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ARTHUR C. CLARKE'S question for future societies, which he pictures as technological utopias, has always been "Where do we go from here?" Now Clarke himself may be a writer with no place to go. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film based on Clarke's screenplay, came Rendezvous with Rama, his 1973 novel which took the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards for science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke has become a hard act to follow, particularly for the author himself.
In a Clarke novel superior aliens arriving in the form of a black monolith, the Devil, or a spaceship as big as a planet, would resolve the stalemate, usually by initiating man into a higher consciousness. Overmind--mind without matter--is the highest product of evolution in Clarke's scheme. Such a mind can flit from star to star, experience eternity as a single instant, and generally paint the universe red. (so if you were wondering what that baby floating across the stars at the end of 2001 was all about, now you know.)
Aliens didn't swoop down on Clarke's Sri Lanka home, so instead of Overmind the reader gets The View from Serendip, a hodgepodge of autobiographical trivia, tepid sea stories and futuristic speculation. The essays on space and technology go several light-years towards redeeming Serendip, but they don't go far enough.
While many may envy Clarke's success at relocating himself off the subcontinent in an island paradise, few will care about his domestic difficulties, described in "Servant Problem--Oriental Style." Nor is the reader likely to admire Clarke's wit in suggesting that Appuhamy, his houseboy for eight years and the father of 13 children, should receive a complimentary vasectomy as remuneration for services rendered. Equally boring are Clarke's tax problems, his alimony difficulties, his spinal injury, and the roster of literary celebrities and other personalities whom Clarke has met in the lobby of New York's Chelsea Hotel. Outside of Clarke and his accountant, lawyer and doctor, who really cares?
Sometimes Clarke's humor proves accessible only to sci-fi fans, as in his tongue-in-cheek query as to the current whereabouts of former colleague Ron Hubbard. "He was a damn good writer," Clarke says. "He could easily make ten cents a word today." For the uninitiated, L. Ron Hubbard was the man who casually remarked to a science fiction convention that writing for a penny a word was ridiculous. Anyone who really wanted to make a million bucks wouldn't waste his time writing science fiction, Hubbard contended, he'd start a religion. Hubbard then acted on his own advice, founding the Church of Scientology, which has grown to a multi-million dollar venture so successful that its tax-exempt status is being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.
Clarke has the power to inspire his readers, given the right topic. Witness the parallel he draws between a Saturn V launching and the beginning of life: "Five hundred million years ago, the moon summoned life out of its first home, the sea...[As] it drew the tides across the barren continents of primeval earth, their daily rhythm exposed to sun and air the creatures of the shallows...Now, the moon calls again and this time life responds with a roar that shakes earth and sky." In Serendip, unfortunately, Clarke's prose--burdened by the inappropriate subject matter--plods more often than it soars.
Notable exceptions are the trio of essays that conclude the book, one of which Clarke included in his sworn testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Space Science in 1975. Clarke gave full rein to his imagination in this encounter, tantalizing the committee members with the possibility of laying a cable from a satellite in geostationary orbit all the way down to the earth's surface. Payloads could then be sent up the cable by mechanical means, creating an "electric elevator to space, or a Streetcar Named Heaven." Clarke ended his formal remarks before the Congressmen with a reversal of the ancient astrologers' dictum: "The time may come when men control the destinies of stars."
The Congressmen found Clarke's ruminations on space travel to be far-fetched but not unbelievable. In the discussion that followed, Clarke fielded questions about the potential cost overrun on space colonization and traded reminiscences of the cartoon strip Buck Rogers with Rep. Thomas N. Downing (D-Va.). The essay provides an amusing, edifying and somewhat poignant look at how space policy is set.
Serendip does not go behind-the-scenes on 2001, despite advertising promises to the contrary. The Clarke-Kubrick collaboration was fully described in Lost Worlds of 2001. As a result, the only attention paid to the landmark film comes in the form of Clarke's slightly defensive explanation of how astronaut David Bowman managed to survive in a vacuum for several seconds while re-entering his space ship. Clarke cites experiments on animals in vacuum chambers in an effort to disprove the old sci-fi truism that an astronaut would explode instantly in the vacuum of space. The book scintillates with such occasional tidbits, but otherwise the pickings are slim. Clarke reveals that he has decided to abandon non-fiction to concentrate on writing novels, and the overall mediocrity of the book inclines one to approve.
But if Clarke is temporarily stalled as a writer, his literary critics are just beginning their Golden Age, as shown by the quality of the critical essays just released under the appropriate title Arthur C. Clarke. The book is the third in a series of collected critiques on science fiction authors, which has arleady covered Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein; books on Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin are in preparation. For all its amateur wordiness, the book reflects the vitality of this literary genre today. While mainstream short stories can scarcely find a market, sci-fi anthologies have become so numerous that it's difficult to think of new names for them, as Clarke himself points out. Science fiction enthusiasts will enjoy comparing the critics' evaluation of Clarke's themes with their own, and newcomers to science fiction may have some questions about its nature answered, such as how the canons of sci-fi and mainstream literature differ, and for what reasons. By the way, the majority of contributors to this volume are English professors, not engineers. That in itself suggests how far down the road to respectability science fiction has come.
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