Monday, December 10, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "The Lion of Comarre" (novella): A man resists the temptation of eternal pleasure

While this novella length story - among the earliest by Clarke - doesn't rank high in my book, your take might vary. Because the key theme of the story is now popular in cyberpunk - technology to let you eternally dream good dreams!

I have no taste for this theme, but if you like stories of this kind, Clarke presents it in a far more readable way than much of cyberpunk. "Comarre" of title is the machine to enable such dreams; lion refers to a tame lion that behaves like a dog & is actually a distraction in the story.

When introducing it in Collected Stories, Clarke tells us that this story "was written at around the same time as Against the Fall of Night". A rewrite of Against is "The City & the Stars"; I've read only later. Comarre & City share not only a young protagonist dissatisfied in a materially very well off society & who goes on a quest, they also are forerunners to very popular themes in modern cyberpunk. City has a machine where you can store your braindump, possibly with some editing, for safekeeping, & later restore it in a new body!

Story summary.

While presented as utopia, the far future earth of this story sounds like a nightmare to me - (world?) government, running from a space station in earth orbit, is supposed to comprise of good & well intentioned politicians, & government knows so much about you & your genealogy, they can pin point your expected behavior with very good accuracy! And arrange things so you are dissuaded from variant behavior! Though they sometimes fail - particularly if you are really smart & well determined, as is the protagonist in this story.

By the year 2600, craftsmen of all kinds have done their work so well, they are no longer needed. There are almost no engineers in this utopia - since machines do all they could have done. Best minds enter politics! Though some variants are still into sciences. The story is set 500 years later - sometime in thirty-second century.

Richard Peyton III is the young protagonist who wants to study engineering, much to the disgust of his dad & grandpa. During a family argument, he runs away to his friend Alan Henson II in Scientia, a city of science on some remote island in an unnamed ocean.

Alan will show Richard two illegally obtained confidential government reports - each a "character analysis" - one of Richard, other of an ancient legend called Rolf Thordarsen. The two are very similar. We learn that Rolf is Richard's "great-grandfather twenty-two times removed on the direct male line". And apparently both share the curiosity bug!

Rolf apparently was a great engineer who had founded the legendary city of Comarre. Location or fact of Comarre is generally not known, but Alan & his friends have formed a well connected club that has found the location. Government also knows the location & watches its perimeter, though it doesn't interfere with its internal affairs.

Isolated people have found Comarre at regular intervals, but no one who entered this closed city has ever returned. It is generally believed that no harm has come to them, & that they are very happy. Richard is enlisted to go there & investigate on behalf of club. They will help transport him near Comarre at a location where government monitors cannot see them, along with a wireless phone to stay in touch; from there on, he will have to walk.

While walking towards the city, he will encounter many automated warnings meant to dissuade him. But he won't be dissuaded. He will also meet a full grown & well behaved lion wandering around that will effectively become his pet!

Man & the lion reach Comarre - a closed environment - with entry gate open but no one around. Leaving lion there, Richard will go on adventure through the city. Passing through magical transfer gates popular in later science fiction stories, he will reach the interior. A bit baffled, then escorted by a robot to a chamber where he will go to sleep induced by some kind of force fields. And get into eternal pleasant dreams. Comarre apparently can read your mind remotely, figure out what you like, & then give you the right dreams!

But Richard is strong willed. He manages to get out of dream. Makes robots show him around. Awakens a sleeper or two who are angry at him to have awakened them! Figures out Comarre is evil. Bugs robots. Ends up in a sort of control room. Is prevented by a robot that is sort of master maintainer - and not the only one. I don't recall how lion got in to this control room, but he will restrain the robot from interfering with Richard who is hell bent on destroying Comarre.

Some discussion with robot, & the hero has shelved his destruction plans. He will be guided to the office of great Rolf - who had created both Comarre & these master robots, but never went to eternal sleep himself; he had died a natural death. And had entrusted some documents to robot - to be delivered to first man in Comarre who can resist the temptation of eternal pleasures!

It basically tells Richard that sentient robots as competent as humans should be allowed in human society! Rolf apparently had tried doing this but failed. He was hoping lawmakers of a later age will be more willing. So now Richard has a task to do after getting out.

Fact sheet.

"The Lion of Comarre", novel, review
First published: "Thrilling Wonder Stories", August 1949.
Rating: B


Anonymous said...

'[i]But Richard is strong willed[/i]. He manages to get out of dream.'

He got out of the dream because that thing on his hand rang loudly and woke him up, not because he was strong willed. In fact, he got out of that dream with great reluctance.

'The Lion of Comarre' was an interestring read! More interesting than 'Against the Fall of Night' IMO.