1958’s The Other Side of the Sky1 is a collection by Arthur C. Clarke. The Signet MMPB is only 160 pages long, but there are two dozen stories in this book. Most are rather short.
Bibliographical Note • essay
Notes on the backgrounds to the individual stories.
“The Nine Billion Names of God” • (1953) • short story
A Tibetan monastery is an unexpected client for a computer company. However, the monks’ money is good and so the project goes ahead. As completion nears, the computer scientists worry how the monks will react when their religion is revealed as false. Their fears prove unfounded.
I know he didn’t move to Sri Lanka until 1956, but perhaps Clarke had begun to visit by this point? This story starts off as “Asians, who are assumed to be backward by the befuddled white protagonist, prove curiously modern in certain respects.” It then proceeds to demolish the assumption that local religions are just silly superstitions.
It only now occurs to me that of course the cost of the computer to run the apocalyptic program was irrelevant. After all, if the monks were right, the final check would never be cashed.
“Refugee” • (1955) • short story
A young man imprisoned by convention leaps on a chance to escape.
I hadn’t noticed that the British royal family is unwilling to let heirs do risky things (in the military at least). Perhaps this is an instance of different times, different mores.
Other Side of the Sky:
The stories in this section are all vignettes relating to the construction of the first communication satellites.
“Special Delivery” • (1957) • short story
Computer error in a leads to a slight delay in delivery.
The cargo rocket is automated, which, given what happens in the story. is for the best. There’s no hint that the same automation that allows rockets to deliver payloads to geosynch could be used to make satellite crews unnecessary.
“Feathered Friend” • (1957) • short story
An eccentric decision to keep a pet on the satellite has interesting consequences.
“Take a Deep Breath” • (1957) • short story
A mishap leaves the protagonist with no choice but to brave the vacuum of space, unprotected.
The main injury the protagonist suffers is sunburn, thanks to 15 seconds exposure to sunlight unfiltered by 100 km of atmosphere. I wonder just how serious those burns would be.
My understanding is that the process by which blood absorbs oxygen in atmosphere works efficiently in reverse in vacuum. A human exposed to vacuum would probably pass out faster than the protagonist does in the story. Clarke is generally good on such details, so it’s likely just a case of Science Marches On.
“Freedom of Space” • (1957) • short story
Why would a man choose life in orbit?
“Passer-By” • (1957) • short story
A curious object seen in passing hints that humanity is not alone. If he is to reveal what he saw, the sole witness would have to explain why he was where he was at the time.…
“The Call of the Stars” • (1957) • short story
Having gone to space over the objections of his father, the narrator finds himself being left behind in turn.
“The Wall of Darkness” • (1949) • short story
Why did an ancient civilization build a vast wall circumnavigating the world? The secret could drive men mad.
Men are seemingly oddly easy to drive mad. Should have sent a woman.
This is set in a rather dismal universe: one star, one living world. Once the world dies, that is it for life in this universe.
“Security Check” • (1956) • short story
An unworldly special effects wizard’s props prove all too visionary.
“No Morning After” • (1954) • short story
The kindly aliens did their best to save humanity. Such a pity that their only contact on Earth was an engineer drinking himself into a stupor in response to professional and romantic setbacks.
Venture to the Moon:
“The Starting Line” • (1956) • short story
The joint British-American-Russian expedition to the Moon exemplifies international cooperation. Nonetheless, only one of the three ships could be first to the Moon.…
“Robin Hood, F.R.S”. • (1956) • short story
When a supply rocket misses its mark, an old technology allows the Lunar expedition to recover the supplies.
“Green Fingers” • (1956) • short story
An ambitious biologist’s efforts end in tragic success.
“All That Glitters” • (1956) • short story
An explorer delivers the riches of the Moon to his grasping wife. It all comes to naught.
I didn’t think of Clarke as being aware enough of women to be ill-disposed towards them. What I noticed in this re-read is that all the women of note in this collection have jilted or otherwise hurt the protagonists. Except in the one case where she is the protagonist.
“Watch This Space” • (1956) • short story
How long will it take to commodify the Moon? Thanks to a few well-placed bribes, not long at all.
One of the more acrimonious arguments on the Usenet sci.space.* groups was the desirability of orbital billboards. You might be surprised to find out just how determined some people can be to let the night sky obscured by Burma Shave ads.
“A Question of Residence” • (1956) • short story
It’s clear why someone would want to be the first to reach the Moon but why would someone want to be last one to return to the Earth?
Hint: Clarke was more or less a voluntary tax exile from the UK.
“Publicity Campaign” • (1953) • short story
Entertainment industries and first contact prove to have a dreadful synergy.
Ah, imperial self-restraint, as exemplified by Amritsar, on a much vaster scale.
“All the Time in the World” • (1952) • short story
An ambitious burglar jumps at the chance to carry out the caper of a lifetime.
“Cosmic Casanova” • (1958) • short story
An interstellar Lothario discovers that the joke is on him.
“The Star” • (1955) • short story
A devout man discovers God has a curious sense of humour.
Another recurring theme: the end of the world. Not always the Earth.
Out of the Sun • (1958) • short story
Astronomers on Mercury view a vast being in its last moments.
“Transience” • (1949) • short story
All things pass, including humans on Earth.
The Songs of Distant Earth • (1958) • novelette
An isolated, low population world finds itself hosting a passing ship from Old Earth. Romantic hijinks ensue!
I remember liking this as a teen. The colony world may be low population, but its lack of drama was appealing.
Odd what tricks memory plays: I’d convinced myself that “The Sentinel,” the story that was the seed for 2001: A Space Odyssey, was part of the Venture to the Moon sequence. Not so.
Two themes that turn out over and over in this collection:
1: Romance is chancy. Five of the stories involve romantic setbacks, sometimes because the women chose someone else, sometimes because the man had some personal issue that doomed the relationship. I tend to think of Clarke’s fiction as ignoring romance, but perhaps I’ve been mistaken. After all, Imperial Earth is mostly about the consequences of a disastrous teen affair..
2: This Too Shall Pass. Six of these stories are set on doomed worlds. Another story ponders (for no obvious reason) the possibility that recently contacted aliens might scour life from Earth. Some stories are melancholy or contemplative in tone. In a few, the extinction of the human race is merely a punch line.
Perhaps because these stories are short, they also tend to be rather slight. There’s a twist or a joke and that’s about it. Harmless enough, I suppose. But I now understand why I’ve never been able to read the complete Clarke collection, cover to cover, in one go. It would be like eating my weight in meringue.
The Other Side of the Sky is out of print.
1: Yes, I did pick this book for review because I’d recently reviewed two other books with “The Other Side” in their titles.