Tag Archives: arthur c. clarke

Book Review: Great Science Fiction Stories edited by Cordelia Titcomb Smith

Great SF StoriesWith few exceptions, most of my 2017 reading consisted of classic SF and speculative fiction primarily from Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke with a dash of Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, A.E. Van Vogt, and H.G. Wells.

It stands to reason that if you read enough vintage genre anthologies, some will overlap and offer one or two stories in common. Such was the case with Great Science Fiction Stories compiled by Cordelia Titcomb Smith.

In  this case, I had previously read “The Stolen Bacillus” by H.G. Wells (about an anarchist who pilfers a vial of cholera bacillus from a bacteriologist, initiating a frantic taxi chase through London) and “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke (after an ice age has wiped out humanity, Venusians land on Earth and discover artifacts of our civilization, including a strip of film that they believe accurately depicts human culture).

It was a pleasure to finally read Isaac Asimov’s legendary short story, “Nightfall,” wherein a civilization that lives in constant daylight provided by three suns nervously anticipates an eclipse that will shroud their planet in complete darkness for the first time in 500 years… and possibly throw society into madness.

When the Martian crown jewels are stolen from a robotic space craft sent from Earth to Phobos, Inspector Gregg questions everyone involved. Before the case explodes into an interstellar scandal, Gregg travels to Mars to request the help of Martian’s famous private detective, Syaloch, in Poul Anderson’s “The Martian
Crown Jewels.”

In “The Sands of Time,” P. Schuyler Miller channels H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When a young man named Donovan presents a paleontologist with photographic and physical evidence of his
encounter with dinosaurs, the scientist rebuffs him—until Donovan asks for his help in launching his one-man time machine back to rescue an alien woman he encountered in a prehistoric age.

Money is no barrier when a wealthy businessman decides to be the first man in space. He hires engineers to construct a vessel, but they still require a propulsion system. The businessman takes out ads in
newspapers offering millions to anyone who can design and create a means of propelling the vessel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. After being presented with proposals from the ludicrous to the insane, the
businessman meets an unassuming young man who might just have the answer… but he wants more than money. We find out what that is in Nelson Bond’s “Vital Factor.”

In a future where city streets are massive conveyor belts that transport people and vehicles at varying speeds, the mechanics decide to strike under the leadership of Deputy Chief Engineer Van Kleeck. To emphasize their power and ensure their demands are met, they stop the machinery beneath one of the streets—with fatal consequences. It’s up to Chief Engineer Larry Gaines to negotiate with Van Kleeck, because as Robert Heinlein tell us, “The Roads Must Roll.”

A teacher rethinks her decision to quit the profession, but the only available position is in a one-room schoolhouse in a remote rural town called Bendo where the reclusive inhabitants have no sense of humor and no interest in music or art. It is not long before the teacher uncovers the astounding otherworldly secrets of Bendo and the dark history that forced them into seclusion in this beautifully crafted tale called “Pottage” by Zenna Henderson.

Jules Verne provides a brief glimpse into man’s first attempt to reach the moon as three men volunteer to venture “Into Space” inside a giant aluminum capsule shot from a 900-foot gun. Although they survive the shock of launch and enjoy a view of Earth from beyond the atmosphere, it’s unclear whether they survived
the journey—or how they plan to return.

A new star appears in the vicinity of Neptune, disrupting the planet’s orbit. As this new star’s light intensifies in the sky each day—blotting out the moon and rivaling the sun—it isn’t long before astronomers
realize that it’s on a direct course for Earth in “The Star” by H.G. Wells.

A 13-year-old student named Timothy is sent to school psychologist Dr. Welles. At first, it’s clear that Timothy is nervous,  uncommunicative, and possibly holding something back. As trust grows between the young man and his counselor, it becomes apparent that the boy is a prodigy… and he may not be alone in Wilmar H. Shiras’s “In Hiding.”

Overall, this was an entertaining anthology with tales from writers I had not heard of previously (Zenna Henderson, Wilmar Shiras, P. Schuyler Miller, and Nelson Bond). My favorites included “Nightfall,” “Pottage,” “The Martian Crown Jewels,” and “The Roads Must Roll.”

Book Review: Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Groff Conklin

This collection of 11 reprinted tales edited by Groff Conklin features some of the most skilled storytellers in vintage SF including Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, Lester Del Rey, Ray Bradbury, Frederic Brown, and more. There were at least three entries that I recalled reading in other collections as recently as a few months ago, but they were absolutely worth a second pass.Science Fiction Omnibus

In A.J. Deutsch’s “A Subway Named Mobius,” an entire passenger train is lost for months in a closed rail system. When transportation officials and a local mathematician with a theory attempt to locate the train, they discover that they can hear it—in multiple locations—but cannot see it since it has passed into another dimension. Will the train ever reemerge and if so, how can this be prevented from happening again?

In one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most popular stories, a meteorite crashes into a field of crops where it begins to poison both soil and water, driving the farmer and his family insane. It’s soon discovered that the vile, luminous substance that infected the area might be intelligent. How will the locals rid themselves of “The Colour Out of Space”?

When alien psychologists learn that Earth has finally achieved interstellar travel, the decision is made to invite them into the Federation of Planets, an honor which no race has ever turned down… until now.  Discover why in Isaac Asimov’s “Homo Sol.”

Anthony Boucher brings us hapless ventriloquist Paul Peters who encounters a benevolent extraterrestrial creature at a local zoo. The alien, relieved to finally find someone with whom he can communicate, enlists Paul’s help in finding his long lost love. At first, the pair is undecided on a strategy until Paul comes up with a new routine known as “The Star Dummy.”

A spaceship explodes ejecting its helpless crew into space. Fortunately, they’d had just enough time to don their spacesuits—but not their personal propulsion systems. As a result, each man is hurled on an uncontrollable trajectory with just enough time to settle their differences and make peace with their collective fate in Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.”

When an Earth naval vessel lands on the alien world Shaksembender, the crew of three is greeted by a party of wary copper-skinned humanoids who had been expecting their arrival based on the prophesy of Fraser, the first human space explorer to visit their planet 300 years ago. Using a hidden mind-reading device against the alien emissary, the pilot of the Earth ship discovers that Fraser warned the aliens to be circumspect if the next human explorers utter two specific words… but will we ever learn those words in Eric Frank Russell’s “Test Piece”?

The incompetence of bureaucracy at a Galactic level is showcased in Murray Leinster’s “Plague.”  When all the women of the planet Pharona are consumed and killed by a bizarre luminescent organism, the planet is placed in quarantine and Space Navy reservist Ben Sholto is dispatched in his private vessel to ensure no one escapes. When a ship, piloted by Ben’s lost love Sally, emerges from Pharona, he takes her aboard in an attempt to cure her, making them both fugitives.

In John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport,” a scientist travels into the future only to find society under control of a government that does not take kindly to independent thinking and prefers its citizens to be docile zombies.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s much reprinted “History Lesson,” five thousand years after an ice age has claimed all human life on Earth, Venusians arrive and uncover relics left in a vault—one of which is a roll of 35mm film that they believe depicts typical human behavior… or not.

A concerned citizen confronts physicist John Graham about the doomsday weapon Graham is developing and leaves him with a frightening metaphor that strikes close to the heart in Fredric Brown’s “The Weapon.”

Long after mankind has gone extinct, a race of heuristic automatons have taken over the Earth. A group of robotic biologists undertake experiments to reboot the human race in order to learn more about the concept of “Instinct,” which is also the name of this classic tale by Lester Del Rey.

Book Review: The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

Former SF writer turned journalist Martin Gibson is given the honor of being the first and only passenger aboard the cruise ship Ares on its journey from Earth to Mars. His task is to chronicle both his travels and his time on the red planet and report back on the progress of the Earth colony there.The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

Despite a challenging launch to Gibson’s adventure—during which he learns just how much actual space flight differs from what he’d imagined in his novels—he eventually befriends the crew and, to his consternation, discovers a personal connection to the youngest of them, Jimmy Spencer.

While en route to Mars, the Ares is contacted by Earth and told to expect a rocket containing a vital serum intended to battle Martian Fever. However, the rocket’s course is such that the odds of intercepting it are slim unless the Ares is able to contact the rocket’s navigational transceiver and adjust its course. With some jury rigging of equipment, two of the crewman accomplish the mission and the serum is procured.

Destined to land on the Martian moon of Phobos, the Ares is inexplicably diverted to Deimos where it lands and transfers Gibson, his luggage, and supplies to a rocket which will take him to the surface of Mars.

At first, Gibson finds himself unimpressed by the alien landscape and the domed town of Port Lowell, the largest city on Mars. However, as the days pass, Gibson warms to the place and begins to explore—with results that could change the evolution of the red planet and turn Mars into mankind’s second home… if only Earth could be convinced to cooperate.

The Sands of Mars was Arthur C. Clarke’s first finished novel, but was published after Prelude to Space, and the similar concept of a writer hired to report on an expedition was obvious. However, unlike Prelude to Space—with its utter lack of tension and plot—The Sands of Mars was an engaging story with interesting characters (something Clarke was not always known for) and enough foreshadowing, twists, and turns to hold my attention until the end. Clarke did not belabor the reader with lengthy infoblocks of scientific jargon, but kept a steady pace, revealing just enough scientific fact to maintain credibility.

 

 

Book Review: Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke

While tensions simmer between Earth and its colonies on Mars, Venus, and some of Saturn’s moons (collectively known as the Federation), Earth intelligence agent Bertram Sadler travels to the moon observatory in search of a spy leaking information to the Federation.

Working undercover as a cost accountant performing a financial audit of the observatory, Sadler gains access to all departments and staff members—who at first greet him with suspicion. Over time, Sadler builds a list of top suspects while both the Earth and the Federation create weapons of mass destruction in a prelude to war.

The first half of Earthlight is slow and plodding as Sadler meets various members of the observatory’s staff and is schooled on various as aspects of their operations and of astronomy. The only two interesting plot points are the unannounced landing of government ships in an area of the moon normally off-limits, and the two astronomers who decide to venture out in a vehicle to investigate.

The tension in the story begins to build in the second half when the observatory receives a communication warning the staff to dismantle critical equipment and take shelter underground. A war is coming, one that will decide who has control of the moon’s abundant supply of heavy metals deep within its core.

 

Earthlight by Arthur C Clarke

Book Review: Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke

In 1976, historian Dirk Alexson is sent to England by the University of Chicago to document for posterity the first manned mission to the moon sponsored by a private company called Interplanetary. While in the UK, he interviews and befriends some of the scientists and administrators involved in the project and receives a number of lessons in astrophysics and engineering.

However, Alexson is given very little face time with the crew of the Prometheus until they fly to the deserts of Australia for the actual launch. In fact, of the five possible crew members, only three will be chosen for the mission and that choice is not even made until the entire team reaches Australia.

Prelude to Space reads more like a documentary than a novel. The only character development occurs when our skeptical historian slowly becomes convinced during his assignment that landing a man on the moon is, in fact, feasible and exciting.

There is almost no tension in the story save for one of the astronauts worrying about his pregnant wife. Any risk to the astronauts’ lives is treated lightly. Instead, the narrative merely follows Alexson as he chronicles the events around him.

Much of the book is comprised of info dumps ranging from the backgrounds of some of the characters (as if Clarke just wanted to get that out of the way in order to focus on the technology) to engineering specifications about the Prometheus and space flight in general. Arthur C. Clarke’s scientific prowess is evident in this book, to the point where it eclipses what little story exists. For example, as if an afterthought or an attempt to manufacture tension near the end of the story, a religious zealot fatally fails in an attempt to sabotage the Prometheus a few days before its launch. The character was introduced and killed off within a few pages, all of which seemed pointless.

If you’re looking for an exhilarating fictional tale of man’s first foray to the moon, Prelude to Space will likely be a verbose and tedious disappointment.

Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke

Book Review: Tales From the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke

Tales of the White Hart by Arthur C. ClarkeHarry Purvis is a master storyteller who regales his fellow patrons every Wednesday evening at the White Hart pub with fantastical yarns of eccentric characters and outrageous scientific catastrophes.

While Tales From the White Hart is considered one of Clarke’s most popular anthologies, I found a handful of the stories—such as “Big Game Hunt”, “Critical Mass”, “Cold War”, and a few others—to be either prosaic, mundane, or anticlimactic. However, there were a number of humorous and rousing romps, including:

“Patent Pending” – After a professor invents a device that records brain waves corresponding to human sensations, his assistant envisions a far more profitable, and sensual, use for the device…

“Armaments Race” – While working on a low-budget SF series for Hollywood, a special effects expert is tasked producing ever more impressive ray guns… until he creates one that actually works—with devastating results.

“The Pacifist” – The military presses a mathematician to construct a computer capable of flawless combat strategy. When the project begins falling behind schedule, the scientist is bullied by a clueless general. In response, a hidden circuit is built into the computer—one that turns out to be hilariously insubordinate.

“The Man Who Ploughed the Sea” – Harry Purvis travels to Florida with a lawyer friend to explore the coastal waters in a small submarine. During their expedition, they encounter a large yacht owned by an elderly chemist who invented a method for collecting elements and precious metals directly from saltwater.

“Moving Spirit” – When an eccentric, reclusive scientist’s still explodes, he finds himself arrested for manufacturing illegal alcohol and requests help from his nephew, Harry Purvis, attorney-at-law. With the odds stacked against them, Harry literally concocts an incendiary defense for his uncle.

“The Reluctant Orchid” – A meek, timid clerk with an affinity for orchids is routinely intimidated by his imperious Aunt Henrietta. After planting a rare, carnivorous species of orchid in his greenhouse, he soon devises a plot to get rid of her…

“What Goes Up” – In the deserts of Australia, a team of scientists are confounded while testing a new design of nuclear reactor. Rather than an explosion, the reactor forms an anti-gravity bubble several hundred feet in diameter. Entering the bubble, however, could prove as dangerous as falling off a mountain…