(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I’m not going to overstate how important 2001: A Space Odyssey was in my developing a taste for Science-Fiction, but it’s a movie that does show up a few times in my early memories. As a kid, seeing it in the early eighties when 2001 was still in the future, I remember seeing snippets of the film, being fascinated by it, disappointed that they didn’t show more of future life on Earth and rather confused by the whole thing. (My father, for all of his benevolence in allowing me to watch the movie, wasn’t much help in trying to make sense of it.) As a slightly older kid, I remember being told that the answers to the movie were in the Clarke novel. As a somewhat older teenager, I remember reading the book in the middle of a solid Arthur C. Clarke binge. I must have seen the movie again sometime in the early nineties because I have more recent memories than watching it as a kid, but anyway: Watching it now, nearly fifty years after its release, having read countless SF books and even written a few … is a different experience. I’m weirdly fascinated by the movie, for what it does well as for what it doesn’t, for the chances it takes and for the impact it has. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s insanely ambitious from a time when SF movies were not usually considered ambitious. (Keep in mind that 1968 is before the moon landing, before desktop computers, before CGI. The other big Science-Fiction movies of the year were Planet of the Apes and… Barbarella.) It’s still frustratingly ambiguous in terms of narrative, although reading the novel does help quite a bit making sense of it and relaxing enough to appreciate the rest of what the movie does well. I find it fascinating that it has both moments of intense cinematic poetry, while delivering a solid hard-SF thriller in its middle section. I’m more amused than annoyed at the way 2001 doesn’t say anything about its biggest mystery, but will babble on at lengths about the nuts and bolts of its setting. I’m still astonished at the quality of the special effects, the scientific verisimilitude of its middle section or the realism of its setting—all of which remains rarely equalled even fifty years later. Stanley Kubrick was a certifiable genius, and 2001 proves it as much as any other of his movies: just take a look at the million-year cut, the long segments without dialogue, the way even small details show how much the filmmakers cared. 2001 remains a cultural fixture for a reason, having invented, codified or popularized a bunch of the clichés largely associated with Science-Fiction by the general public. I’m struck by how there’s something in this film to appeal to a wide variety of viewers, both as the very prosaic level, and at a more metaphorical one. More narrative-driven viewers will appreciate having read the book for hand-holding through the roughest patches of the narration. More trippy viewers will be happy to be taken for a ride. (And I think that having read the book is one way to watch the movie as both kinds of viewers.) I’m not going to say that 2001 is the perfect SF film, or even among my top favourite ones. But it’s still a rich experience with a lot to offer, and that makes it almost just as good today as it had been for the past five decades.
Del Rey, 2006 reprint of 2005 original, 356 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-45251-8
Freakishly obsessive readers of these reviews have probably noticed a shift in my attitude toward Science Fiction over the past few years. I read less of it (non-fiction seems more interesting to me these days), I don’t look at it so uncritically and I get less and less patient with its self-indulgences. Anyone would be forgiven to conclude that I’m slowly moving away from the genre.
But that’s not true: SF is still my favourite genre, and I’m going to use Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s Sunstorm as my proof. Because the real test of a fan is whether they can still find something worthwhile in an otherwise average genre novel. Sunstorm won’t go down as any kind of classic (in fact, barely five years after its publication, it has already faded away) and yet I was able to sink into it like a warm comforter. It’s a book that I can read on auto-pilot, almost without any effort given how close the novel’s assumptions are to my own. From the moment the dumb premise is explained and the real meat of the novel is exposed, it’s pure classic old-school SF, and it made me smile even though I can acknowledge that I have already forgotten/forgiven most of its dull or ridiculous parts.
As the second entry in the as-of-yet-unfinished “Time’s Odyssey” series, Sunstorm is supposed to be a follow-up to Clarke/Baxter’s Time’s Eye (2004), but save for a very loose tying of both novels together by common antagonists and a viewpoint character, there’s little link between the two stories. While Time’s Eye imagined a showdown between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan on an Earth littered with slivers of its own past for no greater rationale than alien amusement (talk about a fanboy premise run amok), Sunstorm features the same plot-justifying aliens destabilizing the sun. After an initial catastrophe early in the novel during while the sun pulses once with devastating results, scientists discover that within five years another building pulse of energy will essentially fry all of Earth.
That’s when the fun begins. Because while nearly every other non-genre writer would jump on an opportunity to write about a world coming to grip with its imminent destruction, both Clarke and Baxter hail from the old can-do school of SF as an hymn to human ingenuity. Rather than roll over and wait for the ultimate sunburn, much of humanity unites behind a grandiose project to build a planet-sized shade that will deflect enough of the radiation.
I have always been very susceptible to engineering-fiction, and so within pages of the project’s inception, Sunstorm was making me purr with details of how such a shield could be launched, built, assembled and steered. Scientists come up with a series of solutions to bewildering technical problems, religious fundamentalists mount attacks on the project, hardy blue-collar workers assemble everything in orbit, governments mount last-ditch defenses to further alleviate the effect of the impending sun-storm and readers gets to enjoy a classic SF novel. The prose is direct, the conflicts aren’t complex, the resourcefulness of the characters is considerable and the enemies are clearly identified (so are the fools, who deservedly burn after disregarding helpful scientific advice): Sunstorm can’t claim to sophistication, and that’s part of its charm. As comfort reading for people having grown up on a certain type of Science Fiction, it’s hard to beat.
As a follow-up to Time’s Eye, it’s too disconnected to be of much use: It solves no questions and just uses the alien threat as another plot driver. But as a reminder of how much fun SF can be when it gets down to the essentials of why it exists as a genre, it’s a highly enjoyable read even though it’s not much of an elegant piece of fiction. SF fans will love it, non-SF fans will dismiss it, and sometimes that’s exactly how genre novels should be.
Del Rey, 2008, 299 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-47021-8
Any critical commentary regarding this novel takes a back-seat to a simple fact: This is Arthur C. Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederick Pohl, one of the most respected veterans of the Science Fiction field.
Everything else is practically irrelevant. The Last Theorem is practically critic-proof: no matter how good (or bad) it is, there’s a good chance that it will be read by a large audience over the next few years, as fans of both authors make their way to a quasi-legendary collaboration between two giants of the genre, and to “Clarke’s last novel”.
So what’s left for a poor reviewer to do?
The best ones will use this opportunity to link the novel to the co-authors’ careers. Those who know that Pohl wrote the novel based on Clarke’s outline won’t be overly surprised to find out that the book’s structure and themes most closely resemble a collection of Clarke’s usual obsessions, and that the writing style is closer to Pohl’s usual clean prose. (Not that Pohl usually wrote in a wholly different way from Clarke, mind you.)
The story itself is closer to biography than to thriller as we spend the book following the life of one Ranjit Subramanian, a Sri Lankan whose tortuous life ends up chronicling an entire future history. Ranjit is unusually fascinated with mathematical proofs, and his pet obsession is Fermat’s Last Theorem. Unsatisfied by Andrew Wiles’ 1994 proof, our hero sets out to solve the theorem with a far more elegant proof. But there’s more to his life than mathematics: His confused love life, his semi-willing abduction by pirates and (later) his work for the United States, involvement in the establishment of a world government and the construction of a space elevator all come into play sooner of later. And that’s not even mentioning the coming alien force mentioned in the early pages of the novel.
If you think that this gives a scattered quality to The Last Theorem, you’d be right: As a combination between a fictional biography and a collection of the author’s latest pet preoccupations, it’s not bound to the rigid demands of time, theme and place. It veers between eras, sometimes jarringly (pirates?).
But if you think that’s a major problem, well, you haven’t read enough Clarke novels. The latter stage of his career (roughly from Imperial Earth to The Hammer of God, but especially toward the latter half of that period) produced a handful of utterly admirable works of pure science-fiction, generally less concerned with plot than neat ideas and concepts that he couldn’t wait to tell us about. Few other authors have dared write such novels, and even fewer have succeeded at it. They remain unique fiction artifacts, among the purest and oddest long-form SF texts the genre has produced. The Last Theorem is often best seen as a slightly more structured example of that form.
Needless to say, it’s best appreciated by lifelong Clarke/Pohl fans than fresh-off-the-street readers. For civilians, The Last Theorem will be self-indulgent, packed with infodumps and without much suspense. The narration is intrusive (the three preambles leading to the novel and three postambles leading from it, many of them about Clarke, Pohl or Fermat, are a good example of the authors directly addressing the reader) and the authors often can’t be bothered to show rather than tell us outright what’s happening.
It’s a strange reading experience, and one that trades heavily on nostalgia. But the last pages of the book only solidify the thought that many had upon learning about the book: This is Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederik Pohl. Everything else is irrelevant.
Tor, 2000, 316 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87199-6
I sense a trend. And, for once, it’s a good one.
Over the years, Arthur C. Clarke has collaborated with quite a few authors. Gregory Benford wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s The City and the Stars (a classic that shouldn’t be “improved” by any means!) and it stank deeply. Clarke and Gentry Lee collaborated on a novel, Cradle, that left most indifferent. Lee then wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s Rendez-vous with Rama (a classic that could use some work, but not by hacks like Lee) and the result was a bloated trilogy that wasn’t very good either. Mike McQuay expanded a Clarke outline in the novel Richter 10 and the result, while better, wasn’t all that good.
At that point in time, most SF critics individually came up with the “Clarke Collaboration Theorem”, which in simple term stated “all Clarke collaborations suck”.
But then came along The Trigger, written in collaboration with Michael Kube-McDowell (ie; Clarke wrote a two-thousand word outline which was expanded to novel length by Kube-McDowell) and the result was surprisingly good if you weren’t a gun nut.
SF critics put the Clarke Collaboration Theorem on hold.
Now they’re ready to retire it for good as The Light of Other Days arrives in bookstores. While it doesn’t have a very different plot outline that the one already seen in The Trigger (indeed, the structure of both novels almost seem carbon-copied from one another) and is rather pathetic in terms of literary value, it’s a great read filled with ingenious ideas, a breathtaking conclusion and pure fun from cover to cover.
In other words, it does not suck.
The Light of Other Days‘s premise is not particularly original: Isaac Asimov’s classic story The Dead Past also posited the existence of a “remote viewer”, a machine that allowed you to see any scene from history from any point of view. (Indeed, Clarke and Baxter cite a few examples in the afterword without citing the Asimov text, which is rather unsettling given the popularity of the story and Clarke’s friendship with Asimov)
But, as always, it’s all in the treatment. Whereas Asimov’s story ended on the predicted doom of humanity through the end of privacy, Clarke/Baxter use this as a stepping-stone to more interesting things. As the capacity to see anywhere in history through the “WormCam” spreads through the population, investigative exploration of history takes off, religions are destroyed (hey, it’s a Clarke novel), historical figures are demolished or enhanced. Of course, there’s the end of privacy, last dying gasps of governments, general paranoia, new and exotic forms of perversions but guess what? Humanity endures, and how well it endures forms the strong conclusion of the novel, which manages to bring in the Eschaton without looking too silly doing it. Impressive stuff, any way you look at it.
As with The Trigger, the fun of this collaboration lies in the intellectual debate surrounding the WormCam. Ideas, concepts, extrapolations are described, sometime sketchily, but in such numbers that the ultimate effect on the reader is quite impressive. As in The Trigger, the novel loses strength whenever it tries to insert more classical plot conflicts in-between all the fascinating ideas. A gunshot-and-traitors conclusion is there to tie up some loose ends, but not to knock the socks off the readers; that’s the following chapter.
The overall result, again like The Trigger, is a compulsively readable (can be finished in less than a day) novel of ideas that faithfully follows the SF ethos of unflinching extrapolation. Due to the large historical component of the book, this might even be a good crossover novel for people not overly familiar with Science-Fiction.
And it destroys the Clarke Collaboration Theorem, which is a welcome piece of news indeed.
Signet, 1961, 215 pages, C$1.50 mmpb, ISBN Unavailable
The nice thing about having read a lot as a teenager is that I may keep fond memories of a particular book while forgetting all the details. In the case of A Fall of Moondust (the only Arthur C. Clarke novel in my high school’s library. No, it wasn’t a particularly good library.), I could only remember a fairly good book that ended in mid-story. So, almost ten years later, I couldn’t pass up the chance to pick a good Signet paperback edition of the novel.
I half-expected to be disappointed. A decade -and probably a thousand SF books- older and more jaded, would it be possible for me to have as much fun as the first time around? Clarke is known for books that appeal enormously to teens, but would I be able to enjoy his particularly mechanistic approach to characterization another time?
Well, either I haven’t matured all that much, or Clarke has truly written a really good book. I ended up compulsively reading A Fall of Moondust with, I think, even more enjoyment now than ten years ago.
Written at a time where humans had barely entered the space age, and fully eight years before we went to the Moon, A Fall of Moondust posits the existence of a vast lunar “sea” of very fine dust with liquid-like properties. Humans being notoriously unable to avoid opportunities of the sort, one tourist business starts offering guided tours of the sea using a specialized dust-surfing craft. Obviously, something must go wrong, and that’s why the Selene crashes and sinks under the dust sea with a full load of passengers on board. Search-and-Rescue efforts are mounted, as every passenger has a secret or two to hide.
Simple plot, but as always with Clarke, it’s the simplicity, the technical details, the oddball throwaway lines and the understated good humor of the book that make it all worthwhile. A Fall of Moondust isn’t fancy, but you don’t need to be complex in order to build a novel of humans against desperate odds. The crystal-clear writing style is a joy to read. No useless character traits murky up the narrative. As the average length of the SF novel has risen to a point where shorter novels are a tough sell (see my review of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios), A Fall of Moondust is just the right length for a good read.
Which brings us to my second surprise: After realizing that the book was as good as I remembered, I found out that there was even more goodness that I remembered! Turns out that my high school’s French paperback edition ended right after the ship is located, but before the rescue efforts got underway. French cheapness or incompetent editing? You decide.
But the net effect was akin to a friend of mine’s fantasy that good books should self-expand to include even more goodness. Suddenly, there was even more fun and entertainment from Clarke! A thrilling rescue sequence! And a complete ending! Can you ask anything more of an updated teenhood memory?
More maturely, it’s interesting to note how gracefully A Fall of Moondust has aged. The technical details are surprisingly good (once you assume the ocean-of-moondust bit) and the pacing is as snappy as ever. Clarke even throws in ultra-modern disparaging references to the nature of visual media news. Yes, the characters and the plotting are a bit plodding, but don’t interpret that as “substandard”; the relevant members of the Selene catastrophe are adequately presented and somewhat sympathetic despite their rough edges. Funny how hard-SF’s weaknesses can become advantages; you can read SF from the seventies and even if it’s twenty years closer, the no-less-caricatural “new wave” approach to characterization seems more ridiculous than Clarke’s no-nonsense approach.
The result, at least, is clear: A Fall of Moondust is well-worth a re-visit for those who read it at least a decade ago, and pretty much a must-read for the others. Classic Hard-SF doesn’t really get any better than this.
Bantam Spectra, 1999, 447 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10458-6
According to some SF commentators, your reviewer included, science-fiction is about the effects of change on human behavior. That change is usually linked to scientific and technological innovation is unavoidable, but not essential. This definition of SF isn’t perfect (nor accepted by all), but it allows to define an idea-space in which SF can distinguish itself from all other types of fiction.
At the same time, it allows “pure-SF” fans to distance themselves from the unimaginative drivel that passes itself as SF in the media and in the general population’s worst stereotypes about the genre. In media terms, STAR WARS isn’t SF (it’s fantasy in futuristic trappings) and most of STAR TREK isn’t SF (it’s adventure/soap opera in space) while GATTACA is SF (studying biotechnology-induced changes in humanity) and DARK CITY is SF (musing on artificial manipulation of memory on a society). Science-Fiction should be conceptually solid, imaginative, preferably controversial.
Needless to say, unimaginative adventures-with-laser-guns are far more common than “true SF”, nowadays as yesterday. But fans of the pure stuff can now run to their bookstores, because a new must-read is in town.
The Trigger is a “What if?” novel of the first order: What if someone came up with a foolproof way to remotely detonate all nitrate-based explosives? Practically speaking, this would blow up -at a distance- most munitions and explosives in common usage. The perfect gun control tool.
Had The Trigger been written in any other civilized country in the world, the results would have been interesting, but not much more. Of course, this being published in the United States (let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that English-born Sri Lanka resident Arthur C. Clarke has anything more to do with the book than collaborating to the outline), The Trigger has to face America’s centuries-old fascination with guns, conspiracies and government.
The results are fascinating. The impacts of The Trigger are examined and explained in great detail, as the discovery is handed from the scientific to the political and military community. Everyone who comes in contact with The Trigger immediately wish it would disappear, but everyone has to face the fact that it’s here to stay, and accommodations must be made in order to ensure its rational use. Gun Lobbies inevitably get into the act, lawsuits fly, private corporations rush Triggers to the market and private citizen watch it all happen with increasing discomfort. Top-notch extrapolation all around, along with some preachiness. Certainly not subtle, but nevertheless compulsively readable.
There are a few problems, though. The characters of the first half essentially disappear in the latter part of the book. Then the ending falls apart as one character is killed in a rather useless fashion, and another has to face enemies closer to caricature. A shame, because up to that point, The Trigger had labored hard to present “the opposing side” as basically decent people. After the intellectual complexity of the first 400 pages, it’s a let-down to see the climax being nothing but an action-adventure bit facing stock villains. A chilling afterword kind of makes up for it. (Though, given the conceptual breakthrough at mid-novel, one would expect this type of discovery -not to mention bigger, better innovations- to be made much earlier than twenty years later!)
But it doesn’t really matter. With The Trigger, Kube-McDowell has achieved something quite remarkable: Break the “Clark Collaboration Rule” (which used to state that every novel written in collaboration with Clarke does suck.) and produce a novel that stands alone in its own right. The Trigger is, in general, everything that SF should be: It postulates a radical technological change, follows its controversial social implications and does so in an magnificently entertaining fashion. Don’t miss it.
Del Rey, 1997, 263 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31522-7
Let’s get two things out of our way first:
One: I dearly like Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve read most of his books and at the exception of his collaborations, he rates from okay to excellent. While his stories are often exercises in problem-solving and his plots thinly-disguised travelogues, that’s what he does best and that’s why I keep going back to Clarke. Apparently, millions of other readers think the same thing, because Clarke repeatedly hits the bestseller lists with each new book.
Two: 3001 is a rotten novel. In almost 300 pages, Clarke commits enough narrative mistakes to send a less-renowned author back to a few more rewrites. The first part of the novel is a brief look at Earth, 3001 style. In the second, he tells more than shows. Five minutes pass in one chapter, 30 years in the next. Stylistic errors abound, although that might be compounded by the translation I was reading. There’s even one factual error -verified in the original untranslated text- in chapter 32, when it is stated that Frank Poole was born in 1996. (Which would have given him the tender age of… 5 during the 2001 mission. Right.) Ping, Mr. Clarke!
Surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter. 3001 might be one of Clarke’s last novels and he’s entitled to a few shortcuts. Certainly, this is a better work that other latter-day Asimov or Heinlein. To compare apples with manure, even a middling Clarke is better entertainment that a middling Hollywood product. (Although 3001 ends on a note surprisingly reminiscent -of all things- of INDEPENDENCE DAY. Even Clarke apologizes for this in his afterword; synchronicity strikes again.)
Thematically, the novel has only tangential links with the previous three volumes. It “ties” up a few loose ends, and ignores the remainder. After reading 3001, I went back to 2061 and found out that the epilogue, titled “3001”, was completely disregarded by Clarke this time around. Others small discrepancies are smoothed over, and retro-adjusted. Obviously, humanity won’t go to Jupiter for 2001 any more than Hal was activated in February 1997. The future described in 3001 nevertheless remains quite plausible: Much like our own memory of 2001 has faded, the inhabitants of 3001 describe our own times as, of course, a century of unparalleled barbarism.
One unrealistic attribute of the characters is their tendency to constantly refer to events five centuries past. When’s the last time you quoted extensively from a 1497 philosopher? Overall, 3001 is a pretty similar place to 1997. A few cosmetic changes perk up the scenery, but far less that what the Singularists (from Vinge’s hypothesis) might suppose.
But 3001 is top-heavy with ideas. From Ring City to Religion As Mental Disorder (chuckled softly the atheist), this novel at least offers an entertaining travelogue. Whatever one may think of Clarke’s style, at least he’s kept his swiftness with innovative concepts. Extensive notes (30 pages of assorted sources, acknowledgements and goodbyes.) complete the book, providing an enjoyable dose of further readings, short editorials by Clarke (Does he believe this stuff? Absolutely!) and, generally, words by the master. Hard-SF fans will slurp this up with glee. At least I did.
Despite all its faults, 3001 remains a very enjoyable read for Clarke fans. Others might not agree; their loss. The novel works better as a travelogue with a loose relation to the original trilogy; don’t go back and read all three books attentively before beginning this one. Don’t buy it in hardcover either; it’s poor value for your money unless you’re a confirmed Clarke collector. But it’s definitely worth a read for its target audience.
Bantam Spectra, 1996, 407 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57333-0
Criticism is many things to many people, but most readers assume that the review will contain at least a fragmentary plot resume, and a brief critical opinion. Most readers prefer when the opinion is decisive: (It sucks!)/(It rules!) are the two binary states of criticism.
The object of this review, Richter 10, isn’t a book that lets itself be so easily dismissed.
First, it’s a Clarke, but a Clarke collaboration. All Clarke collaborations, without exception, have been horrendous. Benford’s sequel to Against the Fall of Night was simply indigestible. The “Rama” trilogy was overlong and under-whelming. And now, as Clarke explains in the after-word, Richter 10 isn’t even a collaboration: McQuay wrote the book based on a 850-word movie outline by Clarke.
Briefly put, Richter 10 is the tale of Lewis Crane, a brilliant scientist with an obsessive passion: Earthquakes. As the book opens, Crane has perfected a method for predicting earthquakes and their effects: He literally marks down “safe” areas. The book follows the successes and failures of Crane: Scientifically, sentimentally, financially, the guy’s in for a rough time.
The good news are that it’s half a decent tale: The book is readable fairly quickly despite the 400+ pages-length. There is a clear narrative drive: What will happen next? Turn the page to find out!
However, the book has serious believability problems. Suspension of disbelief is handy for most SF, but Richter 10 takes it a little bit too far. Shaky elements include a simulation able to perfectly recreate earth’s geological history, a near-magical arm injury, a woman living her whole life as a man, Chinese corporations ruling the USA, a plan to end earthquakes, a scientist-cum-religious leader, ten years in total isolation, a virtual lover taking over a person’s life, etc… “Hard to swallow” is an understatement, and the situation isn’t helped by a mostly dystopic vision of the future.
There also seems to be a focus problem with the book. The first three quarters of the tale are recognizably the same story. But the books shifts in high gear for the finale, leaving characters quickly sketched and readers quickly breathless. At times, it almost seems as if a whole trilogy has been compressed in one book. (This might not be a bad thing, if the alternative was to actually read the trilogy.)
Finally, perhaps the biggest “problem” with the book is that most characters behave in ways that will displease average readers. While it’s fun to see characters go from lover to villain to friend, it’s also a bit unsettling. Readers beware. Overly paranoid readers will also detect a strong anti-Islamic bent to the book. The scientific method as depicted in this book is also a throwback to the (bad) old days of SF, where the lone maverick hero defended his (*His!*) invention against hordes of infidels.
Much as earthquakes completely transform the territory they affect, Richter 10‘s tone, atmosphere and characters undergo several dramatic transformations during the course of the novel. Whether this is ingenious or plain unfortunate remains to be seen. Richter 10 is a moderately entertaining tale, the kind of book best taken to the beach for a few hours of quiet, undemanding reading.
Unless, of course, you happen to go to a Californian beach…