Whew! A lot of history here, a lot of hallowed ground; an awful lot of childhood reminiscences of the forbiddingly high Adult Science Fiction section in my local library, of being told to "Get outside and play!" on hot summer days when all I really wanted to do was sit alone indoors and read The Wind From The Sun, Tales of Ten Worlds or Reach For Tomorrow (again). That's why being grown-up now is so much fun: I can sit indoors and read on the hottest of summer days; I can reach the very highest shelves in my local library and even afford to buy those very same books for myself!
What's sometimes not so much fun is re-reading these same books that shaped your perceptions as a child, that set you on the path to becoming not just a reader of crazy science fiction but a lover or even a writer of the same. Clarke was THE MAN when I was growing up in the pleasant suburbs of Swindon almost 20 years ago and having seen his output become rather uneven as we both grew older I approached The Collected Stories with the trepidation a young novice monk might have for the Biblical Apocrypha. I mean, this is serious stuff here, y'know?
The Collected Stories takes a wrist-straining 966 pages to contain its 105 episodes, most of which are a mere 3-4 pages long, although many are even less.
Most of the stories are written in noticeably the same hand with the same ideas driving them across the 60-odd years of Clarke's career, from the technocratic optimism of "Travel By Wire" (first published in 1937) to the, er, technocratic optimism of "The Wire Continuum" (a 1997 collaboration with Stephen Baxter, Clarke's obvious heir).
The stories are not of so broad a sweep as you might imagine and frequently return (and not without profit) to recurring themes; near future spaceflight and cosmic disaster being the two main ones. But even though a foolish humanity is wiped out any number of times in the course of these pages, such tragedy is almost assuaged by Clarke's deep belief that "Life goes on" - not even "Life" necessarily, as in "Nightfall" where it is a singularly metaphorical River Avon that "goes on" after World War Three - but everything ... somehow. Clarke's best stories touch on a real spiritual sense of some deeper purpose, one informed not by sky gods but by the transcendent nature of consciousness and intelligence, and this makes them stand out. Such ideas are echoed best today in David Zindell's excellent novels.
Clarke works best on a larger canvas, painting with brisk, broad strokes that contain whole worlds infused with a strangely optimistic nihilism within them: "Transcience", "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth" or the deservedly Hugo Award-winning "The Star"; all these stories work well for being so short and uncluttered with no more than one excellently wrought idea.
It is Clarke's most impersonal stories that work best, for like so many of his contemporaries he isn't a great character writer and the inhabitants of his stories are usually scientists or technicians with a definite task to perform covered with little more than a sheen of humanity.
This tendency is well illustrated by the seemingly endless "White Hart" series, a series of vignettes of a Fleet Street pub community Clarke seems to have known intimately but who resolutely fail to sparkle on an individual level, although the stories themselves can be funny and interesting enough in their sheer inventiveness.
Clarke's stories have an easy familiarity with big ideas coupled with a playful sense of the majesty of the universe around us that lifts them above mere bullish exposition.
But though playful, Clarke's humour is often as heavy-handed as his characterisation - with the notable exception of his second story ever to be published "How We Went To Mars", which to me seemed satirical to a degree unrepeated by Clarke in his entire career and genuinely perplexing because of this.
Another early story, "Earthlight", also stands out as being a blatant E.E. "Doc" Smith copy, if marginally more restrained in its use of blinding actinic rays of incredible cosmic-derived power ripping unrestrainedly through blazing screens of impenetrable force. Ahem.
But there is a succession of polished gems to balance these somewhat rougher diamonds: "Technical Error", "The Fires Within" and "Dial F for Frankenstein" read almost as freshly as they did in my youth. The ideas themselves still possess a lingering power to intrigue if no longer to quite amaze.
Some of the rough diamonds themselves turn out to be gems if for quite different reasons. "Holiday on the Moon", written "... for a magazine for young ladies, Heiress ...", is quite hysterically class-ridden and earnest. In fact Clarke's earlier futures are dominated by British men in tweeds smoking pipes and competing on an equal footing with the Russians and Americans! How things have changed.
Out of the 105 stories in this book there are some undeniable classics, stories which, particularly given the time at which they were written, are absolutely astonishing in their composition, their Science and their imagination. There are rather more stories that are of interest for historical reasons only, and as such they occasionally make The Collected Stories something of a marathon to read. My main suggestion to the publisher would be that Clarke's personal introductions to each story should be longer and more detailed, giving more of an insight as to how and why they were written.
Buttressed by the novels this collection can stand proud on any bookshelf, but on its own without the support of, say, The City and the Stars, Childhood's End and 2001, it sometimes comes to read more as a rambling diary of the conceits and concerns of its undeniably amazing author.
I wanted to love The Collected Stories more than I actually did in the end, but I wanted to love it an awful awful lot so that was probably inevitable. Even so it was never less than an intriguing read and a timely reminder of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's unique and important contribution to the science fiction canon.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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© Stuart Carter 10 March 2001