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Thinking Big

THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ARTHUR C. CLARKE By Arthur C. Clarke; Tor: 966 pp., $29.95

February 04, 2001|THOMAS M. DISCH | Thomas M. Disch is the author of "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World."

If greatness in science fiction is to be measured by a writer's impact on the culture at large, H.G. Wells was surely the greatest of the 20th century. Just as surely, the greatest during the half of the century Wells wasn't around for, when the genre was at its height, has been Arthur C. Clarke, who has just published a compilation of his stories, nearly 1,000 densely packed pages in length. These 100-plus "Collected Stories" offer compelling evidence both for and against Clarke's claims of preeminence within the field of SF, although his principal claim is present here only in the embryonic form of the six stories that were the basis for his "2001" screenplay. That film, and to a lesser degree the novel that mirrors it, is the jewel in the crown of Sir Arthur (as he has become), the guarantor of his immortality, as "Frankenstein" was Mary Shelley's. Anyone who has managed to read "Frankenstein" knows it is not a very good novel. Had Mary Shelley not enjoyed the good luck of marrying a poet bound for glory and the further good luck of having her novel become a classic film, her creation would not have attained the status of a modern myth, a constellation in the postmodern heavens.

A similar confluence of luck has done the same for "2001." Without Stanley Kubrick's ability to limn and adorn Clarke's naked vision of a chill, mechanistic and yet awesome future (a vision that underlies all SF like a sub-dermal tumor), the presence of that archetypal element in his work might well have remained a mere glimmer at the edges of the genre, like the aura of dread around the best fairy tales. But "2001" revealed the familiar landscapes of boys' adventure sci-fi to be just as suitable for adventures of the soul. Read in that light, Clarke's oeuvre of 50 years bears pondering as much as those of the great Goths--Poe, Hoffmann, Shelley.

And yet it is no easy ponder. Science fiction obsolesces faster than pop music. One or two stories of the pulp magazine era will sate most contemporary readers. Clarke's stories have stood the test of time better than most of what appeared in Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder but, in his prolific heyday from 1948 through 1962, he worked for the going penny-a-word rates, so he wrote quickly, carelessly and too much. He is less guilty than others of padding, and he did not indulge in the space opera histrionics, but even so. . . .

It helped that Clarke hailed from that tonier neighborhood of Outer Space first colonized by Wells and Olaf Stapledon, where even the aliens have cultivated accents. Clarke prided himself on his vivid, documentary-like accounts of space travel, which could seem dry as physics lectures in disguise to those who didn't share his faith in space as the new frontier. But he was respectable, which was more than you could say for sci-fi riffraff like A.E. van Vogt or L. Ron Hubbard.

Clarke's first commercial success, in 1951, was "The Exploration of Space," a nonfiction book advocating the moon and planets as the New West. It was science fiction without the taint of "fiction" but also without the frisson of myth that marks his best short stories, classic tales like "The Star" (1955), "The Wind from the Sun" (1964) and "A Meeting with Medusa" (1971). All are here in his "Collected Stories," still as readable as when they appeared in Infinity, Boy's Life and Playboy.

The merits of Clarke's "documentaries of the future" are the merits of science fiction in general in its Golden Age, just after World War II, when it was essentially an American field and, to a large extent, an expression of national triumph and imperial ambition. Clarke had no more difficulty accommodating himself to the Pax Americana than most of his countrymen. Like many Englishmen of his generation (he was born in 1917), Clarke lost his youth to the war, spending the time from 1941 through 1946 as a radar instructor with the Royal Air Force. Thus from his earliest days he inhabited the domain epitomized by "2001," in which warfare and science are scarcely separable and both are carried out on a global scale by warrior bureaucrats, samurai of the Head Office. It is almost not to be wondered that, long before the first rockets were launched into space, it was Clarke who predicted the age of satellite communications and the ways in which it would accelerate the creation of a global village. Clarke has always Thought Big.

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