The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Slapstick (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Origins

It all started with a short story Clarke wrote for a BBC competition in 1948 when he was just 21, and titled The Sentinel. It was eventually published in 1951 under the title Sentinel of Eternity.

13 years later, after completing Dr. Strangelove in 1964, American movie director Stanley Kubrick turned his thoughts to making a film with a science fiction subject. Someone suggested Clarke as a source and collaborator, and when they met, later in 1964, they got on well and formed a good working relationship.

Neither of them could have predicted that it would take them four long years of brainstorming, viewing and reading hundreds of sci-fi movies and stories, and then honing and refining the narrative, to develop the screenplay which became the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 and one of the most influential movies of all time.

The original plan had been to develop the story as a novel first, then turn it into a screenplay, then into the film, but the process ended up being more complex than that. The novel ended up being written mostly by Clarke, while Kubrick’s screenplay departed from it in significant ways.

The most obvious difference is that the book is full of Clarke’s sensible, down-to-earth, practical explanations of all or most of the science involved. It explains things. From the kick-start given to human evolution by the mysterious monolith through to Bowman’s journey through the Star Gate, Clarke explains and contextualises.

This is all in stark contrast with the film which Kubrick made as cryptic as possible by reducing dialogue to an absolute minimum, and eliminating all explanation. Kubrick is quoted as saying that the film was ‘basically a visual, nonverbal experience’, something which a novel, by definition, can not be.

The novel

The novel is divided into 47 short snappy chapters, themselves grouped into six sections.

1. Primeval Night

The basic storyline is reasonably clear. A million years ago an alien artefact appears on earth, materialising in Africa, in the territory of a small group of proto-human man-apes. Clarke describes their wretched condition in the hot parched Africa of the time, permanently bordering on starvation, watered only by a muddy streamlet, dying of malnutrition and weakness or of old age at 30, completely at the mercy of predators like a local leopard.

The object – 15 feet high and a yard wide – appears from nowhere. When the ape-men lumber past it on the way to their foraging ground, it becomes active and literally puts ideas into their heads. It takes possession of members of the group in turn and forces them to tie knots in grass, to touch their fingers together, to perform basic physical IQ tests. Then, crucially, it patiently shows them how to use stones and the bones of dead animals as tools.

The result is that they a) kill and eat a wild pig, the first meat ever eaten by the ape-men b) surround and kill the leopard that’s been menacing the tribe c) use these skills to bludgeon the leader of ‘the Others’, a smaller weaker tribe on the other side of the stream. In other words, the alien artefact has intervened decisively in the course of evolution to set man on his course to becoming a planet-wide animal killer and tool maker.

In the kind of fast-forward review section which books can do and movies can’t, Clarke then skates over the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which follow, during which human’s teeth became smaller, their snouts less prominent, giving them the ability to make more precise sounds through their vocal cords – the beginnings of speech – how ice ages swept over the world killing most human species but leaving the survivors tougher, more flexible, more intelligent, and then the discovery of fire, of cooking, a widening of diet and survival strategies. And then to the recent past, to the Stone, Iron and Bronze ages, and sweeping right past the present to the near future and the age of space travel.

Compare and contrast the movie where all this is conveyed by the famous cut from a bone thrown into the air by an ape-man which is half way through its parabola when it turns into a space ship in orbit round earth. Prose describes, film dazzles.

2. T.M.A.-1

It is 2001. Humanity has built space stations in orbit around the earth, and a sizeable base on the moon. Dr Heywood Floyd, retired astrophysicist, is taking the journey from the American launch base in Florida, to dock with the orbiting space station, and then on to the moon base.

Clarke in his thorough, some might say pedantic, way, leaves no aspect of the trip undescribed and unexplained. How the rocket launcher works, how to prepare for blast-off, how the space station maintains a sort of gravity by rotating slowly, the precise workings of its space toilets (yes), the transfer to the shuttle down to the moon: Clarke loses no opportunity to mansplain every element of the journey, including some favourite facts familiar from the other stories I’ve read: the difference between weight and mass; how centrifugal spin creates increased gravity the further you are from the axis of spin; ‘the moon’s strangely close horizon’ (p.74); how damaging an alien artifact would be the work of a ‘barbarian’ (a thought repeated several times in Rama).

Two other features emerge. Clarke’s protagonists are always men, and they are almost always married men, keen to keep in touch with their wives, using videophones. In other words they’re not valiant young bucks as per space operas. It’s another element in the practical, level-headed approach of Clarke’s worldview.

Secondly, Clarke is a great one for meetingsChildhood’s End‘s middle sections rotate around the Secretary General of the United Nations who has a busy schedule of meetings, from his weekly conference with the Overlords to his meetings with the head of the Freedom league, and his discussion of issues arising with his number two.

A Fall of Moondust features hurried conferences between the top officials on the moon. The narrative of Rendezvous with Rama is punctuated all the way through by meetings of the committee made up of with representatives from the inhabited planets, who discuss the issues arising but also get on each other’s nerves, bicker and argue, grandstand, storm out and so on. His fondness for the set meeting, with a secretary taking notes and a chairman struggling to bring everyone into line, is another of the features which makes Clarke’s narratives seem so reassuringly mundane and rooted in reality.

Same here. Floyd is flying to the moon to take part in a top secret, high-level meeting of moon officials. He opens the meeting by conveying the President’s greetings and thanks (as people so often do in sci-fi thrillers like this).

In brief: a routine survey of the moon has turned up a magnetic anomaly in the huge crater named Tycho. (The anomaly has been prosaically named Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One – hence the section title T.M.A.-1.) When the surveyors dug down they revealed an object, perfectly smooth and perfectly black, eleven foot high, five foot wide and one and a quarter foot deep. Elementary geology has shown that the object was buried there three million years ago.

After a briefing with the moon team Floyd goes out by lunar tractor to the excavation site where digging has now fully revealed the artifact. Floyd and some others go down into the excavation and walk round the strange object which seems to absorb light. The sun is rising (the moon turns on its axis once in fourteen days) and as its light falls onto the artifact – for probably the first time in millions of years – Floyd and the others are almost deafened by five intense burst of screeching sound which cut through their radio communications.

Millions of miles away in space, deep space monitors, orbiters round Mars, a probe launched to Pluto – all record and measure an unusual burst of energy streaking across the solar system… Cut to:

3. Between Planets

David Bowman is captain of the spaceship Discovery. It was built to transport two live passengers (himself and Frank Poole) and three others in suspended animation, to Jupiter. But two years into the project the TMA-1 discovery was made and plans were changed. Now the ship is intending to use the gravity of Jupiter as a sling to propel it on towards Saturn. When they enter Saturn’s orbit the three sleeping crew members (nicknamed ‘hibernauts’) will be woken and the full team of five will have 100 days to study the super-massive gas giant, before all the crew re-enter hibernation, and wait to be picked up by Discovery II, still under construction.

Clarke is characteristically thorough in describing just about every aspect of deep space travel you could imagine, the weightlessness, the scientific reality of hibernation, the food, what the earth looks like seen from several million miles away. He gives an hour by hour rundown of Bowman and Poole’s 24-hour schedule, which is every bit as boring as the thing itself. He describes in minute astronomical detail the experience of flying through the asteroid belt and on among the moons of Jupiter, watching the sun ‘set’ behind it and other strange and haunting astronomical phenomena which no one has seen.

Then there’s a sequence in which he imagines the pictures sent back by a probe which Bowman and Poole send down into Jupiter’s atmosphere: fantastic but completely plausible imaginings. After reporting what they see from the ship, and the images relayed by the probe, the couple have done with Jupiter and set their faces to Saturn, some three months and four hundred million miles away.

The awesomeness doesn’t come from the special effects and canny use of classical music, as per the movie, but from straightforward statement of the scientific and technical facts – such as that they are now 700 million miles from earth (p.131), travelling at a speed of over one hundred thousand miles an hour (p.114).

4. Abyss

All activities on the Discovery are run or monitored by the ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000, ‘the brain and nervous system of the ship’ (p.97). HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It is the most advanced form of the self-teaching neural network which, Clarke predicts, will have been discovered in the 1980s.

HAL has a nervous breakdown. He predicts the failure of the unit which keeps the radio antenna pointed at earth. Poole goes out in one of the nine-foot space pods, anchors to the side of the ship, then does a short space walk in a space suit, unbolts the failing unit and replaces it.

But back inside the ship the automatic testing devices find nothing wrong with the unit. When a puzzled Bowman and Poole report all this back to earth, Mission Control come back with the possibility that the HAL 9000 unit might have made a mistake.

Poole and Bowman ponder the terrifying possibility that the computer which is running the whole mission might be failing. Mission Control send a further message saying the two HAL 9000 units they are using to replicate all aspects of the mission back home both now recommend disconnecting the HAL computer aboard the Discovery. Earth is just in the middle of starting to give details about how to disconnect HAL when the radio antenna unit really does fail and contact with earth is broken. Coincidence? Bear in mind that HAL has been monitoring all of these conversations…

After discussing the possibility that HAL was right all along about the unit and that they are being paranoid  about him, Poole goes out for another space walk and repair. He’s in the middle of installing the new unit when he sees something out the corner of his eye, looks up and sees the pod suddenly shooting straight at him. With no time to take evasive action Poole is crushed by the ten-ton pod, his space suit ruptured, he is dead in seconds. Through an observation window Bowman sees first the pod and then Bowman’s body fly past and away from the ship.

Bowman confronts Hal, who calmly regrets that there has been accident. Mission orders demand that Bowman now revive one of the three hibernators since there must always be two people active on the ship. HAL argues with Bowman, saying this won’t be necessary, by which stage Bowman realises there is something seriously wrong. He threatens to disconnect HAL at which point the computer abruptly relents. Bowman makes his way to the three hibernator pods and has just started to revive the next in line of command, Whitehead when… HAL opens both doors of the ship’s airlock and all the air starts to flood out into space. In the seconds before the ship becomes a vacuum, Bowman manages to make it to an emergency alcove, seal himself in, jets it up with oxygen and climb into the spacesuit kept there for just such emergencies.

Having calmed down from the shock, Bowman secures his suit then climbs out, makes his way through the empty, freezing, lifeless ship to the sealed room where HAL’s circuits are stored and powered and… systematically removes all the ‘higher’ functions which permit HAL to ‘think’, leaving only the circuits which control the ship’s core functions. HAL asks him not to and, exactly as in the film, reverts to his ‘childhood’, his earliest learning session, finally singing the song ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’

Hours later Bowman makes a journey in the remaining pod to fix the radio antenna, then returns, closes the airlock doors and slowly restores atmosphere to the ship. Then contacts earth. And it is only now that Dr Floyd, summoned by Mission Control, tells him the true reason for the mission. Tells him about the artifact in Tycho crater. Tells him that it emitted some form of energy which all our monitors indicate was targeted at Saturn, specifically at one of its many moon, Japetus. That is what the Discovery has been sent to investigate.

And it is only in the book that Clarke is able to tell us why HAL went mad. It was the conflict between a) the demand to be at all times totally honest, open and supportive of his human crew and b) the command to keep the true purpose of the mission secret, which led HAL to have a nervous breakdown, and decide to remove one half of the conflict i.e. the human passengers, which would allow him to complete the second half, the mission to Saturn, in perfect peace of ‘mind’.

5. The Moons of Saturn

So now Bowman properly understands the mission, goes about fixing the Discovery, is in constant contact with earth and Clarke gives us an interesting chapter pondering the meaning of the sentinel and what it could have been saying. Was it a warning to its makers, or a message to invade? Where was the message sent? To beings which had evolved on or near Saturn (impossible, according to all the astrophysicists)? Or to somewhere beyond the solar system itself? In which case how could anything have travelled that far, if Einstein is correct and nothing can travel faster than light?

These last two chapters have vastly more factual information in than the movie. What the movie does without any dialogue, with stunning images and eerie music, Clarke does with his clear authoritative factual explanations. He gives us detailed descriptions of the rings of Saturn from close up, along with meticulously calculated information about perihelions and aphelions and the challenges of getting into orbit around Saturn.

But amid all this factuality is the stunning imaginative notion that the moon of Saturn, Japetus, bears on its surface a vast white eye shape at the centre of which stands an enormous copy of the TMA artifact, a huge jet black monolith maybe a mile high.

Which leads into a chapter describing the race which placed it there, which had evolved enough to develop planet travel, then space travel, then moved their minds into artificial machines and then into lattices of light which could spread across space and so, finally, into what humans would call spirit, free from time and space, at one with the universe.

It is this enormous artifact which Bowman now radios Mission Control he is about to go down to in the pod and explore.

6. Through the Star Gate

In the movie this section becomes a non-verbal experience of amazing visual effects. A book can’t do that. It has to describe and, being Clarke, can’t help also explaining, at length, what is going on.

Thus the book is much clearer and more comprehensible about what happens in this final section. Bowman guides his pod down towards the enormous artifact and is planning to land on its broad ‘top’ when, abruptly it turns from being an object sticking out towards him into a gate or cave or tunnel leading directly through the moon it’s situated on. He has just time to make one last comment to Mission Control before the pod is sucked through into the star gate and his adventure begins.

He travels along some faster-than-light portal, watching space bend around him and time slow down to a halt. He emerges into a place where the stars are more static and, looking back, sees a planet with a flat face pockmarked by black holes like the one he’s just come through, and what, when he looks closely, seems to be the wreck of a metal spaceship. He realises this must be a kind of terminal for spaceships between voyages, then the pod slowly is sucked back into one of the holes.

More faster than light travelling, then he emerges into a completely unknown configuration of stars, red dwarfs, sun clusters, the pod slows to a halt and comes to rest in… a hotel room.

Terrified, Bowman makes all the necessary checks, discovers it has earth gravity and atmosphere, gets out of the pod, takes off his spacesuit, has a shower and shave, dresses in one of the suits of clothes provided in a wardrobe, checks out the food in the fridge, or in tins or boxes of cereal.

But he discovers that the books on the coffee table have no insides, the food inside the containers is all the same blue sludge. When he lies on the bed flicking through the channels on the TV he stumbles across a soap opera which is set in this very same hotel room he is lying in. Suddenly he understands. The sentinel, after being unearthed, monitored all radio and TV signals from earth and signalled them to the Japetus relay station and on here – wherever ‘here’ is – and used them as a basis to create a ‘friendly’ environment for their human visitor.

Bowman falls asleep on the bed and while he sleeps goes back in time, recapitulating his whole life. And part of him is aware that all the information of his entire life is being stripped from his mind and transferred to a lattice of light, the same mechanism which Clarke explained earlier in the novel, was the invention of the race which created the sentinel. Back, back, back his life reels until – in a miraculous moment – the room contains a baby, which opens its mouth to utter its first cry.

The crystal monolith appears, white lights flashing and fleering within its surface, as we saw them do when it first taught the man-apes how to use tools and eat meat, all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Now it is probing and instructing the consciousness of Bowman, guiding him towards the next phase. The monolith disappears. The being that was Bowman understands, understands its meaning, understands how to travel through space far faster than the primitive star gate he came here by. All he needs is to focus his ‘mind’ and he is there.

For a moment he is terrified by the immensity of space and the infinity of the future, but then realises he is not alone, becomes aware of some force supporting and sustaining him, the guiders.

Using thought alone he becomes present back in the solar system he came from. Looking down he becomes aware of alarm bells ringing and flotillas of intercontinental missiles hurtling across continents to destroy each other. He has arrived just as a nuclear war was beginning. Preferring an uncluttered sky, he abolishes all the missiles with his will.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And those are the final sentences of the book.

Thoughts

Like Childhood’s End the book proceeds from fairly understandable beginnings to a mind-boggling, universe-wide ending, carrying the reader step by step through what feels almost – if you let it take control of your imagination – like a religious experience.

Eliot Fremont-Smith reviewing the book in the New York Times, commented that it was ‘a fantasy by a master who is as deft at generating accelerating, almost painful suspense as he is knowledgeable and accurate (and fascinating) about the technical and human details of space flight and exploration.’

That strikes me as being a perfect summation of Clarke’s appeal – the combination of strict technical accuracy, with surprisingly effective levels of suspense and revelation.

His concern for imagining the impact of tiny details reminds me of H.G. Wells. In the Asimov and Blish stories I’ve been reading, if there’s a detail or the protagonist notices something, it will almost certainly turn out to be important to the plot. Clarke is the direct opposite. Like Wells his stories are full of little details whose sole purpose is to give the narrative a terrific sense of verisimilitude.

To pick one from hundreds, I was struck by the way that Dr Floyd finds wearing a spacesuit on the surface of the moon reassuring. Why? Because its extra weight and stiffness counter the one sixth gravity of the moon, and so subconsciously remind him of the gravity on earth. Knowing that fact, and then deploying it in order to describe the slight but detectable impact it has on one of his characters’ moods,strikes me as typical Clarke.

Hundreds of other tiny but careful thinkings-though of the situations which his characters find themselves in, bring them home and make them real.

And as to suspense, Clarke is a great fan of the simple but straightforward technique of ending chapters with a threat of disaster. E.g. after his first space walk Poole returns to the ship confident that he has fixed the problem.

In this, however, he was sadly mistaken. (p.140)

Although this is pretty cheesy, it still works. He is a master of suspense. The three other novels I’ve read by him are all thrilling, and even though I’ve seen the movie umpteen times and so totally know the plot, reading Clarke’s book I was still scared when HAL started malfunctioning, and found Bowman’s struggle to disconnect him thrilling and moving.

As to the final section, when Bowman travels through the star gate and is transformed into a new form of life, of celestial consciousness, if you surrender to the story the experience is quite mind-boggling.

It also explains a lot – and makes much more comprehensible – what is left to implication and special effects in the movie.

Forlorn predictions

Clarke expects that by 2001:

  • there will be a permanent colony on the moon, where couples will be having and bringing up children destined never to visit the earth
  • there will also be a colony on Mars
  • there will be a ‘plasma drive’ which allows for super-fast spaceship travel to other planets

I predict there will never be a colony on the moon, let alone Mars, and no ‘plasma drive’.

On the plus side, Clarke predicts that by 2001 there will be a catastrophic six billion people on earth, which will result in starvation, and food preservation policies even in the rich West. In the event there were some 6.2 billion people alive in 2001, but although there were the usual areas of famine in the world, there wasn’t the really widespread food shortages Clarke predicted.

The future has turned out to be much more human, mundane, troubled and earth-bound than Clarke and his generation expected.

Trailer

Credit

All references are to the 2011 reprint of the 1998 Orbit paperback edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, first published by Hutchinson in 1968.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
  • Rendezvous With Rama (1973) it is 2031 and when an alien object, a cylinder 15 k wide by 50 k long, enters the solar system, and Commander Norton and the crew of Endeavour are sent to explore it

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

This is another gripping read from Arthur C. Clarke which, although entirely sci-fi in its setting, is one of the most genuinely gripping and exciting books I’ve read in years. It knocks the contrived plots and zero characterisations of Isaac Asimov into a cocked hat.

The disaster

The premise is simple: It’s the 21st century. Man has established several colonies on the moon, the main one being big Port Clavius, a cluster of heated domes with an earth atmosphere and a population of about 25,000.

Nearer to the dark side of the moon is the smaller Port Roris. This is a jumping off point for scientific expeditions to the dark side, but also for a popular tourist attraction – a ‘bus’ trip across the huge Sea of Thirst, an ancient volcanic crater which has slowly sifted up with moon dust over millions of years.

20 tourists have signed up for today’s trip in the cruise ship Selene, which has been designed to skim over the surface of the dust-filled sea. It is captained by Pat Harris who likes to put on a show by turning the cabin lights off to let earthlight flood in through the portholes, or by skirting close to the sheer cliffs which border the sea.

What nobody knows is a big bubble of gas has been building up beneath the thin crust of rock at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, after millennia, it finally works loose and, for a few minutes, bubbles up through the thick moondust, bursts and dissipates into the moon’s thin to non-existent atmosphere. For those few moments it creates an inverted cone of dust whose loose sides run down to fill up the gap of its passage. Unfortunately, this all happens at just the moment that the Selene is passing above. The dinky little dust-cruiser tips head first down into the cone and the horrified captain and passengers watch through portholes as the moon dust rises to cover the bus as it disappears beneath the surface of the dust which slowly covers it over.

Soon all is perfectly quiet again, the surface of the dust sea is as flat as ever, there is no trace of any disturbance – and the Selene and its passengers are buried 15 metres beneath the surface!

The hunt

When Moon base fails to receive its hourly signal from Selene a sequence of alarms is raised, at first fairly routine, but soon escalating to a serious alert. And it’s here that the book becomes interesting. Because this serious but essentially small incident allows Clarke to give a fascinating and very believable overview of lunar society, science and organisation.

The book introduces a surprisingly large cast of characters who are presented in realistic human postures rather than Dan Dare heroism. Thus some are irritated about the incident, or worried about the bad publicity, or concerned about the cost of any rescue on an already over-stretched budget.

The way a small incident ramifies out to involve so many people, and expose so many professional and personal relationships, reminded me of the classic disaster movies from the 1970s.

There’s the head of the moon colony (Chief Administrator Olsen) worried about what to say to the relatives of the missing passengers, the Head of Lunar Tourism Davis, who is understandably worried about the adverse publicity, the heads of engineering Moonside and Earthside.

Things are complicated when the leading expert on lunar geology – who happens to also be a Jesuit priest, Father Vincent Ferraro S.J. – gives disastrously misleading information. Because his instruments detected tremors on the surface, and because searchers dispatched to the area discover there have been big rockslides from the mountains bordering the Sea of Thirst, he misleadingly decides that the Selene must have been buried under an avalanche – with no chance of survival, and the authorities set about informing the families of their sad loss, and worrying how to recuperate their losses for this tourist season.

BUT – there is a maverick young scientist, Dr Tom Lawson, based on Lagrange II, a satellite in permanent position halfway between earth and moon, who, at first word of the crisis, starts to take infra-red readings of the Sea to see if he can detect the heat trail of the Selene and so work out its final position. When Tom hears a later news broadcast confirming the Jesuit theory of a fatal avalanche, he abandons his work. But not before having taken an infrared photo of the surface of the Sea of Thirst, just out of habit. Then he goes to take his allotted sleep (he’s on a space station where everyone sleeps in fixed rotation).

But something is niggling at his subconscious and he wakes up after only a few hours and goes to recheck his photo. Looking very closely he now sees that his photo shows the hot tracks of the Selene passing through the avalanche zone and out the other side into a further patch of the Sea, before just ending in a bright red infrared hotspot. As if it exploded. Or blasted off into space. Or… sank!

It is typical of Clarke that even now Lawson hesitates about informing Moon Control. He has his reputation to think of. If he’s right, he’ll be a hero, but he’s aware that he is unpopular and if his theory leads to some kind of search which is excitedly broadcast by the media and he turns out to be wrong, then he’ll be the laughing stock of the solar system.

It’s not exactly Tolstoy, but it’s the pains he takes to think through the very human concerns of his characters which makes Clarke’s books so believable, and therefore imaginatively effective.

Finally he just about decides he ought to take the risk and contacts the lunar base. the authorities there themselves calculate whether it’s worth mounting a rescue mission on the basis of one fuzzy photograph, but give it the go-ahead.

Next thing Lawson knows he’s been squeezed onto an earth-to-moon shuttle which is redirected to collect him, much to the irritation of its captain and passengers. He is landed at Port Roris, packed into a spacesuit (during which he has a very powerfully described and realistic attack of claustrophobia) and taken out on the sort of dust-skis (Duster One and Duster Two) which are used to whizz around the moon’s surface.

At every step of the journey Clarke gives realistic attention to the practical problems and how they’re overcome, and to the emotions and conflicts in his characters. As to problems, Lawson’s infra-red detectors have to be carefully strapped to the side of one of the dust-skis, he’s worried on the whole journey that it will work free and disappear – plop – into the treacherous moon dust. And, I haven’t mentioned this so far, but it is a big factor in ratcheting up the tension – the sun is rising over the moon’s surface, slowly climbing over the nearby mountains and beginning to shed its light on the Sea of Thirst. As soon as its rays get anywhere near the Selene’s by-now quite old trail, it will obliterate all trace of its routes. The clock is ticking…

In the Selene

And, of course, all this time the clock is ticking inside the trapped tourbus. The narrative maintains tremendous momentum by hopping from one (the rescue in the wider world) to the other (the tiny claustrophobic inside of the buried bus). Here Clarke gives us a thorough run through all the available disaster movie tropes.

Captain Pat Harris has to take charge. He reassures the scared passengers that they have enough food and drink for a week and that the Selene is designed to withstand extremes of heat or pressure.

But the captain quickly discovers one of the passengers is none other than the legendary Commodore Hansteen, who led the expedition to Pluto and has set foot on more planets than any other man.

Hansteen offers his services to Harris, who gratefully accepts, but for the rest of the narrative Harris has a nagging doubt that he handed over authority, and relinquished power too easily: that he ought to have been more of a man; a conviction which resurfaces later in the story to effect the outcome of the plot.

Hansteen is used top managing crews in dangerous circumstances and he quickly organises the other passengers into a series of games and activities. A pack of cards is made which takes care of the hard core poker players. Then he gets them to pool their books and reading matter, and gets one of the passengers (the diminutive Nihal Jayawardene, Professor of Zoology from Ceylon) to set off on a public reading of the classic Western Shane.

As a break from that, he sets up a parody law court in which each of the passengers is called up and cross-questioned about their motives for wanting to come to the moon, often with humorous results, as we find out more about the cross-section of stereotypical characters on board (the retired lawyer, the ex-vaudeville dancer who is now loud and fat, the plummy Englishman who fusses about his tea, the tiny Sri Lankan who reads Shane in a precise accent, and so on).

In between this fun and games, there are the scenes, familiar to us from so many disaster movies, where the captain and the commodore huddle sweatily in the control room and tell each other what is really going on. ‘What are our chances, captain?’

Here Clarke plays expertly with our hopes and expectations by having one of the passengers be an Australian physicist, Dr Duncan MacKenzie. He gives the captain and commodore a nasty shock by telling them that, way before the food and water give out, the mounting heat will kill them. Immersed in insulating moondust the ship has no way to get rid of the heat being generated by the passengers and all its life support systems. He has been measuring the slowly rising temperature and estimates that they will only be able to survive for one more day!

The suspense

So will young Tom Lawson’s infrared equipment, hurriedly transported to the moon and strapped on to a dust-ski, be able to locate the buried ship? Even if it does, how will the authorities be able to lift an immensely heavy object from as much as forty metres down buried in dense moondust, using just two flimsy easy-to-tip-over dust-skis?

Meanwhile, inside the Selene, which of the passengers will be first to crack, which one will notice that the interior is heating up and it’s getting harder to breathe, and there is no sign of rescue? Which one will put two and two together and reach MacKenzie’s conclusion that time is much shorter than they thought? And how will the commodore and the captain manage the resulting panic?

This is the situation half-way through the story and, believe me, there is a whole moonfall of further unexpected hazards and dangers to be confronted and surmounted.

Although the whole thing is, on the face of it, a simple setup, Clarke handles it with real confidence and pacing, keeping the scenes short and punchy, and switching between locations (inside the bus, with Lawson on the dust-ski, at panicky lunar control, and so on) to create a really gripping narrative.

Unlike the preposterous plots and ruinous prose of Isaac Asimov, or the blizzard of hard science emitted by James Blish, Clarke’s grasp of technology feels rock solid. He doesn’t have to keep inventing new gizmos, quantum drives or atomic blasters to get his characters in and out of trouble.

When science and technology do give twists to the story – like MacKenzie’s revelation of the heating inside the bus, or Lawson’s rush to get clear infrared pictures of the Selene’s trail before the sun rises and obliterates all traces in its overpowering heat – they feel entirely accurate and true accounts of actually existing physics.

And it hugely helps that the characters are given adult characterisations, unlike the puppets in Asimov and the improbably perfect John Amalfi of Blish’s Okies series.

OK, Clarke’s people are still recognisably types from sci-fi and disaster movies, but they have real, approachable concerns, worries, interests and pressures which the reader can relate to. You are told enough to be able to distinguish between them, and care for them, in a way that was barely possible in the works I’ve recently read by Asimov, Blish and Bradbury.

For example, I particularly liked the head of lunar tourism fretting about the impact of the disaster on his visitor figures. I’ve worked with people like him. And there’s also an earth newspaperman who happens to be on the shuttle diverted to pick up Lawson, who gets wind of what’s going on and sees a great opportunity to get a scoop by arranging the live televising of the rescue efforts.

It’s not Tolstoy but the human-ness of Clarke’s characters, and the care he takes to depict their foibles and worries, makes the stories real and compelling.

Fresh from reading Asimov and Blish’s vast galactic space operas, reading Clarke is a huge relief. This story is the opposite of galaxy-wide conspiracies conducted by cardboard characters wielding impossible technologies. The story focuses on a very homely, small-scale accident, which Clarke magically turns into a humorous, informative and thought-provoking cross-section of his sci-fi future society, and, as the rescuers face one technical challenge after another and, as the Selene slips deeper into the moondust and faces a whole series of unexpected dangers and hazards – into a genuinely gripping and thrilling read.

A note on race

The key protagonist of the later stages of Childhood’s End, the only human ever to visit the Overlords’ planet and who ends up being the last man on earth – is a person of colour, the black man, Jan Rodricks.

And in this novel, it’s only three-quarters of the way through that we learn that the tough Australian Dr MacKenzie who Captain Harris comes to rely on in moments of crisis, is in fact not a white Australian but an Aborigine.

Not only that but, as the situation inside the moonbus becomes more critical, the captain has the bright idea of putting almost all the passengers to sleep using the painkilling drugs the ship carries in its first aid pack, in order to slow their respiration right down and preserve oxygen. The one person he chooses to stay conscious with him is MacKenzie. The pair then have to keep each other awake by talking in order to be ready when the rescuers arrive, and to periodically administer blasts of oxygen from the reserve supplies, to the other passengers.

It is telling that, during this long lonely vigil, Clarke chooses to have MacKenzie talk about his aborigine roots, telling Captain Harris some of the more appalling behaviour of the white settlers of Australia to the native population, such as deliberately poisoning them and hunting them down (pp.144-147) and then gives him a speech about how lacking literacy or technology didn’t mean his ancestors stupid, they had developed a lifestyle in perfect harmony with their environment,which is more than modern ‘civilisation’ can say.

This racial awareness of Clarke’s feels very advanced for 1961. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in both books Clarke is making a polemical point about the need for racial tolerance, and is also confidently predicting how the future will inevitably be multicultural.

And hard not to be very impressed at his prescience, holding these views, as he did, some 60 years ago, in very different times. Admirable.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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