Thursday, May 05, 2005

Earthlight Sonata

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:29 PM

I'm coming to the conclusion that the Golden Age writer I feel the most affection for is Arthur C. Clarke. Asimov had the galaxy-spanning vision, but his prose was leaden, his dialog was risible, and he never lost his fundamentally adolescent sensibility. Heinlein started out way ahead--in the early Forties, he had the best ideas and the best chops in SF by a large margin--but developed a fatal addiction to bluster. Van Vogt is, well, Van Vogt. A pretty good thing to be, but would you let him marry your sister?

Clarke wouldn't want to marry your sister, of course, and I wonder if that gave him a slight leg up. Arguably, the worst feature of SF of that period is the way it deals with women--and Clarke simply didn't do it. In fact, all his characters and relationships are mere sketches, but they're good sketches, especially his depiction of scientists at work. The old cliche about SF resembling a Chinese landscape painting, with tiny humans in the foreground for scale, was truest of Clarke, and he made it work. His descriptive prose is genuinely tasty, and his dialog, while never ambitious, is always credible.

Earthlight is a case in point. Although it contains a rare (for Clarke) battle sequence, most of the book tells the story of an accountant drafted as a spy trying to find an information leak at the Lunar Observatory. Not once does he have a gun pulled on him, or engage in any action sequence. Instead, he's the viewpoint for a you-are-there tour of the lunar colony on the brink of war. That should be dull, but it isn't at all; Clarke doesn't need galaxy-spanning action to give you sensawunda. He can do it with a short trip across the Lunar surface, by caterpillar or monorail.

And yes, there's a scene where guys cross between spaceships with no suits. I'm not sure why he was so obsessed with that.

It's not Against the Fall of Night or Childhood's End. But I can now state with confidence that minor Clarke is just fine with me.


At 1:44 PM, Blogger Todd T said...

Nice post. I think you have neatly nailed the writers you describe.

Family or not, I think van Vogt was distinctly minor league compared to the others. I can see why he was hailed at the time, but looking back I see little to move him above the likes of Hubbard, and Williamson kicks his heinie. The best work of most of the folks you mention was really in the 50s I feel, and if we're allowed to move into the 50s we start getting Sturgeons and Besters clawing their way into the argument. But I think you have concisely painted a true picture.

I actually had never heard (or have forgotten) the Chinese painting comparison, so thanks for that too!

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

The only Williamson I've read is Darker Than You Think, but based on that I can certainly see your point. But there's something about Van Vogt's wide-eyed, breathless nerd-overdrive that I really enjoy, although I certainly couldn't defend it relative to any reasonable criteria of good taste.

With respect to the others: "best" is subjective, of course, but I would argue that Asimov and Heinlein did their most influential/important work in the Forties.

Asimov: "Nightfall", the Foundation trilogy, the robot stories.

Heinlein: most of the Future History stories, most of his other important short fiction ("Jonathan Hoag", "By His Bootstraps", "Crooked House", 'Waldo", etc.), Orphans Of The Sky, Sixth Column, Beyond This Horizon (I don't like this much, but it was very influential--"the door dilated" and all that), and the first three juvies. He did a lot of stuff in the Fifties that's still popular (including the rest of the juvies), but I think the Forties were when he took the field by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake.

Clarke's a bit younger, but was at least well-established before the Galaxy wave: Against The Fall of Night was published in 1948; Childhood's End was published in its original form in 1950, and expanded into novel we know today in 1953.

(Thanks to Messrs. Clute and Nicholls for the biblio data.)

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

I have to agree with you about the 40s careers of these guys. That's what I get for shooting from the hip - I had placed much of this in the 50s but was quite wrong.


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