Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Best short stories, novels, & collections of Arthur C Clarke

Note: If you ended up here via a route other than Arthur Clarke Fansite, & are looking for best short stories or novels but not necessarily of Clarke, you might want to try these lists: short stories, novels. "Short novels" are sometimes (but not always) marked novella & are normally (but not always) clubbed with short stories; a search for "novella" via box at top should yield more entries - some free online. You might also want to look at best of the year lists: 2008, 2007, 2006.

Summary of contents of some short story collections (single author) & anthologies (multi-author) is also available - including download URLs of some of the included stories.

During the last year, I've posted on 23 novels & nearly 75 short stories of Mr Clarke, plus some collections - mostly on my older Arthur Clarke Fansite. This note is written in the hope it can help some people find the best of his stories.

Table of contents.

  1. A caveat.
  2. If I want to buy only one book of Clarke, can you name it?
  3. The very best of Clarke.
  4. "Childhood's End".
  5. The various series.
  6. Hard sf novels.
  7. Other top league novels (science fiction, but not hard sf).
  8. Selected humorous short stories for general audiences.
  9. Other good short stories (generally need a taste for sf).
  10. A few free stories of Mr Clarke.

A caveat.

My recommendations are colored by lack of knowledge of Christianity, tendency to compare things with familiar from India, outlook of someone with English as third language, & outlook of an engineer. Some of Clarke's stories assume familiarity with Christianity.

Each of these affect the perceptions in subtle ways; please apply your corrections as appropriate.

If I want to buy only one book of Clarke, can you name it?

"The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke". I've zero hesitation naming it. This is a value book - whether you look for value for money, or value for time. Follow the link to know why.

A note for readers from India: This wasn't an easy book to buy in Bombay. Few shop owners keep it - probably because it kills the sales of so many other books. But it's worth the trouble. In the worst case, you can try (never pay them up front, only against delivery - they are among the worst online stores in India; but ok if you don't have any other option).

The very best of Clarke.

These stories don't require a taste for science fiction. And they can stand among the best stories by anyone - in genre, or outside of it.
  1. "Superiority": How not to go about deploying new technology.
  2. First of the 4 stories in "2001 A Space Odyssey". It's about transformation of apes into humans. Very beautiful. I'm aware of at least 2 variants of it: "Encounter at Down", & "First Encounter".

    "First Encounter" combines the 2001 version with "Encounter at Down". In my book, it's at least as good or better than 2001 version. But it's not easily accessible. I've seen it collected only in the generally non-fiction "The Lost Worlds of 2001".

    "Encounter at Down", by comparison, is second rung.
  3. "Rescue Party": How can a doomsday story be optimistic? This one shows the way.

"Childhood's End".

Among the most overrated novels of the genre. It's not uncommon to find it rated the best of Clarke; I obviously disagree.

If you must read it, "Guardian Angel" (with James Blish) is a better choice. It's the original that was expanded to make "Childhood's End"; first third of the novel is nearly identical with the shorter version.

The various series.

I'm aware of 3 different series of novels by Clarke: Rama, Space Odyssey, & Time Odyssey.

Time Odyssey is actually penned by Stephen Baxter - not exactly my favorite author. I've not read any of the 3 books.

Space Odyssey series is 4 books, all by Clarke alone. About the only outstanding feature of the series is the first of the 4 stories in the first book ("2001 A Space Odyssey") - already mentioned above. Rest is not the worst I've read - but you can spend your time reading better stories.

Rama series is 4 books: original "Rendezvous with Rama" by Clarke, & 3 sequels by Gentry Lee. Original is a hard sf classic; but hard sf is not for everyone - see hard sf section below. Sequels are lousy to merely forgettable.

Hard sf novels.

If you haven't read a hard sf story before, here is a key characteristic: dry narrative with virtually no interesting characters. Focus is on some scientific or engineering aspect. It's sort of between non-fiction & fiction. If you are from a technical background, you may or may not like it; others - forget it.

If you know what you are getting into, here is the best of Clarke's hard sf:
  1. "Rendezvous with Rama": Description of a super-massive deep-space starship/habitat capable of multi-year/decade/century journeys without giving the feel of limited space to travelers. Has its own sea, vast green spaces, cities, day/night cycles, winds, ...

    Here is a 3-minute movie on You Tube, based on the initial parts of this story. Gives a feel of the space, & just barely a sense of the size of the space habitat.
  2. "The Deep Range": Taking the farming to the seas. This story is about using whales as cattle for meat. In spite of being a vegetarian, I liked the idea of farming the seas.
  3. "A Fall of Moondust": A shipwreck & rescue drama in very exotic locale.
Second rung hard sf stories:
  1. "The Fountains of Paradise": Construction of a "space elevator" - a tower more than three times earth's diameter! Idea is to make the space travel accessible to masses. The bane of this story is the large number of tangent threads. Linked page contains links to some pictures - artist's impressions of space elevator ground- & sky-terminals.
  2. "Islands in the Sky": Description of a massive futuristic space station in orbit around earth. To act as service & launch pad for space vehicles.

Other top league novels (science fiction, but not hard sf).

  1. "The Songs of Distant Earth": One of the most optimistic treatments of doomsday in fiction. One way of looking at it is as a longer version of "Rescue Party". A shorter version, also titled "The Songs of Distant Earth", is included in Collected Stories. I've only read the full length novel.
  2. "The City & the Stars": Very enjoyable roller coaster of an adventure. This is a rewrite of an older work - "Against the Fall of the Night" - but I've not read this earlier version.

Selected humorous short stories for general audiences.

Stories vary in quality, but you don't need a taste for science fiction to enjoy them.
  1. "Superiority": Already mentioned.
  2. "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch": Help for men whose wives speak too much!
  3. "Sleeping Beauty": Help for woman with snoring husbands.
  4. "Silence Please": A machine to shut up social loudmouths.
  5. "Travel by Wire!": Adventures building a star-trek style material transporter.
  6. "Moving Spirit": How to cheat the government on sin taxes!
  7. "A Slight Case of Sunstroke": An unconventional toppling of a government.
  8. "Loophole": Serious consequences of governmental paper shuffling.
  9. "Trouble with the Natives": When aliens landed in an English village... I've seen movies that have variants on this theme, but I still liked this story.
  10. "How We Went to Mars": Roller coaster juvenile adventure.
Other good humorous stories, but these require a taste for sf:
  1. "Cosmic Casanova": A playboy meets his match!

Other good short stories (generally need a taste for sf).

  1. "Maelstrom II": First rate space rescue adventure. Takes a cue from Edgar Allen Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom" for concept; hence "II". Here is also a short You Tube movie version. Here is a picture slide show.
  2. "Holiday on the Moon": Perhaps the most accessible moon travel story for general audiences. Written from the perspective of a teenage girl interested in boys but not in technology or space.
  3. "Breaking Strain": Another space accident & survival drama, based on traditional sea-based accident stories.
  4. "Crusade", "Castaway", "The Possessed": How will aliens look like & behave when we meet them? Some crazy & interesting ideas.
  5. "Second Down": Probably the only story that made me wish there were a longer version. A symbiosis of intelligent hominids & cattle, where hominids play second fiddle. Very imaginative.
  6. "The Reluctant Orchid": A very unconventional murder weapon. Story is also interesting for its human elements.
  7. "Patent Pending": The ultimate porn distribution machine. Story itself is ok, but not great. But the central idea, also found in some other Clarke stories, is often seen in modern cyberpunk.
  8. "The Hammer of God": There is also a longer novel version with the same title; I've only read the shorter one. If you've seen the Hollywood movie Armageddon, you already know its story.
  9. "The Star": Much anthologized. I liked it, but not as much as many others. It's a variant of "Rescue Party" & "The Songs of Distant Earth".

A few free stories of Mr Clarke.

SF Signal posted this list of links to some free online versions of Clarke stories - mostly MP3 audio, a few in text format. List includes "Rescue Party" & "The Star".


Rusty said...

Wow - excellent post Tinkoo!

I've only read a handful of Clarke's stuff, but this list provides me with some great stories and novels to jump right into. Thanks for the caveat - it seems that some of Clarke's writing is very religion specific, like "The Star" and "The Nine Billion Names of God" - both of which I enjoyed immensely, but others might not.

Two books that are on my must-buy and must-read list: The Collected Stories and Rendezvous with Rama. I can't wait to read them.

How about movies? Did you like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "2010: The Year We Make Contact"? I quite liked them both, but I know many people that did not like the first one. Thoughts?

tinkoo said...

Rusty: I haven't seen either of the movies - but would like to. TV channels around here have been showing Hindi-dubbed versions of a lot of Hollywood movies in recent years, but these seem to have escaped them. Guess I will have to try a DVD rental shop - but I prefer Hindi dubbed versions (I can understand Hollywood originals, but need to pay more attention than I like to).

Anonymous said...

Your recommendations pretty much match mine. The series were a mistake and basically hack writing. I had to force myself to read Rama II and simply never bothered to read the 2001 sequels.
Two others I would recommend. "Technical Error" was an engineering story and "Sunjammer" just a fun read.

Dave M