Sunday, February 5, 2012

Prelude to Space - Arthur C. Clarke

Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke is my second read in the 2012 WWEnd Grandmaster Reading challenge. Last month I read Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (1970), which is one Anderson's better known novels. For my second read I picked something a little less high profile. Prelude to Space is the first novel Arthur C. Clarke wrote and is generally not considered as good as Childhood's End (1953), probably the most famous of Clarke's early novels. The publication history of this story is not unusual for the period. Clarke wrote the novel in the space of a month in 1947 but it wasn't until 1951 that the whole novel was published in magazine format by Galaxy Science Fiction. It was followed by a hardcover edition in 1953. What is atypical about it, is that the novel does not appear to be based on one of Clarke's short stories. Although one of Clarke's lesser works, it has been reprinted numerous times. The edition I have read was printed in 1977 and includes a "Post Apollo Preface", as Clarke himself puts it, written in 1969.

In the year 1978 humanity is ready to for the next step in exploration, the first manned mission to the Moon about the leave Earth. Historian Drik Alexson is sent to London, where the headquarters of Interplanetary, the non-profit organization coordinating the mission, is located. He is to document the event, that will no doubt be considered one of the turning points in human history. Although Alexson is supposed to be an impartial observer, he can't help but by swept away by the magnitude of the effort and the impact it will have on human society. As the launch date nears, Alexson realizes that this event will be his life's work as a historian.

Although science fiction is much more about exploring ideas and what they might mean to society than actually predicting the future, seeing how many details Clarke got wrong in this novel is still almost as interesting as the story itself. Where Clarke goes for private enterprise as the driving factor and assumes the memory of Second World War will change the way people see armed conflict, in reality is was the tension between East and West that gave space exploration a huge boost. The need for the US to prove it could outdo their Soviet rivals resulted in a moon landing nine years before the one Clarke describes, using very different rockets to get there. Many of Clarke's novels describe futures where science, logic and reason triumphs over the petty squabbles, religious dogmas and ideological differences to achieve a peaceful and stable way of running the planet. In Prelude to Space this is treated as inevitable. Would that Clarke had been right on that point.

Another thing that struck me about Clarke's scenario is the use of atomic energy to power these rockets. These days, radioactivity makes people very nervous, and rightly so as recent events in Fukushima have shown us. Some horrendous experiments were carried out testing nuclear devices in the 1950s, clearly showing that the long term impact of radioactive substances released into he environment was still very poorly understood at the time this novel was written. The radioactivity around the launch site in the Australian desert is mentioned several times but not considered a matter of great concern. It might be technically possible to limit the risk of radioactive contamination, even in the event of a launch failure, but somehow I think it be very hard to convince the general public that it'd be safe these days.

Clarke's futures are generally pretty optimistic, sometimes even utopian, and this novel is no exception. Prelude to Space is something of a cross between a love letter to and an advertisement for space exploration. Clarke carefully connects the historical desire to travel to the stars, early science fiction and lots of technological developments, all leading to this one momentous occasion. The moment when humanity will finally leave its cradle and first set foot on a strange world. A first step on a path from which there will be no turning back. Where that path will lead, Clarke doesn't dare predict but he seems to be quite sure it is one we must take to ensure survival of the species. The author may overdo it a little in the text but his enthusiasm is contagious. It was almost enough to make me wonder why the hell we are not on our way to Mars already.

This is the tenth novel by Clarke I have read, spanning his entire career, and from those is seems obvious that Clarke didn't change his approach to writing a whole lot during his seven decades as a published author. Some sections of the novel are highly technical, with the science of space travel the main character. Alexson is the vehicle that allows Clarke to show the events leading up to the launch from up close, but he seems to have very little interest in the man himself (perhaps not altogether surprising, he strikes me as a bright but not very interesting fellow). You don't read Clarke for his well rounded characters or complex plots but for the hard science and Clarke's visions of what they may mean for future society.

Sixty-five years after it was written Prelude to Space is badly dated in just about every aspect of the story. From the technical developments to the blatant sexism that plagued science fiction in those days. On top of that, Clarke wrote a novel that reads like propaganda for a space program. It is very effective propaganda though. Despite all the novel's flaws, you can't help but be caught up in the excitement of the enterprise and the possibilities of space travel, many of which still haven't been realized. Clarke's optimism has been proven unfounded in some ways but the drive to explore space is still there. This novel might well have been an inspiration to some teenager in the 1950s to pursue a career in physics or astronomy. Clarke has gone on to write more challenging novels but for a debut, it's a decent read.

Book Details
Title: Prelude to Space
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: New English Library
Pages: 176
Year: 1977
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1951


  1. Another nice review, Carl. I've posted it to the WWEnd blog. What I love about Clarke is his optimism about the future and his desire for real space exploration. I don't usually mind how dated the old books tend to be if the story is compelling. I'll give this one a go.

  2. D'oh! I meant Rob. Sorry 'bout that. Now I need to go see if I called Carl, Rob.... Apparently I need more sleep.

  3. I have yet to read anything by Clarke that beats Rendezvous With Rama but that would have been too much to expect from a first novel I guess. I guess I should reread that one soon.