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The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

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Front cover of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming (1960)

The best first novel I know is Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928). But Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first James Bond novel, is highly impressive too. Genetically speaking, I don’t think this is a coincidence: Waugh and Fleming both had Scottish ancestry. This may explain their literary talent or their will-to-fame or both or neither, but there is definitely something to explain about the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture. Alastair MacLean is another example in literature and, as another best-selling thriller-writer, is a useful point of comparison with Fleming. As I described in my review of The Satan Bug (1962), MacLean is interested in the elements in their harsher forms: he writes a lot about cold and wet. The Satan Bug is a bleak book and it’s appropriate that one of the few diversions from the bleakness is a reference to astronomy and the moons of Jupiter. MacLean doesn’t seem to have been very interested in human beings or in life in any of its senses.

Fleming was quite different: he liked sun, sex and sybaritism. You can find all three in his Bond books, but I think my favourite is this overlooked short-story collection, For Your Eyes Only. I like it partly because it’s overlooked, but mostly because it’s so full of life in all its senses. MacLean noticed the harsher elements: wind, rain, hail, snow. Fleming noticed all kinds of animals: sting-rays, squirrels, wood pigeons, bees, deer, fiddler-crabs, moray eels and a “chorus line of six small squids” appear in For Your Eyes Only. Male writers like dispensing expert knowledge, and male readers like absorbing it, but I can’t think of anyone else who would start a murder-mission story like this:

The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, but seven inches of it are tail — two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest green thing in nature. In Jamaica, birds that are loved are given nicknames. Trochilus polytmus is called ‘doctor bird’ because his two black streamers remind people of the black tail-coat of the old-time physician. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s from the title story and Fleming uses it to heighten the effect of the violence committed later. He was obviously a bird-watcher, but then he named his hero after an ornithologist with what was, back then, the very ordinary name of James Bond. Fleming gave the name glamour, though he didn’t give his own Bond much of an interest in ornithology. Bond is less complex than his creator and the books have a life and interest beyond Bond. It’s not just animals: roses, blue-bells, hibiscus, bougainvillea, lilies, hyacinths all appear here too. One of the stories, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, is actually named after a small fish, and the plot of another hinges – literally – on a rose-bush. MacLean’s writing is bleak with repression. Fleming’s writing is bursting with richness. Here’s a good example later in the title story:

The girl looked like a beautiful unkempt dryad in ragged shirt and trousers. The shirt and trousers were olive green, crumpled and splashed with mud and stains and torn in places, and she had bound her pale blonde hair with golden-rod to conceal its brightness for her crawl through the meadow. The beauty of her face was wild and rather animal, with a wide sensuous mouth, high cheekbones and silvery grey, disdainful eyes. There was the blood of scratches on her forearms and down one cheek, and a bruise had puffed and slightly blackened the same cheekbone. The metal feathers of a quiver full of arrows showed above her left shoulder. Apart from the bow, she carried nothing but a hunting knife at her belt and, at her other hip, a small brown canvas bag that presumably carried her food. She looked like a beautiful, dangerous customer who knew wild country and forests and was not afraid of them. She would walk alone through life and have little use for civilisation. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

Bond meets the girl while he’s preparing to assassinate an ex-Nazi in his forest hideaway near the Canadian border. He thinks she looks “wonderful”. Fleming liked beauties as well as beasts. There are hints of his sado-masochistic tastes in the bruise and scratches, and in the spanking Bond threatens the girl with for interfering with his mission, but S&M is another way of getting more out of life. Pain reminds us that we are alive and gets the blood flowing. So does danger. This is a thriller and Fleming is good at writing about dangerous situations. One of the stories is actually called “Risico”, Italian for “risk”. It’s about Bond both facing death and witnessing it:

Bond was planning to slow down to a walk and keep enough breath to try and shoot it out with the three men, when two things happened in quick succession. First he saw through the haze ahead a group of spear-fishermen. There were about half a dozen of them, some in the water and some sunning themselves on the seawall. Then, from the sand-dunes came the deep roar of an explosion. Earth and scrub and what might have been bits of a man fountained briefly into the air, and a small shock-wave hit him. Bond slowed. The other man in the dunes had stopped. He was standing stock-still. His mouth was open and a frightened jabber came from it. Suddenly he collapsed on the ground with his arms wrapped round his head. Bond knew the signs. He would not move again until someone came and carried him away from there.

The man is in an uncleared mine-field near Venice, because the Second World War wasn’t long finished when these stories were written. Accordingly, the Cold War wasn’t long started. “From a View to a Kill”, the opening story, is about how Bond manages to “wipe the eye of the whole security machine of SHAPE”, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He solves a murder-mystery involving a hidden team of Soviet spies and the theft of “top secret booty” from motorbike dispatch-riders. He also meets another beautiful blonde. Like the bow-toting dryad in “For Your Eyes Only”, she’s a sex-object but not a passive one, and Fleming can bring her to life in a way MacLean couldn’t:

The battered Peugeot, commandeered by Rattray, smelled of her. There were bits of her in the glove compartment — half a packet of Suchard milk chocolate, a twist of paper containing bobby pins, a paperback John O’Hara, a single black suede glove.

But all the stories have beautiful blondes in them. It’s implied more or less directly that Bond beds them all, except Rhoda Masters in “Quantum of Solace”, which supplied the title but not the plot for a recent Bond movie. This story is an odd addition to the collection, because it isn’t about Bond, who merely sits and listens as the British governor to the Bahamas narrates a story about a failed marriage in the then colony. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham and of “Octopussy” (1966), another short-story by Fleming in which Bond is a bit-player. “Octopussy” is a better story, with a proper thriller plot, and Maugham would have made a better job of “Quantum of Solace”, but I like the way it breaks the action, slows the pace, and makes Bond a spectator, not an actor. He’s in the Bahamas for adventurous reasons, but they’re out of the way within a paragraph:

Arms were getting to the Castro rebels in Cuba from all the neighbouring territories. They had been coming principally from Miami and the Gulf of Mexico, but when the US Coastguards had seized two big shipments, the Castro supporters had turned to Jamaica and the Bahamas as possible bases, and Bond had been sent out from London to put a stop to it. He hadn’t wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export programme with Cuba in exchange for taking more Cuban sugar than they wanted, and a minor condition of the deal was that Britain should not give aid or comfort to the Cuban rebels. Bond had found out about the two big cabin cruisers that were being fitted out for the job, and rather than make arrests when they were about to sail, thus causing an incident, he had chosen a very dark night and crept up on the boats in a police launch. From the deck of the unlighted launch he had tossed a thermite bomb through an open port of each of them. He had then made off at high speed and watched the bonfire from a distance. Bad luck on the insurance companies, of course, but there were no casualties and he had achieved quickly and neatly what M had told him to do.

By not describing the adventure in detail, Fleming makes Bond more realistic: he has a life beyond the page and there are things about him that readers don’t know. It reminds me of the briefly mentioned “extra episodes” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were, of course, written by yet another highly successful and talented Scot, Arthur Conan Doyle. Scots have been disproportionately successful in all branches of science too, including the genetics that will one day tell us why this is so. Doyle mixed science into his literature in a way Fleming didn’t, but Fleming had some of the traits that make for a good scientist: he was interested in the world for its own sake, not simply as an adjunct to himself or to humanity. And so he observed and recorded the world and brought it to life for his readers. He packs a lot of detail into the 63,000 words of For Your Eyes Only and I’m sure his books are harder to translate than MacLean’s. They would certainly need much more commentary for alien visitors, even though Fleming and MacLean were writing thrillers about the same civilization. MacLean was influenced by Fleming, but he didn’t base his plots on rose-bushes or describe the glove compartments of beautiful blondes. His best villain is a virus, not a human being.

Fleming created lots of memorable human villains and the beasts in For Your Eyes Only aren’t confined to the animal kingdom:

Bond examined the man minutely [through the telescopic sight]. He was about five feet four with a boxer’s shoulders and hips, but a stomach that was going to fat. A mat of black hair covered his breasts and shoulder-blades, and his arms and legs were thick with it. By contrast, there was not a hair on his face or head and his skull was a glittering whitish yellow with a deep dent at the back that might have been a wound or the scar of a trepanning. The bone structure of the face was that of the conventional Prussian officer — square, hard and thrusting — but the eyes under the naked brows were close-set and piggish, and the large mouth had hideous lips — thick and wet and crimson. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s a description of von Hammerstein, an ex-Nazi who has been working for the Cuban dictator Batista and decided to get out as Castro nears power. Seeking to diversify his property portfolio, he’s murdered two British subjects in Jamaica. “Subject” is the mot juste: Fleming believed in Queen and country and so does Bond, who’s sent by M to assassinate von Hammerstein in northern Vermont. It has to be an unofficial job, so Bond flies to Canada and slips across the border to do rough justice on his country’s behalf. If Bond had ever existed, his drinking and smoking would have killed him long ago, as they killed his creator. But it’s interesting to wonder what Fleming or his creation would have made of queen and country now. It’s the same queen as it was in the 1950s, but it can’t be called the same country. That’s something else that makes this book interesting. It’s full of life, but a lot of that life has vanished. Or been poisoned. In “Risico”, Bond has to break up a heroin-smuggling gang operating in Italy. He allies himself with one of the “greedy, boisterous pirates” he meets often in the Bond books and gets on well with. They’re on the wrong side of the law, but they’re not evil. This Italian pirate’s booty is clean and he won’t deal in drugs. He tells Bond how the raw ingredients of the heroin are

a gift from Russia. The gift of a massive and deadly projectile to be fired into the bowels of England. The Russians can supply unlimited quantities of the charge for the projectile. It comes from their poppy fields in the Caucasus, and Albania is a convenient entrepôt… No doubt it is some psychological warfare section of their Intelligence apparatus.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union undoubtedly used heroin as a weapon against the West. Its Marxist allies in the West didn’t openly support heroin-smuggling, but they did openly support another Marxism-friendly import: mass immigration, which is far more harmful. Hard drugs can kill individuals, but they can’t kill civilizations. Immigration can do both and the Marxists responsible for it were climbing into position while Fleming was contributing to the civilization they hated with his Bond books. I don’t think his contributions are as good as Evelyn Waugh’s, and they’re certainly not as witty, but they are probably much healthier. Europe needs James Bond’s chivalry and sense of duty, not Basil Seal’s misogyny and anarchism. You don’t have to find important geo-political themes in For Your Eyes Only, let alone genetic ones, but I think they’re there to be found all the same. Also here are more insights into an interesting creator, Ian Fleming, and an interesting creation, James Bond. I’ve owned two or three paperbacks of this book and now I’ve read it as an e-text. It’s been highly enjoyable every time and it only gets more interesting.

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