Big Echo

Critical SF

Superchimp Antichrist: Seven Theses on the Short Form SF of Arthur C. Clarke

by William Squirrell

I. Existence is Catastrophe

Bad luck and misfortune rule humanity: a child is born with thalidomide legs, a rocket on Mars is knocked over in a sandstorm, war – as impersonal as the weather – washes over the landscape like rain, a star explodes and a world is destroyed.

Sometimes a man is disappointed.

Sometimes millions die.

Why do these things happen?

Why?

Because in Clarke’s short stories ambition overreaches capacity; events conspire against their anticipation; imagination has its limits and the future is unfathomable. His heroes fail not just because they cannot quite predict – as he does – what will happen next, but because they do not realize – as he does – that we are all already dead and there is no hope for humanity. No hope for us or any other species.

Yes.

Certainly.

No hope.

But when we read those stories as a single unit, as an ongoing meditation, we realize it is more than this. Catastrophe is the very ground of existence, it is both the originary moment and the ultimate solution to the ontological problem, it is always there. Catastrophe is background radiation from the distant past; it is with us in the eternal present; waiting in every future, at every turn of the page, at every tick of the clock.

II. Time is Structure

Time for Clarke is more than a rate of change. It is what orders the shattering chaos into something understandable, into narratives. There are three key modes or rhythms of time in Clarkeworld:

  1. The background of cosmic time which is experienced by self-conscious participants primarily as static, as a fixed screen against which movement can be measured. The elliptical circulations of the Jovian moons are on the one hand a complex and dynamic dance, but on the other are so utterly predictable as to seem fixed. So too the life of the solar system altogether. And the incomprehensibly slow dispersal of the galaxies. Such colossal systems change, but only in the firefly flicker of our imagination – we have no lived experience of them.

  2. Evolutionary time is the field through which species and races swim, crawl, creep, and fly. Constellations of abstracted qualities proceed in ordered marches; progressing from primordial savagery to the civilizational hierarchies beloved of Edwardian fantasists and upward and onward to the body-annihilating promise of super-hygienic futures. Biological time is the laboratory in which speciation occurs and intelligence is born. This procession gives us giant squids, medusae, flowing protoplasm; a preponderance of tentacled creatures emerges from the unfathomable depths of the longue durée. Humanity exists in this field as well, or rather, for Clarke, Man does. This field is not experienced by the individual as the passage of events but as pressure. It is felt as the weight of instinct by the masses living their unthinking unconscious life. It is life as represented in Sri Lankan movies and in Western soap operas. It is religion and superstition rising towards rationality.

  3. Technological time; the time of ego-consciousness; the tick-tock-ticking of crisis and problem solving; of events; politics; acts of heroism; the medium in which stories unfold.

The most provocative Clarkean tableaux are those in which these various modes overlap: the cosmic and the technological; the technological and the evolutionary; evolutionary and cosmic. Squids encounter submarines in prehistoric deeps; superchimps occur at an intersection of evolutionary and technological time, as do lady astronauts, and airborne snow leopards; perhaps most famously in “The Star” we see how slippage between these three temporal modes produces dramatic torque (a star explodes/a civilization dies/a man doubts). If a critic were brave enough they might argue that all Clarke’s stories describe the effervescence produced by such chronological turbulence, and that his acidic irony is just the reflux.

III. Gravity is Death

Over and over again Clarke represents technological history as an attempt to escape the surly bonds of earth. Yet from the long view, the global view, from the distant disembodied view of pure objectivity, from the view of mid-century Science Fiction, from the overview, this upward thrusting drive is the engine of not just heroic-technological history, but also evolutionary-biologic. Bursts of desperation, acts of animal, human, and divine will, of adaptation and speciation, are all the products of the same desperate struggle against inertia. These explosions of raw subjectivity (“I want!” “I want!” “I want!”) disrupt the syncopated flow of cosmic-evolutionary-technological time, they become events whose effects ripple through space-time. There is a verticality to these disruptions which is reminiscent of rocket flight. Up, up, up to Promethean heights from which one can see the narratives unfold, and then, depending on the mood of the storyteller, down, down, down to the blind darkness of the eternal center. Clarke’s fantasies are propulsive outbursts against the constraints of immutable physical laws; against immense, unspoken, Oedipal pressures; against the final horizon of extinction. Yet when seen together, as a single unit, these stories seem less a collection of escapist hymns, than a single stoic recitation. Gravity is the beginning and end of every verse in that recital; gravity is boredom; necessity; gravity is death.

IV. Intelligence is Spirit

This world is shot through with the uncanny. The uncanny hides in metaphor and analogy, occasionally breaking through Clarke’s brittle empiricism, but even then it is framed psychologically, disguised as advanced technology, handled with prophylactic irony. The tone disguises the horror of the monolith on the moon, the horror that something unknowable and indifferent is watching us. Intelligence is not an emergent biologic property – not really – but a demonic force, an inhuman presence which does not belong to any one species, any one race. Its existence is inevitable, a product of secret ironclad laws, but its form is always an accident of absurd circumstances, a conspiracy of circumstance; it can manifest on frozen planets drifting in cold starlight, in archaic mid-century telephone networks, in the blazing inferno of the sun, in the manipulated body of a chimpanzee. It is a hungry ghost that takes possession of crystals, organisms, and machines, a ghost which discards form as needs be. Intelligence is that which struggles to free itself from the jealous bonds of gravity’s grip, struggles to be free of corruption, our corruption, Daddy’s corruption, Mommy’s, your corruption.

V. Biology is Imprisonment

Something is always clambering upwards towards the cockpit, rung by rung, or through the layered canopy, limb by quivering limb, a shambling simian shape is trying to take control of itself, of its evolution. Yet it is geology, not biology that is an unexpected presence in the early stories. The geologist even finds himself (yes: him: again) a hero. On the Moon especially geologists are frequent enough that on at least two occasions Clarke makes the same joke: selenologist. They are hardworking scientists, these geologists, old-fashioned, their empiricism is muscular, they deal in solid things, manual labor, physical activity, imperialist exploration of terra nullius, mountaineering, buggy-driving. And it was geologists after all, not biologists, that first diminished the Victorian divines with their new chronologies, it was geologists who first set free the coiled monsters sleeping in the bedrock.

In the later stories the geological fades into the background, shading into blue like distant mountains. The human figures move from a sort of medieval marginality on the edge of cosmic events towards a centrality that demands portraiture. This new man (yes: man: always) climbs higher and dives deeper than the shirt-sleeved company men of slide-rule moon shots and laboratory workforces. This peak Clarkean hero is a Medici as imagined by Walter Mitty: a brilliant CEO scientist and adventurer, overcoming physical disability and unfortunate circumstance by sheer force of intellect and ambition. A high-proof distillation of the type is the disembodied aeronaut of “A Meeting with a Medusa.” He is an Icarus rising from the ruins of disaster: half man, half machine, all hubris. There are two encounters on which this story pivots, both occur as a vessel plunges from the heavens towards the belly of hell. In the first the hero confronts one of his superchimp workers, a dehumanized proletariat and dangerous animal, who in its panic has almost entirely lost capacity for speech, remembering only one word, a marker of subservience to its human overlord: “boss.” The capitalist hero looks into labor’s eyes – into “the mirror of time” – and experiences the discomfort of kinship before he deserts the creature to its fate and tries to save his machine. The second confrontation occurs as he navigates the layers of the Jovian atmosphere, a realm between myth and reality where exist forms of life that do not belong to the evolutionary hierarchy in which the superchimp was trapped, and from which the hero has escaped. What he experiences in this liminal space is not a sense of biologic kinship per se, but of kinship to an intelligence like his cyborg intelligence, an intelligence ultimately independent of any one particular form, an intelligence that struggles to be free not just from gravity, and history, but from the prison of an arbitrary body.

VI. Freedom is Impossible

When read as a history of a human future these short stories are a broken clock on which only the second hand works: the hand that marks the relentless march of technological progress. But the hour hand, which measures cultural change, and the minute hand, which measures the social, are both frozen. Around and around the second hand goes but nothing else changes, no revolution will ever reorder economic asymmetry in this world, no workers’ paradise here, no women’s lib, no transformative joy. The future is repetition; the accumulation of empty events; gadgets, cheap toys, built-in redundancy.

Clarke has made of future society a suburban sprawl. Midcentury bungalow after midcentury bungalow is filled with wooden mannequins. Some have crude features painted on their faces, he has attempted occasional complexities, experimented with hair, with eyes, painted some a different color, he has adorned a few of them with the caricature of secondary sexual characteristics.

It was not worth the effort.

In the end it is all just strawmen and crash test dummies arranged and rearranged according to his fantasies about social life; small fantasies; limited fantasies; juvenile; narcissistic.

His comments about women are the musings of man whose knowledge of them seems to have been gleaned entirely from conversations in airport bars with misogynist swingers, resentful divorcés, the occasional smug Professor or Grub Street parasite. He flirted briefly with the idea of women as characters in the early Fifties (“Holiday on the Moon” and “The Parasite”), but by the end of that decade he had recoiled in queasy terror from such obscene radicalism and fled into a desert of forgotten housewives, millionaire adornments, and exchangeable sex kittens.

What do we do with this?

Because it is the same with Clarke and matters of class and capital. His attitude is so unthinking; unexamined; thoughtless.

With race and empire. The same.

Clarke’s celebrated imagination quails before the thought of unpaid domestic labor, before Nazi rocket scientists and Cold War lies, before the crass exploitation on which millionaire heroes depend. Social relations are a curtain it refuses to peer behind. Culture is a power it refuses to acknowledge. It dodges and skirts and stutters. It is a reactionary homunculus which strikes poses of false liberality. It calls God a She and thinks itself revolutionary, progressive, redeemed.

Clarke is frightened of social change. He is frightened of culture. He is frightened of bodies. He shies away from the full horror of being alive, from the “I want! I want!,” from dasein, from the will that would will annihilation rather than not will at all.

He murders the body to set the spirit free.

Again and again and again.

What should we do with this mad killer of millions?

What should we do with Arthur C. Clarke?

What should we do with a writer who can only imagine freedom as the isolation of a hungry ghost?

What is he good for?

What if he is good for nothing?

What if?

VII. Discourse is Control

“What if?”

That was his mantra and Science Fiction was his dharma.

“What if?”

Let’s try.

What if we reverse the field?

What if we conduct a revaluation of Clarkean values? A transvaluation?

What if we give him a shake and try again?

What if existence is creation?

What if time is chaos?

Gravity is life?

Intelligence is embodied?

Biology is escape?

Freedom is possible?

Discourse is ecstasy?

What if?

What then?

What next?