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Arthur C. Clarke
The Other Side of the Sky
VGSF, Paperback, 1995.
12mo. viii+245 pp. Note on 1958 edition [v-vi, 1985] and Preface to 1987 edition [vii-viii] by Arthur Clarke. Contains his two cycles of six linked pieces each: The Other Side of the Sky and Venture to the Moon.
First published, 1958.
First published in Great Britain by Gollancz, 1961.
First VGSF (Victor Gollancz Science Fiction) edition, 1987.
Fifth impression, 1995.
Note on 1958 edition
Preface on 1987 edition
The Nine Billion Names of God 
The Other Side of the Sky 
Take a Deep Breath
Freedom of Space
The Call of the Stars
The Wall of Darkness 
Security Check 
No Morning After 
Venture to the Moon 
The Starting Line
Robin Hood, F.R.S.
All That Glitters
Watch This Space
A Question of Residence
Publicity Campaign 
All the Time in the World 
Cosmic Casanova 
The Star 
Out of the Sun 
The Songs of Distant Earth 
* In square brackets: year of first publication, usually in a magazine.
The 1950s must have been a very heady decade for Arthur Clarke. Unbelievable as this may seem, between 1951 and 1960 he actually published no fewer than seven novels, almost all of them still in print and at least one (Childhood's End, 1953) widely considered as classic, four collections, containing altogether 62 short stories, and no fewer than seven books of nonfiction, ranging from moon exploration to coral photo-shooting. Not bad for a newly fledged professional writer!
The Other Side of the Sky was the last of the four aforementioned short story collections and, as Arthur himself tells us, together with the previous three it collected in volume form all of his short fiction he thought worth preserving. In many ways, The Other Side of the Sky is the finest of these collections. It contains 24 pieces that range from very short stories mere five pages or so long to novellas that occupy nearly five times as much space. The range of themes and ideas is staggering and the only common denominator is Clarke's economical, lucid and powerful writing style as well as his stunning twists in the end, the most surprising thing for them being their complete naturalness (with one exception, see the next paragraph). Not even one of these 24 pieces is less than good; most, actually, are masterpieces that demonstrate Clarke the mind-bending story-teller at the height of his formidable powers.
Oddly enough, one of my very few and very mild disappointments came from what may be Clarke's most famous story ever: "The Nine Billion Names of God". It is a witty and charming trifle about Tibetan monks who purchase a super computer in order to find the real name of God. It works really fine as a light entertainment - which is all it was doubtless intended to be. The only problem - for once - is the surprise ending. Not unusual for Clarke, it comes in the very last paragraph that consists of a single sentence. It is chilling and extremely effective. The problem is that it is also pure fantasy and it does, therefore, look contrived and artificial. It reminds me of the ending of Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes". In the first moment you are pleasantly shocked, for it is impossible to deny the dramatic impact of such ending, but when you come to think about it just a little later, you cannot but see that it is utterly preposterous. I am a little baffled by the huge popularity of this story. Arthur Clarke has done far, far better elsewhere - this volume included.
But before concentrating on the best stories in this volume, most of its contents that is, let me say a few words about the other few pieces of fantasy. Now there is nothing wrong with the genre itself. The border between science fiction and fantasy is neither easy to locate nor much worth searching for. I even venture to suggest that the best works lie right in the middle: pure fantasy is ridiculous, pure science fiction is dull, but the combination, if deftly handled, may often produce astonishing results. A particular favourite of mine in this collection is "All the Time in the World", which is actually something of a crime story, at least on the surface, coupled with a grand looting of the British Museum, but in the end it turns out to be quite unexpectedly chilling. Other stories of this type include the slightly less haunting and poignant "Transience", not so much a story than a sketch for one, and "The Wall of Darkness", which must be among the most mind-boggling things I have ever read, questioning as it does all generally accepted concepts about space and time. The story has one of the most arresting opening sentences, too.
''Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the River of Time.''
(By the way, this is the short story in which a marvellous use is made of the famous, and real, Möbius strip. It is probably the most successful analogy to picture the completely perplexing distortion, if that's the word, of space described. See also Chapter 7 from Profiles of the Future, 1962, revised Millennium Edition published in 1999, for an excellent non-fiction treatment of the subject.)
Then there is the group of deliberately flippant short stories entirely designed for light entertainment. Again, there is nothing wrong with the genre itself, especially when the stories are intentionally light-hearted. In Clarke's hands these are huge fun to read, yet not without some disturbing overtones. "Publicity Campaign", my personal favourite in the category, tells about the most unfortunate coincidence if our first contact with advanced extraterrestrial civilization happens to occur during the great hype around a cheap horror movie about alien invasion. Clarke obviously relishes poking fun at the movie industry, but he is no less merciless exposing the stupefying foolishness of the human race as a whole, so easily swayed by PR tricks. Just a little less amusing are "No Morning After" and "Security Check". The former is the truly hilarious story about a rocket engineer who was contacted by a most advanced extraterrestrial culture with a horrifying warning but he was much too drunk to take either seriously, and the latter has a brilliant movie designer who unintentionally reveals interstellar military secrets. Last but not least, the naughty "Cosmic Casanova" (written for Playboy, of course) and the royalty-obsessed ''Refugee'' are delicious trifles to read, too.
At least to some extent, the two cycles of six stories each - Venture to the Moon and The Other Side of the Sky - may also be categorised as humorous tales intended as pure entertainment. Sometimes either of these is referred to as a single story, but this really is incorrect. Each of these twelve stories, albeit hardly longer than five pages, has tightly constructed plot and excellent twist in the end. The pieces are entirely self-sufficient and have occasionally been reprinted separately. I cannot but be reminded of Somerset Maugham's Cosmopolitans (1936), a collection of "very short stories" that were written on commission from the famous magazine that gave them their name. Clarke's attempts in the genre have the same perfect completeness and extremely high entertainment value. The difference is that his cycles of stories share common locale and one major character, a nameless first person narrator. Otherwise the stories are all independent gems, though reading them together does add to the pleasure.
Venture to the Moon follows the first human expedition to the Moon, a joint mission of British, American and Russian crews - and all that that implies. "Starting Line" deals exactly with the international friction about the hugely important issue who is going to be the first spaceship to land on the Moon - just as "A Question of Residence" explores the subtleties, and advantages, of being the last one to leave our only natural satellite. In between there are fascinating tales about lunar archery ("Robin Hood, F.R.S."), plant growing ("Green Fingers"), diamonds hunting ("All That Glitters") and commercials on the grand scale in the nearly-nonexistent atmosphere of the Moon ("Watch This Space"). All these were so well received at the time, that Clarke got a commission to write another series. That's how he came to surpass himself.
The Other Side of the Sky certainly is a better work that its predecessor. It is set - well, on the other side of the sky; in other words, in a space station in orbit around Earth. The stories here are better executed, more amusing and with more unpredictable twists, in the end and not only. "Special Delivery" is concerned with the tricky problem of sending supplies in Earth's orbit by a machine-navigated rocket. Don't worry if you miss it: the immutable laws of celestial mechanics will bring it back - if a little too late. "Feathered Friend" is a space variation of the well-known story about canaries in coal mines. Here is a fine example how even simple and entirely obsolete techniques from Earth's crust may save lives in quite different environment. "Take a Deep Breath" is indeed a breathtaking adventure about a rescue mission that involves some fifteen seconds exposure to vacuum and real (Arthur's italics) sunlight without spacesuit (my italics). "Freedom of Space" is a gorgeously hilarious tale about the first world-wide live coverage from the ''Relay Chain'', the system of three space stations in Earth's orbit. The ending comes out of the blue, yet it is perfectly natural and somewhat saddening. "Passer-By" is a story about a space apparition of unknown (natural or not?) origin coupled with the difficult task of dating your girlfriend in the next space station. "The Call of the Stars" closes the cycle on a surprisingly poignant note, following a son's venture into space against the will of his father.
The rest of the volume includes one "gimmick story" ("Out of the Sun") and two supreme masterpieces ("The Star" and "The Songs of Distant Earth"). The former was obviously written in order to explore the mighty explosions inside the sun that release enormous amounts of mass and energy, as observed from our observatory on Mercury. This normally dry and lifeless subject is superbly told, with a good deal of dramatic intensity and going as far as challenging one of the most unanswerable questions there are: what is life? One of the most unforgettable lines in the story is also a question: "What is life but organized energy?" As for the other two stories, they require paragraphs of their own.
"The Star" is one of the most famous stories by Arthur Clarke, but unlike the first one in the volume, this fame is well-deserved. It is also one of the most heartrending pieces ever to come under Clarke's pen. The protagonist himself is a most fascinating creature - a Jesuit monk and a brilliant astronomer - whose unshakable faith in God is unexpectedly, and badly, shaken by an extraordinary and deeply affecting discovery, a horrible consequence of what is probably the most awe-inspiring phenomenon in all nature. Nothing more about the plot need be said. I would only suggest - if that doesn't count as spoiler - reading Clarke's essay "The Star of the Magi" (aka "The Star of Bethelem") as a companion piece to this brilliantly told and vastly disturbing story.
"The Songs of Distant Earth" is a most fitting conclusion of the volume. It is the longest piece in it - well over forty pages - and, as is well known, some three decades later (1986) it was expanded into a novel of the same name. The short story, or novella if you like, has a really staggering scope in both space and time, but the truly precious quality is something you seldom find in science fiction: romance. Yes indeed, this is a very touching romantic story between an "Earthman" and an earthly woman, unfortunately separated by centuries of technological progress/regress (take your pick). The story is beautifully written, deeply moving without being in the least sentimental, and with excellent, vivid characterisation. It is a most compelling stimulus to read the novel indeed. Not often does Arthur Clarke lapse into poetry in prose, but when he does he is not a little shattering. The final paragraph of the story raises one of the most profound questions about human nature ever asked. Where does happiness lie: in the conquest of new worlds and technological progress, or in the idyllic existence in harmony with nature? The choice is yours.