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Arthur C. Clarke
Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations
Corgi, Paperback, 1973.
12mo. [ix]+255. Preface by Arthur Clark, January 1971 [ix].
First published thus, 1972.
I. Talking of Space
1. Report on Planet Three
2. The Men of the Moon
4. The Star of the Magi
II. Outward from Earth
5. Vacation in Vacuum
6. So You're Going to Mars?
7. Next - The Planets!
8. The Planets Are Not Enough
9. When the Aliens Come
10. Possible, That's All!
11. God and Einstein
12. Across the Sea of Stars
III. The Technological Future
13. The Mind of the Machine
14. Technology and the Future
15. Beyond Babel
IV. Frontiers of Science
16. More Than Five Senses
17. Things That Can Never Be Done
18. The World We Cannot See
19. Things in the Sky
V. Son of Dr. Strangelove, etc.
20. Why Way Is Up?
21. Haldane and Space
22. Son of Dr. Strangelove
23. The Myth of 2001
* Nos. 1-6, 8, 12, 19 previously published in another book of essays by Arthur Clarke, The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959).
Considering that this book was first published nearly forty years ago, and many of the essays actually date from the early 1950s and the late 1960s, it has aged fantastically well - hardly at all that is. The range of subjects is quite disparate, and so is the range of moods, but the collection of essays is that strange kind of book for which these are rather advantageous qualities. Besides, Arthur Clarke has supplied most of the pieces with short introductory and concluding remarks in which he brings them more up to date, although this is barely necessary. Should the book be reprinted today, and had Clarke been alive, he wouldn't need change almost anything.
To begin with, the book has one of the most charming dedications ever put on paper:
In accordance with the
terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty,
the second-best science writer
dedicates this book to
the second-best science-fiction writer.
The continual exchange of friendly teasing for some forty years between the two great sci-fi masters is an epic story in itself, but it is certainly not the place here to elaborate on it.
The conciseness of Clarke's prose and the daring flights of his imagination have always been the stuff the legends are made of. If you have any doubts about either, you needn't look further than this little book. Take the eponymous essay for instance. It is not even ten pages long, yet it is packed with thought-provoking reflections on fundamental issues. ''Planet Three'' is, of course, our own planet, but the ''report'' pretends to be a document from an ancient (and now extinct) civilization on Mars. Oddly enough, these Martians, before they disappeared from the face of the Solar System, were on the verge of their space age and had just mastered (or so they thought) the power of the atom. And there is more, much more, here than troubled visions of our own future. The main theme actually is nothing less than the nature of life itself. And the ''interplanetary'' point view may just stretch your imagination to its very limits. If extraterrestrial life does exist, why should it be anything like the one we know? There is no other reason for believing that than our own prejudices, and a good many we do have. There may well be forms of life in the universe for which oxygen is quite toxic and ultraviolet radiation quite healthy. (Indeed, under certain conditions oxygen is quite toxic for us as well, but that's another story.) Also, few things evoke a stronger sense of awe and wonder than to know how dangerous and hostile - from Martian point of view - our planet is. It is indeed a wonder (too hackneyed and underestimated a word, alas) that life has sprung at all, let alone developed to such extent, on our planet. Last but not least, Clarke is tremendously amusing pretending to be ''translator'' who presents the Martian document for us, occasionally spiced up with some perfectly delicious notes. In fact, the piece is as good as any of Clarke's short stories, and he has written many fine ones; it even has a kind of twist in the end. I know of no other writer who gives so much in so little space.
Essays like ''Meteors'' and ''The Star of the Magi'' are excellent examples how popular science ought to be written: facetiously but not flippantly; for the lay reader, definitely, but not grossly oversimplified; with a good deal of facts and figures but not at the expense of important scientific concepts. Clarke scores on all fronts; his lucidity and clarity never fail him, nor do his sense of humour or keen insight into our mentality. Apart from a lot that you can learn here - did you, for instance, know what the difference between meteor, meteorite and comet is? - the more important thing is that the pieces widen your personal horizons enormously.
''The Star of the Magi'' is a fine example for a mind-bending literary experience of epic proportions. Not only did this piece turn out to be the inspiration for one of Clarke's most famous short stories (''The Star''), but reading it is a full-scale mind-blowing adventure. In a nutshell, Clarke investigates what the nature of the most mysterious star in the world history might have been. Of course he is not concerned at all with the existence of Jesus or with literal interpretation of the Bible. He just offers several thoroughly scientific explanations how natural phenomena may have inspired the ancient writers. Having discarded the cases of Venus, meteorites or (to some extent at least) comets, Clarke finally settles for what is surely the most awe-inspiring phenomenon in nature: the birth of supernova. Contemplating the dimensions of such unimaginable explosions - enough to melt whole planets light minutes away and radiating light that will be seen even 3000 years later (and away) - is really the perfect way to teach yourself a little humility. It might be of some use. All of our terrifying nuclear weapons taken together look like mere fireworks in comparison.
The essay is reprinted in Clarke's collection with non-fiction writings Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999) under the title "The Star of Bethelem" and cannot be recommended highly enough. Nor can the rest of this little volume whose merit is quite out of proportion to its size.
To finish with the popular science - roughly, parts I and IV - it may be mentioned that all essays are well worth reading. Specialists in any of the fields should refrain from making condescending remarks and remember that these pieces were not written for them but for the educated layman. Clarke's clarity and lucidity are as constant as the pi number, and his tastes are as catholic as it might be expected. "More Than Five Senses" and "The World We Cannot See" remind me how much of the world is quite beyond our senses, though not beyond that of many animals. But even the unbelievably fertile imagination of Nature (not the journal, mind you!) has never, to the best of our belief at least, designed creatures that can sense radioactivity or radio waves. Imagine aliens who can. How would they view our world? How would we view theirs? As always, Clarke extends his reflections way beyond the Solar System and has tons of fascinating things to say, like speculations how the world would look like if we had ultraviolet or infrared vision. "Things That Can Never Be Done" explores, yet again, how dangerous the word "impossible" really is. Unlike other pieces, here Clarke addresses some things that really can't be achieved: squaring a circle, calculating "pi" exactly and few other similar problems from the realms of mathematics and logic. Mathematicians may cry indignantly that Fermat's Last Theorem is something they know since the kindergarten, but this is not the case with me.
Last but not least, "Things in the Sky" discusses one of Clarke's favourite sciences - UFOlogy - and "Which Way Is Up?" explores the numerous parallels, but also some of the fundamental differences, between space and see. In the former essay Clarke recalls some of the most unusual candidates for flying saucers he had ever seen. Disappointingly, even the most fantastic of them turned out to have perfectly natural explanations. These range from kites at monstrous heights to occultation of Venus by the Moon. As for the relationship between space and sea, Clarke makes an excellent case that familiarity with the latter might prepare man for many a surprise in the former.
But there is a great deal more than popular science in this book. Please note the word "speculations" in the full title. This is what most of the essays in Parts II and III are about. Now let me clarify one thing in the beginning. It cannot be disputed that sometimes Clarke is terribly naive, as in the case of his calculating ridiculously small prices for lifting man from Earth to the Moon; theoretically this may well be so, but the practical complications are enormous - and enormously expensive. Also, there is no doubt about that, sometimes Clarke was plain wrong. At least as far as we can presently see, there is absolutely no indication that cities or agriculture are on the verge of becoming obsolete. I am also inclined to admit that Clarke did overestimate the educational value of TV, even though he is by no means unconscious how easily such global power to manipulate can be misused. However, these facts should not be used against Clarke - who is infallible anyway? - and they certainly should not be used to obscure the truth. And the truth is that sometimes Clarke's observations are astonishingly prescient. For the most part, though, his speculations still lay into the distant future. But this, I repeat, is not an indictment against Clarke. It is against us. As can be expected by Sir Arthur, even the most far-fetched and fantastic notions in his essays are thoroughly researched and firmly based on real scientific achievements. If this is not quite the case, he always makes it perfectly clear where science ends and fantasy begins. We should do very well to bear in mind what the great writer is fond of repeating himself: the problems, in far too many cases, are political and economic, not technological.
One of the areas where Clarke's predictions have uncommonly high degree of accuracy is the global communications. Since he was one of the pioneers of the communication satellites, this is of course to be expected. Yet it is amazing to read these addresses from the late 1960s - "Technology and the Future" and "Beyond Babel" - in which something very much like Internet is described in detail. Clarke lived long enough to witness this revolution first hand; as it often happens, it went beyond even his wildest dreams. He used to say that if his own predictions would all turn to be fulfilled in the near future, he wouldn't have done his job properly. Well, he has nothing to worry. Among numerous other tantalising speculations, these "communication pieces" also include the often-quoted "Clarke's Laws". I believe we should keep them in mind.
[Clarke's First Law.]
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
[Clarke's Second Law.]
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
[Clarke's Third, and most famous, Law.]
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Perhaps the most important part of the book, expectedly, is Clarke's speculations on space exploration. "Next - The Planets!", "The Planets Are Not Enough", "When the Aliens Come" and "Across the Sea of Stars" are well-nigh impossible to be described in words. They just have to be experienced first hand. The amount of staggering hypotheses is quite overwhelming indeed. Occasionally Clarke boldly, and self-consciously, ventures into pure fantasizing. But if history has thought us anything, it is that the future always turns out to be much more fantastic than we have ever imagined. Clarke's grasp of the matter is no less comprehensive than his erudition is. He discusses everything from every point of view, always acknowledging when he has borrowed ideas from his colleagues, yet never shying away from demolishing foolish opinions by other, usually anonymous, fellows. The tone of these pieces is rather serious, and their content is just about as disturbing as anything on paper, yet flashes of Clarkian wit abound, making his writing greatly entertaining. I find it difficult to think of many authors who are so stimulating and challenging to read without ever been in the least abstruse or tedious.
Finally, of course, there are several pieces here especially designed for light entertainment. These include some of the most daring, yet plausible, speculations about the exploration of space. "Vacation in Vacuum", for instance, pretends to be a brochure advertising an orbital Hilton, with all possible entertainment that the best Earth-bound hotels can offer you - and quite few attractions that you can experience only in a weightless environment. The tone is firmly tongue-in-cheek but even the most flippant moments have very serious implications. "So You're Going to Mars?" is a piece of advice from a fellow tourist who has just returned from the fully colonized Mars to another who is about to visit the Red Planet. The piece is simply hilarious and can be made into a fine short story with but a few slight changes. Every detail of your weeks-long journey, from the daunting battle with Earth's gravity to the psychology of the Martians, is thoroughly analyzed and tremendously amusing. "The Men on the Moon" is perhaps the most light-hearted and mischievous essay here. It is certainly, and no doubt deliberately, very misleadingly titled. Instead of colonization, as one might expect, the subject is giving names to the numerous craters on the Moon. Under Clarke's pen, even such normally mundane matters make a stupendously entertaining read. If none of these essays makes you laugh at least once, I really don't know what could.
What I do know is that one could go on forever speculating together with Arthur Clarke about everything under any sun in the Galaxy - and beyond. Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations, to put the matter briefly, cannot be recommended highly enough to anybody who has ever given some thought to the starry sky above his/her head. It is a fabulous shame that this book is out of print and everybody reads Bill Bryson. Granted, Arthur Clarke's scope is nowhere near ''nearly everything'', but his writing has subtlety and depth Mr Bryson has never even dreamed of. Knowing my uncontrollable propensity for quoting, I deliberately restrained myself from doing so - otherwise this review would have swelled to enormous proportions. But I want to finish with a quote, the penultimate paragraph of "The Star of the Magi", which sums up marvellously, not just this book, but Arthur Clarke's complete oeuvre:
Astronomy, as nothing else can do, teaches men humility. We know now that our Sun is merely an undistinguished member of a vast family of stars, and no longer think of ourselves as being the center of creation. Yet it is strange to think that before its light fades away below the limits of vision, we may have shared the Star of Bethelem with the beings of perhaps a million worlds - and that to many of them, nearer to the source of explosion, it must have been a far more wonderful sight than ever it was to any eyes on earth.