Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Of Time and Stars: Arthur C. Clarke

Science fiction was part of my growing years, as much as crime fiction, adventure, fantasy and the like were. However, over time, I gravitated away from it for the same reason I did with fantasy: if I cannot imagine it happening to me, I cannot relate with it.

Recently, one of my friends put me at ease about science fiction by a simple definition of the genre: take normal life and twist / invert / change one aspect of it, and that’s science fiction for you. I was taken by the definition. So after a long time, and not with a bit of trepidation, I picked up a science fiction book: Arthur C. Clarke’s Of Time and Stars. The short story format reassured me – I can’t lose the plot for too long. Different worlds, the moon, stars, aliens, plants, animals and birds (oh yes, and humans) – all this and more make up this collection of 18 very short stories.

As with any diverse collection, you are bound to like some and not be too impressed with others. Of Time and Stars had more stories I liked than ones that left me cold. If the nifty play on gravity in Green Fingers chills you, the back-to-the-basics simplicity of Into the Comet cannot fail to impress you. The Reluctant Orchid grips you; All the Time in the World freezes you; An Ape About the House sweeps you off your feet. Then there is the philosophical angle in The Fires Within and the religious touches in Encounter at Dawn (Why does this remind me of a story on the Magi by Roald Dahl?) and The Nine Billion Names of God. If the cat and mouse game in Hide and Seek is riveting, the kitten in Who’s There? is cute, as is the canary in Feathered Friend. And then there is Security Check, easily the most stunning story in the collection: every time I think of it my spine tingles. The collection is rounded off by The Sentinel, the story that was the genesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey later on.

Arthur C. Clarke died earlier today. The world of science fiction (and science) loses of one of its most significant voices and minds. I recall Clarke’s Three Laws from Profiles of the Future, published as long ago as 1962.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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