Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review - The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

Stories included:
The Nine Billion Names of God
I Remember Babylon
Trouble With Time
Rescue Party
The Curse
Summertime on Icarus
Dog Star
Hide and Seek
Out of the Sun
The Wall of Darkness
No Morning After
The Possessed
Death and the Senator
Who's There?
Before Eden
A Walk in the Dark
The Call of the Stars
The Reluctant Orchid
Encounter at Dawn
'If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . .'
Patent Pending
The Sentinel
The Star

Full review: In the introduction to The Nine Billion Names of God, Clarke writes that the thread that ties this collection together is that it is comprised of his favorite stories from his repertoire. Interestingly, it turns out that Clarke's favorite stories also turn out to include pretty much all of his best and most famous stories that were published between 1953 and 1966, which makes this an excellent collection. Whether one is unfamiliar with Clarke and trying to get a high-quality sampling of his work, or a long-time fan who wants to read through some of Clarke's best stories, this is a great collection to pick up.

The highlights of the book are, unsurprisingly, among Clarke's best pieces: the title story The Nine Billion Names of God, Rescue Party, Hide and Seek, The Wall of Darkness, Superiority, "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . . ", and The Sentinel. (For those who do not know, the movie and book 2001: A Space Odyssey is an expanded treatment of The Sentinel). While these are the high points, pretty much every story in this volume is good - there is a reason that Clarke was considered one of the giants of the genre for the bulk of his career.

This is not to say that there are no missteps in the stories. Some of the story elements seem quaint now - the result of the stories having been written many decades ago. So, for example, the scene in The Sentinel in which the protagonist makes himself and his fellow lunar explorers breakfast by frying up some sausages seems, in retrospect, quite silly. The story Hide and Seek only works because the "seeker" doesn't have something as simple as a landing shuttle, which seems to me to be pretty weak engineering. And so on. Even still, most of the stories seem to have aged fairly well, with only a few elements here and there that have been invalidated by the passage of time.

The stories are mostly quite short, which should be easy enough to figure out when one realizes that twenty-five stories are packed into a volume that is a mere 240 pages long. Clarke's style is pretty straightforward and direct - each story had a main idea, and one or two central characters. Many of the stories, such as Hide and Seek or Summertime on Icarus, are what I call "engineering puzzle" stories in which the protagonist confronts a problem that threatens his life and uses basic science and engineering to solve it. Many others are "wonder" stories, such as Transience, The Nine Billion Names of God, or The Star, in which the reader is presented with the awesome majesty of the universe and invited to gaze in wonder. There are silly, humorous stories, such as Superiority and The Reluctant Orchid (although Superiority has a serious message hidden in its humor), and "shaggy god" stories such as Encounter at Dawn. And there are stories about both man's reach for greatness, such as The Call of the Stars, and man's foolish self-destructiveness, such as I Remember Babylon. In short, this collection is a huge grab bag that touches on almost every popular science fiction story type of the mid-Twentieth century.

Clarke is a practitioner and serial abuser of the "deep and meaningful last sentence" method of storytelling, as this device is used in several of the stories in this volume. To a certain extent, this probably stems from the era that the stories were written insofar as they first appeared in pulp magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, and this sort of "big reveal" moment was probably what the market demanded. Even still, the repeated used of this literary device gets a little wearying.

One story that I found particularly prescient was Death and the Senator. The science fiction of the story - the idea that an orbital hospital could be constructed and that patients would experience great benefits from being treated and recovering in zero-gravity conditions - appears to be somewhat optimistic. However, Clarke's narrative is dead-on when it comes to the short sightedness of politicians deciding whether or not to fund long-term scientific projects, and how this is likely to turn around and have substantial negative consequences as a result of our limited vision. Every time someone says "establishing a base on the moon will take a decade, so we can't start now", I think of this story and get a little bit angry.

Despite the various quibbles, the stories in the book are almost all good, with several rightly considered "great". The only stories I though were average at best were A Walk in the Dark, The Possessed, and Patent Pending and given that there are twenty-two other stories in the volume, all of superior quality, this is a minor point. Simply put, this is an excellent collection of stories from one of the top writers in the field of science fiction, and well worth reading for anyone who is a fan of the genre.

1951 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: To Serve Man by Damon Knight (awarded in 2011)
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

1954 Hugo Award Nominees

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