Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke's "A Meeting With Medusa" (novella, hard sf): Exploring the upper atmosphere of Jupiter in a manned vehicle

Quote from short story titled A Meeting With Medusa by Arthur C ClarkeIn spite of some fantastic elements, I think it would be best described as a hard sf story. Balloons (eventually, hot hydrogen balloon on Jupiter), airships, & rockets - to eventually get to a vehicle suitable for exploring the upper atmosphere of Jupiter near its less violent equatorial regions.

Reading it brought out strong association with another story I read not too long back - David Moles' "Finisterra", one of the Hugo Award 2008 nominees. Cut the rigor out of Clarke's story & take only the more fantastic elements, & replace the cautious exploration story with a poachers' story - & you pretty much have the plot of "Finisterra".

While generally quite readable, it suffers from a flaw that keeps creeping into many Clarke stories - tendency to include many tangent threads (but less so than in some of his other stories).

  1. We have an airship ("Queen Elizabeth IV") crash during its testing somewhere near Grand Canyon in US - it was "the largest single space ever enclosed by man": "three-tenths of a mile long". We will learn a lot of its design & operations details.
  2. "Superchimps" serving as technical handymen.
  3. Potential life-threatening effects of satellite communications' half-second time lag: Airship accident was triggered by its collision with a remote controlled flying "camera platform". A manoeuvre required entry of this smaller vehicle into the hold of airship, & it was turbulent weather. Around the time of mating, the remote controller was using satellite communications rather than radio - this affected in split-second response time required during mating.
  4. The cyborg hero: The airship Commander, Howard Falcon, was among the badly hurt during the crash (a lot of others died). He was saved, but only as a cyborg. He will be the one physically exploring Jupiter's upper atmosphere later in the story: "He alone could travel unprotected on lunar surface. The life-support system inside the metal cylinder that had replaced his fragile body functioned equally well in space or under water. Gravity fields ten times that of Earth were an inconvenience, but nothing more."
  5. A balloon trip across Gangetic plains in northern India.

Story summary.

Main story is about the Jupiter exploration mission sometime late twenty-first century (story spans a few years - about 150 years after the Hindenburg accident).

Mothership will park in the "radiation shadow" of Jupiter V (one of its tiny moons), while Howard goes down solo for a 3 (local) days adventure in Jupiter's upper atmosphere. He will be moving in a radiation-shielded vehicle ("Kon-Tiki")whose design draws inspiration from many kinds of air vehicles.

He will observe many kinds of phenomena - including effects of the atmospheric shock waves & massive electrical discharges triggered by the equivalent of volcanic eruption on its surface ("or whatever passed for a surface on Jupiter") lying far below the human accessible regions, & a massive whirlpool ("some six hundred miles across"). It's the second time I've seen Clarke dwell on the maelstrom theme; "Maelstrom II" didn't involve a whirlpool, but is inspired from Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent in the Maelstrom".

He will also observe two kinds of local creatures - a bunch of pack hunters, & a supermassive hunted creature ("more than a mile across" & "with scores of dangling tentacles" - "about a hundred thousand times as large as the biggest whale"). He dubs the former "mantas", & later "Medusa". Among other things, Medusa have radio senses! We will see an unsuccessful local hunting event.

He will eventually escape in a hurry on the third day when a Medusa gets too curious about his vehicle - puny compared to size of Medusa.

Collected in.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. Arthur Clarke's "More Than One Universe"
  3. Arthur Clarke's "The Sentinel"
  4. Arthur Clarke's "The Wind From the Sun"

Fact sheet.

First published: Playboy, December 1971.
Rating: A
Winner of Nebula Award 1971 in novella category.