Whole World’s Upside Down

The Other Side of the Sky — Arthur C. Clarke

Other Side Of The Sky

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comment

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comments

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?

 Comment

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.

 Comments

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.

 Comments

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!

 Comments

I remember liking this as a teen. The colony world may be low population, but its lack of drama was appealing.

General comments

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.


Comments

  • Damien

    The 2010 novel has Dave "Starchild" Bowman visiting an ex-girlfriend. Constructing an anatomically accurate representation, IIRC.

  • Damien

    And I think Heywood Floyd had a wife and kids?

    Dim memories of romance, active or past, in The Deep Range, too.

  • Roy

    I don’t think this collection was my actual gateway dose to “adult” written SF - I think that was Clarke’s Of Time and Stars, but it was certainly one of the first SF books I bought for myself, once I realised that staying a few stops past Surbiton Public Library on the 281 would take me to the metropolis of Kingston where there were bookshops where I could get books that I could keep forever!

  • JVjr

    I googled somewhat inconsecutively, ending at (unsourced) Wikipedia: "The ozone layer [...] is very effective at screening out UV-B; for radiation with a wavelength of 290 nm, the intensity at the top of the atmosphere is 350 million times stronger than at the Earth's surface." So I expect that might be enough for sunburn, unless it's in fact overkill by many orders of magnitude. Where are physicists when you need them?

  • JVjr

    Inconclusively, I mean. Bad senility! Bad!

  • Rimon Kade

    I've read this collection, though I don't recall many stories. One I do is likely because I saw the old Tales of Tomorrow episode based on "All the Time in the world" -- https://youtu.be/51Xs694ks8I

  • Peter Wezeman

    In reference to your comments on the story Take a Deep Breath:

    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.

    I do not have a copy of the story at hand, but as long as the protagonist is not described as being conscious for more than about ten seconds (similar to what was shown in a similar situation in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Clarke was correct. Once blood is no longer being oxygenated in the lungs, there remains about a ten second supply of oxygenated blood in the arteries between the lungs and the brain. In aviation medicine the length of time a pilot can function effectively following a loss of pressure is known as the "time of useful consciousness" and has been extensively studied in altitude chamber experiments. As one might expect, time of useful consciousness is shorter for higher altitudes, but it levels off at 10 to 15 seconds (there is a lot of variation between individuals) above about 50,000 feet, at which height there is no longer any effective oxygenation. In 1965 in a vacuum chamber mishap a man lost all pressure in his suit and did remain conscious for about ten seconds and recovered after pressure was restored in the chamber, which took about a minute.

    Peter Wezeman over decades.

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