From the BIS Archives: Tiger, Tiger – Stalking the Future

Of time and stars“It is because he is genuinely imaginative that he can make the fantastic seem entirely convincing. He can also be splendidly audacious in his inventions.”

Literary snobs have always found it easy to compartmentalise genre fiction, especially science fiction, placing it in a box on a shelf marked “DO NOT OPEN.” As Arthur C. Clarke once observed: “Despite the fact that many of the most famous English writers (H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, for example) have produced outstanding science fiction, there has been a regrettable tendency for the literary Establishment to look down on the medium.1

Such attitudes when prevalent amongst publishers and “literary agents” make it difficult (if not impossible) for new writers to get published; fortunately, and not before time, the publishing landscape is changing, providing emerging writers with previously unimagined opportunities for publication, though the rejection rate for new work remains catastrophically high.

Some writers write so well that their work transcends literary boundaries and prejudices; such is the quality of their prose that it can easily resist attempts to categorise it. With novels such as The Fountains of Paradise and The Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur slipped effortlessly into the mainstream (at least in terms of book sales and the media attention the novels received); and from the outset the grandest of his grand novels attracted the support of Establishment writers and broadcasters such as Kingsley Amiss, Alistair Cooke and J.B. Priestley. And like Amiss, Cooke and Priestley, Clarke was always a literary “big beast,” a big cat stalking William Blake’s “forests of the night,2” his talent burning so brightly that the heat of his imagination can still be felt now, many decades after some of these stories were written.

For to J.B. Priestley, Arthur’s stories were the product of a civilised mind, one which believed that extra-terrestrial visitors were likely to be far more cultured and mature than humanity (rather than taking the form of the aggressive pantomime villains portrayed in so many SF scenarios).

Arthur was always good at coming up with book titles and just as good at selecting titles for his short stories; and many of these seem to encapsulate his life, such as Reach for Tomorrow and Profiles of the Future, as well as Of Time and Stars the subject of this the latest instalment in our series of articles based on the BIS archive. Priestley’s introduction to Arthur’s 1972 collection of short stories is worth reproducing here, not just as an excellent and perceptive essay in its own right, but because it highlights a continuing problem with much SF, namely the on-going use of clichéd story lines (often borrowed from other genres) which have been lazily transposed to (supposedly) fantastical settings. Clarke was too good at his craft ever to fall back on such hackneyed plot devices (though they remain prevalent in much TV and cinema-based SF); and Of Time and Stars remains one of his most enduringly popular short story collections.  As the blurb on the book jacket says: “This volume, containing stories especially chosen as an introduction to Arthur C. Clarke’s work, will appeal not only to his many admirers, but also to those who have never read any science fiction before. The stories are humorous, thought provoking and exciting…”  The rest I can safely leave to J.B. Priestley:

“My claim to writing an introduction to a volume of science fiction tales is very slight. Though I have written so much in a long writing life, I have produced only one science fiction tale.  But  – and now for a brief exhibition of what my children used to call “the braggies”  – this solitary story, “Mr. Strenberry’s Tale,” was not entirely without any importance. I don’t say this because it was frequently reprinted, to appear in various anthologies. What gives it a little importance is that I wrote it over forty years ago, so that I feel it must be the first story in which a man, from a distant future, threatened with some dreadful calamity, makes a desperate attempt to take refuge in our time. This is unlikely, I agree, but it isn’t so wildly improbable, in my opinion, as most science fiction stories bouncing around in all different eras. This is because I believe that the past is still solidly there, in its place along the Fourth Dimension. But what about the far distant future? A good question, but I don’t propose to answer it here and now.”

Arthur’s hand written inscription to his friend Val Cleaver

“But I am here to recommend Mr Arthur C. Clarke, and this is a pleasure, not a task. He’s very different indeed from the two types of science fiction writers I have just been grumbling about. And there are two very good reasons why he has been so successful. To begin with, he has a solid grounding – and with it some definite achievements – in the science and technology that should play an important part in his sort of fiction. He may have to do a bit of bluffing now and again, for dramatic purposes, but where most of us would be wildly guessing almost all the time he can largely depend on what he knows. From the first he seems to have fallen in love with space, and as soon as I met him I was aware of his genuine tremendous enthusiasm. (He is also a great gadget man, and if a robot had served lunch I would hardly have been surprised.) It must be this enthusiasm that gives him such an astonishing air of youth suggesting a man in his thirties and not already in his middle fifties.”

“However, while scientific and technological knowledge are important for a writer of science fiction, there is something he must have, to be really worth reading, that is far more important. He must have imagination. And this must not be confused with mere fanciful invention, offering the reader a planet-full of flesh eating vegetables or monsters with eight legs and six eyes. A genuinely imaginative writer takes us deeply into the scene, however strange it may be, and into the thoughts and feelings of the man or men who are in that scene. And indeed, Mr Clarke in some of these short stories makes us share the thoughts and feelings of beings belonging to far distant planets.”

“It is because he is genuinely imaginative that he can make the fantastic seem entirely convincing. He can also be splendidly audacious in his inventions. It is years since I first read two of his most ambitious long stories, “The City and the Stars,” and “Childhood’s End,” but I can recall episodes from them just as if they were extraordinary things that had actually happened to me. And to me this is always impressive, proof of the unusual quality of any writer of fiction. We must all know by this time what a notable part Mr Clarke played in the creation of that remarkable and hugely successful film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I have seen it twice already, and would be delighted to see it again. Nevertheless, I think there are passages in Mr Clarke’s fiction more finely imaginative and more haunting than anything in the film.”

“I will make two final points about the stories assembled here. First, they are astonishingly varied, with a very wide range of time, place, plot, situation, theme. Secondly, they are the work of a civilised writer. Why do I say that? Because, unlike so many science fiction writers, Mr Clarke does not assume that beings everywhere in the universe share our suspicion, fear, aggression. Every spaceship of his does not bristle with menacing invaders, would-be conquerors, bringing dreadful instruments of destruction. He assumes – quite rightly too – that visitors from some distant part of our galaxy are probably far more civilised than we are. And this itself is a reasonable assumption because if they were as bad as we are – or perhaps even worse – they would have destroyed themselves and their civilisation ages ago.”

“As an adult – and rather an old adult now – I have enjoyed these stories. And I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that you will enjoy them too.” – J.B. Priestley

Article compiled by Mark Stewart, FBIS
Editor (Odyssey)
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian

References

  1. Foreword to Of Time and Stars (Gollancz, 1972), Arthur C. Clarke
  2. The Tyger (1794), William Blake

 

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