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The Collected Stories
Arthur C. Clarke
Gollancz paperback £9.99
review by Tony Lee
This huge volume brings together about 100 short stories from the vaults of the world's most famous living genre writer and, as such, it's a genuine historical document alluding to and commenting upon the phenomenal development and explosive growth of science fiction throughout the middle and latter half of the 20th century. It's also the delivery vehicle for some vintage adventure tales - set on Earth, the planets and moons of our Solar system, and a host of imaginary worlds.
Although many SF writers have captured the common attitude of a moment in time, the character of a particular decade or the prevailing mood of an era, Arthur C. Clarke's SF work readily spans modernity from recent past to turbulent present and the future. This is not due to the wisdom of his advanced years - I hasten to add, but largely because his inspiring visions have come to represent the spirit of our SF century more accurately than any comparable body of work.
What distinguishes Clarke from his peers, and many talented rivals in the SF field, is his great imagination. He's not a literary writer or an intellectual or even a great stylist like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, or Philip K. Dick. Whereas other writers in the business may concoct amazing and wonderful objects, then simply contrive situations to explain, explore or describe these things, Clarke's work is somewhat different and often goes one step further. Like all the best SF writers, Clarke also imagines quite amazing and wonderful things, but he then sets out to demonstrate their consequences. In showing us what might happen if... Clarke, more than any other writer, has been tagged "a prophet of the space age" (something he's keen to deny, in spite of his legendary ego). This means that his works are often more closely scrutinised by detractors of the genre for their perceived lack of, or more often their failed, predictive quality.
Reading the wealth of vital fiction presented here, in timely order, goes a long way to discounting the criticism of Clarke's work, as, overall, it's his unerring skill with the sort of material that has long since fallen into cliché (though it's important to remember that this used to be expansive, cutting-edge stuff!) that's most obvious - and not his more recent rise to the exalted status of media guru, appearing on numerous TV programmes with a half-chortled quotable soundbite for populist science documentaries or SF-themed centennials.
On the subject of SF themes, this collection packs in a full spectrum of concepts from the macrocosmic event to boffins' nifty gadgets, and from the domestic to the eternal. Even if you have not read every last one of these stories before (only the oldest or most dedicated fans will have, I think it's fair to say) some may seem nonetheless familiar because they formed the basis for, or were incorporated into, one of Clarke's later novels. From the absolute zero of his Travel By Wire (1937) to the witty Improving The Neighbourhood (1999), Clarke's often staggering work spans the far reaches and deep ranges of challenging hard-SF ideas, and the stories (many have been previously anthologised, of course) remain entertaining reading, today - I'm compelled to add, with unrestrained enthusiasm - especially today, making this book an essential purchase for both the serious SF fan and the student of modern literature.
Even if some of the earliest fictions seem terribly dated now, their totality still reveals the big picture of a changing genre and its rapid development since before the war. From his very first, often irreverent, amateur tales, to more coherent, professionally-written adventures and later authoritatively voiced speculations, Clarke's short fiction, as with his many novels, often centres on a bright idea extrapolated to its logical conclusion. Most of the stories here will, undoubtedly, be familiar to aficionados from Clarke's various best-of books and collections such as Reach For Tomorrow, but rereading them in chronological order generates a striking effect because, more than simply a collating of the product of one man's mind, this well researched book is an invaluable contribution to the ongoing historical study of SF and, arguably, a fitting companion text to Hartwell & Cramer's superb The Ascent Of Wonder (Orbit, 1994).
I'm sure every reader will find some personal favourites here. The things I love most about Clarke's stories are the memorable twist endings, and the unhestitant optimism. This line from the closing section of Breaking Strain (1949) perfectly sums up the rousing affect of Clarke's typically positive outlook: "The future, which not so long ago had seemed contracted to a point, had opened out again into all its unknown possibilities and wonders." What Clarke also acknowledges is that freedom, by its very nature, entails an element of risk. Comfort and security are quite the opposite of freedom in Clarke's fiction. The often spotlighted 'sensawunda' central to so much of Clarke's SF reminds us that awesome visions can be terrifying, even if they promise a form of enlightenment.
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parts of this review were previously published in Starburst magazine, and online at the Dowse SF & fantasy hub.Related pages:
tZ 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
tZ 2001: A Space Odyssey - unofficial magazine about the classic movie
tZ Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
tZ Big Planet: the worlds of Jupiter in SF - by Steven Hampton
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