Friday, December 17, 2010

Before they were famous - ACC

This is number three in an increasingly regular series.

I thought I would take a leap into the past and see what Arthur C Clarke was like at the start of his career. The first story he sold was Rescue Party which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1946. It was not the first he had published. A story he sold later, called Loophole,
appeared the month before. Rescue Party was written in March 1945 when ACC was 28, in the RAF and working on the development of radar. Soon after the war he began studying mathematics and physics at Kings.Ron Miller's cover on the June 1950 issue of A...Image via Wikipedia

Knowing that I can see how the atmosphere ACC inhabited while writing the story informs its themes and conclusion. It's essentially a mystery story that reveals how technology helped mankind escape the sun going supernova. The story is broadly about a number of aliens who
investigate what has happened to the creatures that live on Earth. The big reveal comes at the end when humanity is discovered prospering a long way away from Earth. The threat in its closing line is all the more chilling given the period in which it was written.

What is astonishing about the story is its faith that technology can solve all problems and its view of mankind as a vigorous, innovative species that shows up all those aliens by developing technologies in mere centuries that they slaved over for millennia. In that sense it is as dated as an Ealing comedy.

It is also dated by its description of what was cutting edge tech in the 1940s. Valves, relays and thyratrons get a mention as do the "almost human Hollerith analyzers". I wonder if they still used punch cards? It's from a time when IBM, which subsumed Hollerith, was turning out up
to 10 million punch cards a day. Its interesting to note (for me, at least) that the 80 columns of text on some early monitors is a hangover from the punch card days.

From the lordly pedestal of the 21st century those technologies look quaint and I guess the same will be true 70 years from now when a human (or whatever we have become by then) reads the SF of today. Social networks? Pah.

Rescue Party also suffers from the faults of many stories about aliens in that the creatures and races depicted are not really that different from people. They have a few physical and mental differences but those are talked about rather than shown. What was good was that the aliens
are not gods, the technology they use has its limits and much of the tension of the story emerges from a race to find out what happened to man before the sun goes boom and the aliens get fried.

To its credit the story nips along smartly (though there are a lot of adverbs) and is a good whistle-stop tour of a dying Earth. As Eric Flint writes in his introduction, despite the threat at the end, it is an inspiring story. It contemplates a future and mankind's part in it. I don't believe it for a second but its good to dream.
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