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Final Read

Ego in print

Ego in print

Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from Planet Earth has been sitting on a shelf since 1994, when the receipt inside says I bought it. It has moved from Texas, maybe to Canada, to Seattle without being opened until I moved into my current digs, whereupon I felt both sorry and shamed I’d had it so long and hadn’t bothered with it. Keeping it next to the john, it ended up on the floor where it got soaked by the ornate glass but not watertight shower door. I have resolved to read it immediately since then. I think that was Christmas. I finished it yesterday, on a bench by the Hudson, kayakers padding around in a marked-off square of brown water no more interesting than a bathtub.

I don’t read science fiction any more. As a kid I couldn’t get enough of it, though as I moved into high school and college gravitated toward what the marketing department–and science fiction purists–would call fantasy. I was a smart kid and adventurous at heart, as quashed as I felt otherwise around domineering adults and peers whose imaginations I found startlingly practical and small. The Moon was out there, and Saturn, and creatures from cultures a million years old, all together a heady mix of instantaneous future shiny mated to the complexity of baffling age. I noticed the ancient creatures living humbly in the grey wake of long-ago golden times knew a lot more than the primate upstarts with their zap guns. Sometimes they cued the monkeys in to the real deal, but their usual game was to give hints before disappearing in a singularity, or death. Death was always very different from the aliens’ perspective, at least the aliens that were interesting to me. Their wisdom in the act hinted they had figured out the joke.

My transition was one I’ve heard repeated many times, not least of all by writers. In high school I found myself wanting the infinite panoramas and the deep time science fiction hinted at, but found the beginnings of satisfaction and a tortured honesty in the deep characters and fully rendered themes and styling of what I can only uncharitably think of as real fiction. I was distracted when Sanford lent me his copy of Vonnegut’s Slapstick, converted when Mrs. Powers pushed us where the school board would probably have forbidden had they known what was in Catch-22. Some catch indeed. I didn’t understand the book at first, not really, but I sensed it had a depth and warranted reflection.

Though I would read science fiction novels and stories through college, I focused on what I would guess are some of the last century’s greats: in addition to Vonnegut and Heller, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, John Cheever, J.G. Ballard, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff and of course Steinbeck and Hemingway. I found the Twentieth Century, and Americans especially, having a dynamism and breath of scene that resonated with me, all the Nineteenth Century Americans and English all wrapped around their clauses and auxiliary verbs. The Americans did things, said things, made dumb mistakes, suffered on the plains and in little filthy rooms. Late Twentieth Century suburban life, shielded from everything in a little white town, my elder countrymen reported on everything I had missed.

Some would argue Bradbury doesn’t belong in that list. I say he does. Bradbury’s I Sing the Body Electric was as much about a robot and The Martian Chronicles stories about Martians as much as Catch-22 was about a naked guy in a tree. Bradbury understood what fiction was really about: creating believable characters and giving them incredible but–within the bounds of his stories’ reality–believable things to do. And he did so in a larger theme, in a world that breathed and lived, showing and not telling, all in a few hundred to thousand words that would fit in a popular magazine. If you don’t think that’s a real achievement, try it.

And that is why I stopped reading science fiction, and no doubt why I let this book sit unopened.

Arthur C. Clarke was a genius, to be sure. But he was a genius of a particular age, and of a strain of the physical sciences that then disallowed poetry. He was a Victorian at heart, really: of that belief that Newton’s clockwork universe could be extended through measurement and linear rules so that all problems could be surmounted with the right machines. It’s the view of Popular Mechanics in the Depression and the zeitgeist in general after World War II: there’s nothing the scientists can’t dream up to get around any limit. Airplane not have enough lift? Just make it bigger with bigger engines. Why let those deserts sit unused when they can be transformed with irrigation, desalination, transparent domes and climate control? Earth and Man would move to the Moon and then the stars because we must explore to remain dynamic and vital. Staying home is for suckers or retards.

Clarke was a smart man, but his rigid genius proceeded from this blind belief that was the Twentieth Century’s extension of Manifest Destiny. His famous, gigantic ego was of such proportions to presume Man’s dominance of nature was only a matter of time. And it was Man, of course, not humanity.

Tales from Planet Earth is a collection of Clarke’s stories from the height of this thinking, which coincided with the height of what they called the Atomic Age: the earliest from 1946 or so, the latest 1968. There are lots of ships and ancient cities and and characters who are not really described, aside from being big, or old, or what purpose they serve in some greater mechanistic goal. Technology always frees us, even when it doesn’t. The only problems that aren’t solved are the inherently unsolvable, which Clarke writes a slightly tedious story to demonstrate as such.

For instance, why bother to have mines when everything you need can be precipitated from the sea? The Man Who Ploughed The Sea spells it out for us numbskulls, where the main character has invented a molecular sieve, a device that will pull out any substance dissolved in seawater:

“So it seemed to me that all we need do to create a very useful mobile extraction plant was to put the screws [propellers] of any vessel inside a tube which would compel the slip-stream to pass through one of my sieves…. I look forward to the building of floating extraction plants that will cruise round and round in the ocean until they’ve filled their hoppers with anything you care to name. When that day comes, we’ll be able to stop tearing up the land and all our material shortages will be over. Everything goes back to the sea in the long run anyway, and once we’ve unlocked that treasure-chest, we’ll be all set for eternity.”

Clarke has made a joke out of the observation that so many tons of gold or uranium or whatever are dissolved in each cubic mile of seawater, and points out the obvious solution for the boys in the lab to get cracking on. Never mind, of course, that everything has unintended effects, that all outcomes can’t be foreseen, that even Clarke knew that the universe is chaotic and non-linear and wouldn’t behave how he wanted. With this device, we can avoid that nasty business of having to look at our greedy ways and consider a world where we don’t get every toy the toymakers come up with. We don’t even have to sort our trash.

Though the collection has a few stories about technology’s downsides or human limits, The Lion of Commare being the most interesting, even that story ends with human folly being routed by a man (inevitably a man) with all but godlike powers who wins a prize that will enable even greater godhood. To read this in 2012, in the midst of the hottest summer in probably the last many thousand years with the Moon abandoned forty years ago, strikes me with the same pathos and distance as reading about phrenology, or looking at European dress from previous centuries. It’s beyond quaint but not quite freakish. It is a kind of stupid.

Never mind the writing has none of Bradbury’s artistry. Its more important lack is humility. I realize because of that failing is why, despite Clarke’s grandiosity and scale, there is no wonder. The universe–at least to this era of him–is an accounting problem.

A few years ago I was leaving my local library branch and saw a thick paperback in the main foyer bookcase, meant to grab attention. I don’t remember the title, but it was a science fiction short story collection. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I checked it out. It was a thick book, and I remember my deep disappointment. Most stories were as flat as Clarke’s, though many seemed to have flipped: now the problem was the inevitability of failure in everything. Only the first story, about an alien that resembled a praying mantis climbing Everest with humans as part of a team-building exercise, had what seemed like real weight and dynamism. But even it was flat.

Clarke moderated some in the last decades of his life. I remember some articles questioning what his beloved Sri Lanka would be like in the coming century as the sea rose with the heat. He was no fan of Star Wars (as the weird time-warp-effect I felt reading his final 1986 piece in the book showed) and he seemed to realize Nixon axing Apollo early wasn’t a bad choice. He outlived Asimov, his science cheerleader contemporary and friend, by almost twenty years. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I’m glad I read the book, an artifact both for its contents and for me, for the time and place that was me when I bought it. It was a long time ago, a long way away. When the cable guy finally comes, I will walk it down to the recycling and drop it in. Not everything needs go back to the sea to go on.

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