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Format: Mass Market Paperback
Arthur C. Clarke
Tales from Ten Worlds
Pan, Paperback, 1983.
12mo. 205 pp.
First published, 1962
I Remember Babylon 
Summertime on Icarus 
Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting . . . 
Who's There? 
Into the Comet 
An Ape About the House 
Saturn Rising 
Let There Be Light 
Death and the Senator 
Trouble With Time 
Before Eden 
A Slight Case of Sunstroke 
Dog Star 
The Road to the Sea 
* In square brackets: the year of first publication, usually in a magazine.
This is Arthur Clarke's fifth short story collection, as well as one of the strangest and most powerful ones. Unlike the four previous volumes, published between 1953 and 1958, Tales of Ten Worlds consists - with one exception - only of pieces written no more than a few years earlier, namely when Clarke was in his forties and at the very beginning of his long prime. Of courses the collection is uneven, but any faults or limitations it might have are completely obscured by its considerable merits. The latter, in a nutshell, can be stated as follows: this is probably Arthur Clarke's most varied and richest collection; none of the pieces is dull or valueless; many of them are in fact genuine masterpieces. Where to start?
Well, let me start with my absolute personal favourite: ''Death and the Senator''. Now, quite simply, this is one of the most perfect stories I have ever read: sounds trite but it happens to be true. Even on the most mundane level, the story is impeccable in terms of fine structure, narrative subtlety and sharp dialogue. The plot is perfectly conceived and executed with rare skill. Ironically enough, this is one of the stories that were ''spoiled'' for me by Arthur himself, for in one of his non-fiction works he gives away the plot completely. If anything, this only proves that when we're dealing with great literature such things like ''spoilers'' simply do not exist. It will be hardly difficult for anybody to guess the ending from the very title and, perhaps, the opening paragraph.
What makes ''Death and the Senator'' a fabulously brilliant piece of writing is the character of Martin Steelman, drawn with such depth and shattering vividness that you find but seldom in a short story, and of course numerous hard questions about the meaning of life he comes to reflect upon just a little too late. All other characters are secondary, but none is any less alive or compelling for that. All those people who still rant about Clarke's ''flat characters'' should read this story very carefully indeed. To cut the long story short, ''Death and the Senator'' alone is enough to give this book five full stars. Not often do I find a piece of short-fiction so heart-rending and affecting and at the same time uplifting and even amusing. Here is an example that made me laugh:
'''What's that?, cried Joey.
'It's an elephant, stupid,' answered Susan with all the crushing superiority of her seven years.''
And here is one that made me very sad:
''It was a sad reflection on Martin Steelman, if so commonplace a fact as showing an interest in his own grandchildren could cause curiosity.''
But there is so much more in this book, and the variety is so overwhelming, that I again don't know how to continue. True, these stories may not bring you to ''ten worlds'', but you can personally visit at least eight: Earth, Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn, a glorious comet, a hot asteroid and the open space.
There are few other stories, in addition to ''Death and the Senator'', in which science takes only a minor part, being used only as a supplement to plots concerned with social, political and personal issues that every great fiction is bound to deal with. Two immediate favourites are ''I Remember Babylon'' and ''Hate'', both of them nearly perfectly written stories with lots of food for reflection.
''I Remember Babylon'' is a very weird story indeed. Here Clarke did beat Maugham himself for a piece of fiction most firmly rooted in reality. Not only does he use his own name several times, but he describes a glittering diplomatic party in Sri Lanka which was surely drawn from life; there is even one compelling reference to Maugham himself, as Arthur was ''surveying the scene in my detached or Somerset Maugham manner''. It is not at all easy to realise where the non-fiction ends and where the fiction starts. Yet the story smoothly turns into a marvellous dystopian vision of worldwide TV propaganda beyond censorship, in which Clarke's own, and pioneering, ideas about communication satellites play a prominent role. Whether the world in general and the States in particular have fallen, are falling or will fall down as Babylon did is a matter of fascinating speculation, but Clarke was probably not so wide of the mark when he wryly remarked in the notes to his Collected Stories that virtually everything in this story has come true. The only difference, of course, is that TV has been considerably helped by the World Wide Wait (sorry, Web, as Arthur once joked) in the process of global mind corruption. Nobody disputes the great benefits, or even some noble intentions that may have been there in the beginning, but this is a very scanty compensation for brainwashing on a vast scale.
''Hate'' reflects another of Clarke's passions: diving and ocean exploration (more like exploitation in this case). The story takes place entirely in the ocean and on the board of a small boat, yet it is one of the most overtly political works in Arthur's oeuvre - who never shied away from dealing with politics in his fiction anyway, as obvious from ''I Remember Babylon'' and its ''minor political earthquakes''. The protagonist in ''Hate'' is a Hungarian who passionately hates the Russians, clearly a reference to the disturbing events from 1956, and what this fellow does when confronted with a Russian astronaut trapped, but still alive, at the bottom of the ocean you can imagine. Though predictable, the story has an excellent twist in the end which makes one contemplate with horror the prospect of being at Tibor's place. In addition to devastatingly perceptive description of love's antithesis, another strength of ''Hate'' lies in the vividly recreated life of the pearl hunters, where every mistake under water may well be your last, and particularly in the masterful description of the horrifying obsession that hate may easily turn to. Disturbing, provocative and not easily forgotten story that will bear a good deal of re-reading.
(By the way, an interesting leitmotif in this collection is one of the most unfortunately natural states of the human beings: panic. In "Hate" you get an underwater example, and in "Summertime on Icarus" and "Who's There?" you get equally vivid examples in a space ship and in the open space, respectively.)
Right on the other side of science fiction are stories like ''Summertime on Icarus'' and ''Before Eden'' which can be described, rather ineptly, as "hard science fiction", or ''gimmick stories'' as Arthur would snap, and which in lesser hands would be a tedious stuff to read. Not so here. ''Summertime on Icarus'' is perhaps the most suspenseful story in the volume, taking place, of all places indeed, on a small asteroid passing extremely close to the Sun. There Colin Sherrard crashed his ship and was about to be roasted alive by a merciless sunlight which has nothing to do with its feeble cousin that reaches the Earth. The story really should have been titled ''Dawn on Icarus'', but it is a superb piece of dramatic characterisation none the less for that. Colin's panic, accompanied with harrowing screaming, is reminiscent of ''Who's There?'' and ''Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting . . . '', two other tales of similar type but on a slighter and more humorous scale. As for ''Before Eden'', it transports us to the South Pole - of Venus, where the temperature is ''only a hundred degrees hotter than Death Valley in midsummer.'' Apart from the moral that we, humans, are very careless when we are handling any other kinds of life but our own, the story has a number of ravishing descriptions of the Venusian landscape. Some of these are as haunting and visionary as anything on paper:
''Jerry was still mulling this over when they came upon the lake. Even that first glimpse, it made him think not of the life they were seeking, but of death. Like a black mirror, it lay amid a fold in the hills; its far edge was hidden in the eternal mist, and ghostly columns of vapour swirled and danced upon its surface. All it needed, Jerry told himself, was Charron's ferry waiting to take them to the other side - or the Swan of Tuonela swimming majestically back and forth as it guarded the entrance to the Underworld...''
(Here is another piece of evidence that Arthur did love Sibelius - the composer I mean, not the computer program. While writing the above he must have been hearing in his head the beautiful tone pone The Swan of Tuonela, with that wistful English horn that's just about to break your heart...)
Stories like ''Saturn Rising'' and ''Dog Star'' occupy the no-man's-land between pure science fiction and normal (scienceless?) fiction. Both combine adroitly poignant and amusing moments. ''Saturn Rising'' looks forward into the distant future when we shall, perhaps, have luxurious hotels on Saturn's satellites, with Observation Lounges from which to contemplate the rising of Saturn. That must be a sight all right, but the story goes much deeper than that, exploring our eternal struggle between success and happiness. ''Dog Star'' is the story you should not read in case you are a dog lover - or get yourself some tissues for it is likely to make you cry; I can't say that I am a dog lover myself, but it certainly made me. The protagonist of the story is one of those unfortunate creatures who communicates much better with animals than with human beings - a type most easy to identify with, I'm afraid - but has to choose between his job and his dog. As it turned out, the choice was harder for Laika than he expected. The ending could hardly have been more heartbreaking. After dismissing, gently but firmly, any mystery about the psychic relationship between him and his dog, the narrator finishes thus:
Of that I am sure, if I am sure of anything. Yet sometimes I wake now, in the silence of the Moon, and wish that the dream could have lasted a few seconds longer - so that I could have looked just once into those luminous brown eyes, brimming with an unselfish, undemanding love I have found nowhere else on this or any other world.
Last but not least, to dispel the gloom a little bit, there is the group of deliberately - please note that word: deliberately - flippant stories, usually shorter and consistently tongue-in-cheek, and altogether a great fun to read. ''Let There Be Light'' was a most pleasant surprise because of the unexpected appearance of Harry Purvis, the learned crackpot who used to be the center of entertainment in the legendary (but only semi-fictitious) pub ''White Hart''. Apparently this story - a delightful variation of the perfect crime theme - came a little too late to be included in Tales from the White Hart (1958). "Trouble with Time" is another mini crime thriller, set on Mars and concerned with shady deals with antiques, and ''An Ape About the House'' is a vastly amusing tale about a gene-modified Pan sapiens, the future equivalent of housemaid, that suddenly reveals a considerable talent for painting. But my greatest favourite in this category definitely is ''A Slight Case of Sunstroke''.
Truth to tell, while reading ''A Slight Case of Sunstroke'' I nearly died - of laughter. When Clarke feels like it, he really can be dangerously hilarious. The strange thing is that the story mostly deals, of all things, with South American football passions. To call the piece satire would probably be an overstatement, yet the ''pretty open game'' with no more than three fights and the referee with ''distinctly laboured'' movements because of the bulletproof vest he is wearing are not so far removed from reality as they should be on any civilized planet. However, the story does have a fine scientific premise of which a stunning use is made towards the end. All I can say about it is that the title is a monumental understatement. In between Clarke pokes lots of fun at the South American politics, diplomacy and customs, one more corrupt than the other (including the narrator), reaching an absolutely stunning climax when he comes to the football mores in the hypothetical countries Perivia and Panagura. So be careful with this short story. It causes tremendous convulsions which do take some time to die out.
The rather prosaically titled ''The Road to the Sea'' is the maverick here. It is the only short story written considerably earlier than the rest and, running to more than fifty pages (one fourth of the whole book!), it is rather like a novella - ''horrid word'' as Arthur once snapped. Before going into detail, having a mild passion for gorgeous covers, I want to point out that this golden and terrific, though stylised, Sphinx that adorns the Pan edition refers exactly to the last piece in the collection. Why it had to wait more than ten years to be collected in book form is beyond me. For I stand corrected: this is the supreme masterpiece here, and for it alone five full stars are not enough. It is so rich in content that I am a little surprised that Arthur didn't regard it as a ''compressed novel'', badly in need of decompression, as did he with ''The Songs of Distant Earth'', ''The Deep Range'', ''Against the Fall of the Night'' (which became ''The City and the Stars'') and ''The Hammer of God'', to name but a few.
''The Road to the Sea'' is one of those fabulous pieces of fiction which tax my imagination to the utmost. Arthur does that kind of fiction disturbingly well. Here he sends you no fewer than five thousand (!) years ahead, in a time when mankind has conquered the stars and learnt many, though not all, of its numerous secrets. On mother Earth only a small fraction has remained, scattered in small villages after the mighty cities had been abandoned, reverting to ancient rituals and unabashedly hedonistic lifestyle - or to stupendous mental and physical sloth. These are ideas Arthur has explored many times in his speculative non-fiction: if the former still lies into the far future, the latter is already knocking on the door.
As has often been noted by the author, there is nothing wrong with uninhibited pleasure as long as it is not the only way. Following the coming of age and the romantic inspirations of Brant, necessarily in a condensed form, raises yet again the shattering dilemma of achievements versus reveries. How should we live our lives: lost in futile but intoxicating day-dreaming or dissipating all our energies in the exploration of the unknown. Sounds commonplace but the truth, as almost always, is somewhere in the middle. Exactly where nobody really knows, but works like ''The Road to the Sea'' might just give you a solid base for reflection on this conundrum. There's no better way to finish, I think, than quoting few not altogether forgettable lines of wisdom from this literary tour de force:
''The person one loves never really exists, but is a projection focused through the lens of the mind onto whatever screen it fits with least distortion.''
''No one had ever told her, and she had not yet discovered, that when one has to ask 'Am I really in love?', the answer is always 'No'.''