain. He also, through the person of Isherwood, makes clear what there is in life that's sweet, that the individual might want to hold onto, however trivial it might be in the long view.

This is, in other words, a far more sensual book than one can imagine Clarke having written. It's not rose-tinted, either: despite Isherwood's best efforts, much that was worthwhile about civilisation is lost and will not easily be recovered. So, to use a Hollywood term, Earth Abides is a downer. Almost everyone dies, and then the folk who haven't yet died die anyway, with no certainty about whether their descendants will survive. But the point of the book is to put such narratives in perspective. There's a beautiful little vignette, a couple of decades on from the disaster, of Isherwood the would-be teacher wanting to give the children of his tribe some basics in arithmetic, reading and writing: "But it had always been difficult to get the children together, and there seemed to be so many things that they wanted to do, either in play or in earnest, and the schoolteaching had never accomplished very much, although most of the older children could read after a fashion." There, in a sentence, you can see the old order being given up — not with a struggle, but with a shrug. You feel the poignancy of it, and you assent to the larger story that Stewart's telling. Then you raise your eyes from the book and see your own landscape, imagining how it would be without humans. Like the very best SF, Stewart returns you to the world you're in, but shows you it transformed.

Locus Magazine Publisher & Editor-in-Chief Charles N. Brown made these remarks about Clarke and Stewart in his editorial in the same issue where Graham Sleight's column above appeared:

- - -

Since the purpose of Graham Sleight's book column is to give you a look at "classics" through the eyes of someone younger, we don't try to edit him the way we would edit Gary K. Wolfe or Russell Letson or others. So I get my say here.

2001: A Space Odyssey was never a classic in its book form. The movie was, and is, the classic version. The book has explanations, but the power of the movie is that there are no explanations. It gave rise to months, if not years, of arguments. I was fortunate enough to see the preview before the final cut, and to get Clarke to talk about it that week for Lunacon. It was a pretty wild experience. But the book never did much for me.

Rendezvous with Rama shows Clarke at his best in the sheer awesomeness of the concept of Rama, and at his worst in the interchangeable characters. It's a great Stapledonian book and is one of my favorites. I hated the Gentry Lee sequels.

The City and the Stars is a very strange book. Clarke wrote novella Against the Fall of Night during WWII, lost the manuscript, and rewrote it for publication in 1948. He expanded it for book publication in 1953, was still dissatisfied and rewrote it — again! — as The City and the Stars. The original short version is still in print and is preferred by a good part of the audience (including me). The original is all dreaminess, and the final rewrite adds explanation, technology, and loses the original flavor. Stick with Against the Fall of Night.

Childhood's End is definitely Clarke's greatest novel. Even after more than half a century, I can remember the wonder (and shivers!) I felt reading it in 1953. Still the best book about the end of the human race ever written.

What can I say about Earth Abides? It won the first International Fantasy Award in 1950. I didn't read it until 1951 or 1952, but have never forgotten it. It's just the opposite of Clarke. Quiet catastrophe and great characters. The book also takes place within a mile of my house. I asked Stewart about it (he was still at UC Berkeley when I moved to California) and he agreed it's actually closer to the Oakland Hills than the Berkeley Hills. Much better than Dean Ing, who exploded an atom bomb over my house in one book — and that was after he stayed here!

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.