The merits of most of the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke have largely escaped me. There is no denying the overwhelming visionary fertility of his imagination—he exceeds all others in his ability to show us the wonders of the as yet uncharted realms of space and time—and some of his short stories are superb. But the big, bland novels that repeatedly put him on the best-seller lists—the Rendezvous with Rama books, Imperial Earth, 2001 and its various sequels, et cetera, have always struck me, despite their passages of great conceptual inventiveness, as dull, slow, and passionless. That they should have enjoyed such great commercial success and gobbled up so many Hugo and Nebula awards left me baffled.
In my first few years as a science fiction reader, though, when everything was new and wondrous for me and I had not yet come to judge what I read with the eye of a fellow practitioner of the craft, Clarke’s earliest published fiction had a powerful impact on me—such stories as “Loophole” and “Rescue Party,” and the short novel Against the Fall of Night, all of which I read when I was thirteen or fourteen. So I decided, for this series of essays on rereading my early SF favorites, to see what it was that I had found so marvelous in Clarke’s first novel when I encountered it more than sixty years ago.
As it happened, the edition of Against the Fall of Night that I took down from the shelf also contained a novella, “The Lion of Comarre,” that first appeared in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories in the summer of 1949, when I was barely into my teens. I remembered that one fondly, too; and so I began my Clarke research with it now.
It turned out to have its moments, but I found it mainly to be simple, innocent stuff. Though I don’t know when Clarke wrote it, I suspect that the first draft, at least, dates from the mid-1930s, when Clarke was barely out of his teens himself. The story opens with a page-long historical lecture of the sort favored by writers in Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering SF magazines of that long-ago era:
“Toward the close of the twenty-sixth century, the great tide of Science had at last begun to ebb. The long series of inventions that had shaped and molded the world for nearly a thousand years was coming to its end. Everything had been discovered. One by one, all the great dreams of the past had become reality.
“Civilization was completely mechanized—yet machinery had almost vanished. Hidden in the walls of the cities or buried far underground, the perfect machines bore the burdens of the world. . . .”
And so on for quite a while until we meet our protagonist, Richard Peyton III, a young man who remains little more than a name to us as we follow his adventures for the next fifteen or twenty thousand words. Restless in Earth’s utopian tranquility, he goes off in quest of the legendary lost city of Comarre, locates it with the greatest of ease, and wanders around amongst the smoothly purring machines that are its only inhabitants until he succeeds in stumbling upon knowledge that he may be able to use in breaking the world out of its long cultural stagnation. The action, such as it is, moves by fits and starts, and is frequently interrupted by more dollops of history (“The First Electronic Age, Peyton knew, had begun in 1908, more than eleven centuries before, with De Forest’s invention of the triode. . . .”) Though the young Clarke does foreshadow the concept we speak of today as the Singularity—artificial intelligence capable of outstripping our own—the level of inventiveness throughout is a low one: ad 2600 has “personal communicators” instead of telephones, windows have panes of “glassite” instead of glass, the World Council’s chamber has a roof of “crystallite,” people use “writing machines” instead of typewriters or computers, and so on: all of these are just science fiction noises, rather than genuine efforts of the imagination.
The story, then, seems primitive. How much more deftly Robert A. Heinlein, who in 1940 almost singlehandedly made the Gernsback school of storytelling obsolete, would have imparted all the information that Clarke is content simply to shovel at us! How much more cunningly Henry Kuttner, the cleverest storyteller of his generation, would have shaped the story: the opening hook leading to some paradoxical conflict, then the history lesson, then the dramatic tour of mysterious Comarre and the world-changing resolution of the main plot problem. I see what stirred me about “The Lion of Comarre” back in 1949, when my primary concern as an uncritical reader was to extract visions of the unknowable future from a story, rather than to be carried along by a swiftly unfolding plot. It was the sense of futureness it offered me then. But I doubt that readers of today would have much patience with the story.
Against the Fall of Night, a far more interesting work, has some of the same drawbacks. But those are greatly outweighed by its virtues, which are the virtues of the clear-eyed innocence of its young author. What seemed primitive and clunky in “The Lion of Comarre” becomes oddly moving in the thematically related longer story.
There’s no question that this one was a child of the Gernsback era. Clarke himself has written that he began it about 1936, the last of the Gernsback years, and went on tinkering with it until 1940, by which time it had reached a length of fifteen thousand words. After the war he returned to it, finishing a novel-length draft by January 1946, and submitted it to John W. Campbell, who rejected it and then rejected a rewritten version six months later. (Campbell may have been annoyed by Clarke’s notion of Earth conquered by superior alien forces, a concept that ran counter to Campbell’s editorial prejudices.) At the time, there was only one other market for science fiction of that length, the pulp magazine Startling Stories, which ran a long novella in every issue. It appeared in the November 1948 Startling, and I read it there in a second-hand copy that I found about six months later.
What captivated me then, and still does, was its setting in the extremely distant future—a billion and a half years hence, in this case. Ever since H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine took me to the end of the universe when I was ten years old I have had an insatiable love for the sub-genre of science fiction that deals with the far future: S. Fowler Wright’s The World Below, Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, Brian Aldiss’s The Long Afternoon of Earth, and many another. I have even offered my own contribution to the field in the novel Son of Man. None of these books pretends to offer an accurate description of the farthest reaches of time; nobody can write a really plausible story about so remote a period, or even about the world of just a couple of centuries ahead of ours. These stories are only visions, dreams, fantasies, poems.
Probably the greatest of far-future fables is Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), which I discussed in these pages last year. Clarke, in a 1967 introduction to Against the Fall of Night, makes it clear that that book was the primary influence on his. He was thirteen when he read it, and, he says, “With its multimillion-year vistas, and the roll call of great but doomed civilizations, the book produced an overwhelming impact on me. I can still remember patiently copying Stapledon’s ‘Time Scales’—up to the last one, where ‘Planets Formed’ and ‘End of Man’ lie only a fraction of an inch on either side of the moment marked ‘Today.’”
Against the Fall of Night is the young Arthur Clarke’s homage to Stapledon. It tells of a far-future Earth that long ago lost its interstellar empire to a race of invincible conquerors, and now is a desert planet, where the last humans, a passive, reclusive, culturally stagnant race of immortals, live out their days barricaded in the fortress city of Diaspar. No child had been born in Diaspar for seven thousand years until the coming of Clarke’s protagonist, the boy Alvin, who has the hungry curiosity of youth. Alvin finds his way out of Diaspar and makes a series of discoveries that eventually, as we see in a frantic flurry of revelations in the last few pages of the book, utterly upset all of Diaspar’s notions about the last billion or so years of Earth’s history.
The tale is slowly and clumsily told. Mostly we see the events through Alvin’s eyes, but gradually a few other characters, dimly individualized, enter the tale, and Clarke shifts the viewpoint to them whenever he needs to introduce some plot point not readily accessible to Alvin. The style is simple, even artless. (“Not for three years did Rorden make more than casual reference to the purpose of their work. The time had passed quickly enough, for there was so much to learn and the knowledge that his goal was not unattainable gave Alvin patience. . . .”) The pace of biological evolution seems to have come to a halt: though Clarke blithely tells us of events and characters twenty and fifty and a hundred million years prior to his story, Alvin and his companions seem not very different physically or mentally from humans of our sort, nor is their technology significantly advanced beyond ours. It is a pleasant, charming book, but it shows an amateur’s grasp of storytelling technique: Clarke describes one event, and another, and another, and finally the door is open to his climactic revelations and we are shown them, in a hasty, almost perfunctory way, and that is that. Clarke seems to have been aware of the book’s naïveté, because he recast it totally for the 1956 novel The City and the Stars, embodying its plot in a much larger and far more complex work.
Even so, I found Against the Fall of Night enthralling when I was a boy, and readable enough even now. I think that word amateur that I used a few lines back explains its power, and, in fact, the success of all of Clarke’s fiction over the following decades.
Amateur may be a startling word to apply to so famous and widely read a novelist as Arthur C. Clarke. But it has two meanings, one of which has largely been eclipsed in modern-day English. When applied to writers we generally take it to describe a not-quite-competent practitioner: someone who has not mastered the tricks of the storytelling trade, the array of technical devices that professional writers use to draw readers into a story and hold them there. I think that’s true of Clarke: from beginning to end of his career, he told his stories quietly, simply, relying entirely on the strength of his ideas and the steady, gentle tone of his voice to keep readers interested. For the most part, it worked.
But the earlier sense of amateur derives from the Latin word amator, a lover—specifically, a lover of literature, of fine wine, of rare postage stamps, of anything that can excite strong commitment, be it intellectual or emotional or both. We no longer use the word that way in English because, since it has come to take on negative connotations in its other sense, it has been replaced by its Spanish synonym, aficionado. But those of us who love science fiction are amateurs of science fiction, and I think there was no greater amateur of SF than Arthur C. Clarke, who when he was eighteen or so set out to show his love for the work of Olaf Stapledon and other SF visionaries by writing his own tale of the far future. And it is that love that shines through in Against the Fall of Night and most of Clarke’s later work and makes it compelling to us despite all its literary shortcomings.