Sir Arthur C Clarke, who died yesterday, is probably best remembered for getting his physics right. This is the bloke who, for a bit of a lark, worked out the height at which something in orbit above the Earth would match the planet’s speed of rotation. He did this long before there were such things as satellites, where being in what’s essentially a fixed position over the Earth is quite useful. And, rather sweetly, he worked it out as a fun mental exercise in a sci-fi magazine.
His Space Odyssey stories (2001; 2010; 2061; 3001) are also grounded in the latest discoveries from NASA’s missions into the void, accurately spelling out the time spent travelling between planets and describing the correct mineral constitution of moons. Many of the obituaries have stressed the link between his stories and his contributions to proper, real science.
Thing is, I’ve always preferred science-fiction to be more about the fiction. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the science isn’t important (or just that I’m not very good at it). But sci-fi is period drama, only not set in the past. The props and costumes conjure an atmosphere and lend flavour to the story but it’s the story that’s got to be the focus.
Think about the period drama on telly. It doesn’t wholly matter if your stiff-collared actors don’t shout into their candlestick telephones, or if a set designer’s decided that those phones look nicer without thick cabling like an elephant’s trunk. You don’t actively try to get it wrong and you should do your research. But period drama can easily get bogged down in the tedious detail of etiquette and sci-fi is at its most ponderous when dumping information about how its world works. Much better to get back to the gun-shoots and explosions.
Sir Arthur’s stories are often actually very good at doing just that. Like the very best writers, you don’t always notice the research that’s gone in to the engaging story. His early novel, Childhood’s End, is better known amongst my peers by two of its best rip-offs – Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who and the Daemons. It takes the central conceit of Joseph Campbell’s rather sloppy The Hero With 1,000 Faces – that all mankind’s religions and cultures are off-shoots of the same basic stories – and adds a twist – because early man was mentored by an alien.
The book pre-empts a lot of sci-fi of the 60s and 70s (and songs by Pink Floyd and Bowie) with it’s dawning of a new age for the teenagers which the old folk cannot dig. But its real joy is what theorists of sci-fi have sometimes called the “conceptual breakthrough”. This is the jaw-dropping, gosh-wow bit in good sci-fi where the author has spun the whole story on a massive change in your perspective. Oh blimey, you realise, our 10,000 year-old ideologies are all based on a spaceman with horns.
It leaves the reader open-mouthed like the dupe at the end of an episode of TV’s Mission: Impossible, all the sound effects and scenery revealed as a clever conjuring trick. It’s those big-concept surprises that make sci-fi so addictive.
(There’s a similar phrase from Iain M Banks’ Excession which is not entirely the same thing. An “outside context problem” – like what the Spanish were to the Mayas with their exploding fire sticks – is more total bafflement. A conceptual breakthrough is, even if just to the reader, a momentous revelation.)
Some more examples of the best conceptual breakthroughs. There’s one at the end of Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston finds a statue on a beach. There’s one at the end of Soylent Green when Charlton Heston finds out what the special foodstuff means to people. You can see the pattern – most top sci-fi hinges on one brilliant reveal.
The four in 2001: A Space Odyssey make up the structure of the film. An alien artefact teaches the apes; an alien artefact awaits us on the Moon; Dave’s beaten HAL and goes to meet the alien artefact; and, er, something about a huge space-baby. Everything else hangs off those freaky moments. It’s not just the physics that have been got right, either; the effects are amazing; the scale constantly enormous with tiny humans in the foreground. And, quite brilliantly, the humans twitter on about nothing in particular, minuscule and mundane. It is only the observing us that finds it wondrous.
But a really good example of the importance of gosh-wow over the numbers is a short story which, annoyingly, Neil Gaiman also linked to in his Clarke post. Unlike Neil, I didn’t meet Sir Arthur but I did once have his telephone number – and that was on a copy of The Nine Billion Names of God.
Spoilers follow so click the link, read the story and come back here after for my paltry thoughts.
How’s that for a gosh-wow ending? Can’t you see Jim Phelps just escaping in his van, his props and costumes abandoned at your feet? And yet, when I first read it, a learned chum who was much more into sci-fi for the physics had a Different View.
For him, the great brilliance of the lack of fuss in that closing line was that that’s not how physics works. The stars are millions of billions of light years away – from us and from each other. It’s not just that you shout “Go!” and they wink off one by one. They’ll have been winking off for millions of years, all in a fiendishly complex and intricate order and just so that – to a computer programmer watching from the Earth – they seem to be extinguishing one by one.
The Clever Thing, said this learned colleague, was that the stars had been going out for millions of years, it just so happened that the time taken by the light of those destructions to register on Earth all rather neatly coincided – the implication being that it is not coincidence. So the programmer, his machine and its result have all been long-expected. This, he said, proved a mechanical universe operating like clockwork; the man-made computer just a machine in a machine. He didn’t agree with my gosh-wow reading at all, that the computer was rendered nothing to the magic truth of God. And we argued long into the night.
I’m not sure what this not-entirely-interesting anecdote might mean. But I’m rather sad I missed the chance to ever share it with Sir Arthur.