Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Quotes: Voices from the Sky (1965) by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke
Voices from the Sky
First published by Harper & Row, September 1965.
First Pocket Books printing, February 1980.


Space Flight and the Spirit of Man

That the world is now space conscious, to an extent which would have seemed unbelievable only a few years ago, is a statement that needs no proof. But it is not yet space minded. By this, I mean that the general public still thinks of space activities almost exclusively in terms of military strength and international prestige. These matters are, of course, vitally important; yet in the long run, if there is a long run, they will be merely the ephemeral concerns of our neurotic age. In the sane society which we have to build if we are to survive, we must forget spacemanship and concentrate on space.

[...]

Let me first dispose of one argument for man in space that is frequently put forward, and which only confuses the issue. It is often suggested that the complexity and unreliability of automatic space probes will make it impossible to dispense with human astronauts, even if they merely serve as trouble shooters. This is a short-sighted view; in the not-too-distant future – perhaps only fifty years from now – we will have robots as good as any flesh-and-blood explorers. The frequent and predictable failures of the next decade’s automatic astronauts must not blind us to the fact that they will be only clumsy, moronic toys compared with their successors half a century hence. The justification of man in space must depend not upon the deficiency of his machines, but upon the positive advantages that he, personally, will gain from going there.

There is no point in exploring – still less colonizing – a hostile and dangerous environment unless it opens up new opportunities for experience and spiritual enrichment. Mere survival is not sufficient; there are already enough examples on this planet for societies that have been beaten down to subsistence level by the forces of nature. The questions which all protagonists of space flight have to ask themselves, and answer to their own satisfaction, are these: What can the other planets offer that we cannot find here on Earth? Can we do better, on Mars or Venus, than the Eskimos have done in the Arctic? And the Eskimos, it is worth reminding ourselves, have done very well indeed; a dispassionate observer might reasonably decide that they are the only really civilized people on this planet.

The possible advantages of space can be best appreciated if we turn our backs upon it and return, in imagination, to the sea. Here is the perfect environment for life – the place where it originally evolved. In the sea, an all pervading fluid medium carries oxygen and food to every organism; it need never hunt for either. The same medium neutralizes gravity, insures against temperature extremes, and prevents damage from too intense solar radiation – which must have been lethal at the Earth's surface before the ozone layer was formed.

When we consider these facts, it seems incredible that life ever left the sea, for in some ways the dry land is almost as dangerous as space. Because we are accustomed to it, we forget the price we have had to pay in our daily battle against gravity. We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

Yet until life had invaded and conquered the land, it was trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac – for intelligence cannot arise in the sea. The relative opacity of water, and its resistance to movement, were perhaps the chief factors limiting the mental progress of marine creatures. They had little incentive to develop keen vision (the most subtle of senses, and the only long range one) or manual dexterity. It will be most interesting to see if there are any exceptions to this, elsewhere in the universe.

Even if these obstacles do not prevent a low order of intelligence arising in the sea, the road to further development is blocked by an impassable barrier. The difference between man and animals lies not in the possession of tools, but in the possession of fire. A marine culture could never escape from the Stone Age and discover the use of metals; indeed, almost all branches of science and technology would be forever barred to it.

Perhaps we would have been happier had we remained in the sea (the porpoises seem glad enough to have returned, after sampling the delights of the dry land for a few million years) but I do not think that even the most cynical philosopher has ever suggested that we took the wrong road. The world beneath the waves is beautiful, but it is hopelessly limited, and the creatures who live there are crippled irremediably in mind and spirit. No fish can see the stars; but we will never be content until we have reached them.

There is one point, and a very important one, at which the evolutionary parallel breaks down. Life adapted itself to the land by unconscious, biological means, whereas the adaptation to space is conscious and deliberate, made not through biological but through engineering techniques of infinitely greater flexibility and power. At least, we think it is conscious and deliberate, but it is often hard to avoid the feeling that we are in the grip of some mysterious force or Zeitgeist that is driving us out to the planets, whether we wish to go or not.

Though the analogy is obvious, it cannot be proved, at this moment of time, that expansion into space will produce a quantum jump in our development as great as that which took place when our ancestors left the sea. From the nature of things, we cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets or can set up laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.

Yet no one can doubt that the increasing flow of knowledge and sense impressions, and the wholly new types of experience and emotion, that will result from space travel will have a profoundly stimulating effect upon the human psyche. I have already referred to our age as a neurotic one; the “sick” jokes, the decadence of art forms, the flood of anxious self-improvement books, the etiolated cadavers posing in the fashion magazines – these are minor symptoms of a malaise that has gripped at least the Western world, where it sometimes seems that we have reached fin de siècle fifty years ahead of the calendar.

The opening of the space frontier will change all that, as the opening of any new frontier must do. It has saved us, perhaps in the nick of time, by provided an outlet for dangerously stifled energies. In William James’s famous phrase, it is the perfect “moral equivalent of war.”

From time to time, alarm has been expressed at the danger of “sensory deprivation” in space. Astronauts on long journeys, it has been suggested, will suffer the symptoms that afflict men who are cut off from their environment by being shut up in darkened, sound-proofed rooms.

I would reverse this argument; our entire culture will suffer from sensory deprivation if it does not go out into space. There is striking evidence for this in what has already happened to the astronomers and physicists. As soon as they were able to rise above the atmosphere, a new and often surprising universe was opened up to them, far richer and more complex than had ever been suspected from ground observations. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of space research never imagined just how valuable satellites would actually turn out to be, and there is a profound symbolism in this.

But the facts and statistics of science, priceless though they are, tell only part of the story. Across the seas of space lie the new raw materials of the imagination, without which all forms of art must eventually sicken and die. Strangeness, wonder, mystery, adventure, magic – these things, which not long ago seemed lost forever, will soon return to the world. And with them, perhaps, will come again an age of sagas and epics such as Homer never knew.

Though we may welcome this, we may not enjoy it, for it is never easy to live in an age of transition – indeed, of revolution. As the old Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times,” and the twentieth century is probably the most “interesting” period that mankind has ever known. The psychological stress and strains produced by astronautics – upon the travelers and those who stay at home – will often be unpleasant, even though the ultimate outcome will be beneficial to the race as a whole.

[...]

We must also prepare ourselves for the probability – in fact, the virtual certainty – that the most painful and uncomfortable shocks will involve our philosophical and religious beliefs. Many optimistic apologists have tried to deny this, but the clear verdict of history is against them.

We now take it for granted that our planet is a tiny world in a remote corner of an infinite universe, and have forgotten how this discovery shattered the calm certainties of medieval faith. Even the echoes of the second great scientific revolution are now swiftly fading; today, except in a few backward regions, the theory of evolution arouses as little controversy as the statement that the Earth moves around the Sun. Yet it is only a hundred years since the best minds of the Victorian age tore themselves asunder because they could not face the facts of biology.

Space will, sooner or later, present us with facts that are much more stubborn, and even more disconcerting. There can be little reasonable doubt that, ultimately, we will come into contact with races more intelligent than our own. That contact may be one-way, through the discovery of ruins or artifacts; it may be two-way, over radio or laser circuits; it may even be face-to-face. But it will occur, and it may be the most devastating event in the history of mankind. The rash assertion that “God made man in His own image” is ticking like a time bomb at the foundation of many faiths, and as the hierarchy of the universe is disclosed to us, we may have to recognize this chilling truth: if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.

[...]

The eyes of all the ages are upon us now, as we create the myths of the future at Cape Kennedy and Baikonur. No other generation has been given such powers, and such responsibilities. The impartial agents of our destiny stand on their launching pads, awaiting our commands. They can take us to that greater Renaissance whose signs and portents we can already see, or they can make us one with the dinosaurs.

The choice is ours, it must be made soon, and it is irrevocable. If our wisdom fails to match our science, we will have no second chance. For there will be none to carry our dreams across another dark age, when the dust of all our cities incarnadines the sunsets of the world.

Seas of Tomorrow

[First lines:]
The sea covers two-thirds of the planet we have misnamed Earth, and is so much a part of our lives, our traditions and our culture that we think of it as something universal, eternal. Yet it is neither; it is unique to our world, and all its sagas may be no more than one brief chapter of history.

For in the beginning, there was no sea. The burning rocks of the newly formed Earth were too hot for water to condense upon them. Without a break, century after century, the greatest storms our planet has ever known raged from pole to pole, but the rain boiled skyward into steam when it touched the ground. The whole world was dry land.

And one day, the geologists and the Book of Revelation agree, it will be dry again. As our planet ages, it will slowly lose its envelope of air and water. The atmosphere will drift off into space; the oceans will sink down through cracks and crevices as the face of the once beautiful Earth wrinkles like that of an old, old woman.

Seas and lakes and rivers belong to the morning glory of a world, and do not long outlast its youth. We know that this is true, for there is an analogy close at hand. When we look outward from the Sun, we see a world that has already lost its oceans, for only a trace of water remains upon our neighbor Mars, locked up at the poles in a thin powdering of snow. And if – which seems unlikely – the Moon ever possessed oceans, it, too, surrendered them long ago to space.

At this moment of time, it appears, no other world knows the march of waves against the shore, the ebb and flow of tides, the white line of foam retreating down the beach. These things belong to Earth alone; the inner planets are too hot for water to exist upon them in liquid form, the outer ones, far too cold.

[…]

Yet when we think of the word “sea,” we may be taking too parochial a view. Need an ocean be made of water? There are other possibilities, and in the enormous, multiform complexity of the universe, many of them may be realized. On the giant worlds, Jupiter and Saturn, circling in the outer cold far beyond the orbit of Mars, there may be – indeed, we can almost say there are – oceans greater than any upon our own planet.

These oceans, if we can call them that, are hundreds of miles deep, and formed of liquid ammonia. They are stirred by storms so tremendous that we can seem them across more than a billion miles of space. And drifting sluggishly across the southern hemisphere of Jupiter is a strange floating island as large as our entire Earth, the famous Red Spot, perhaps the only permanent feature of the planet’s ever-changing surface. For Jupiter is a world without geography.

It seems unlikely that men will ever explore the turbulent, icy depths of these strange seas. But before many years have passed, our robot space probes will be descending through the atmospheres of the giant planets, braving the ammonia storms to radio information back to distant Earth.

What will they find there? Today, we do not know enough even to make intelligent guesses. Every astronomer will assure you that no form of life could possibly exist on Jupiter or Saturn, at temperatures of two or three hundred degrees below zero, and pressures of a thousand tons to the square inch. But it is worth remembering that only a century ago the biologists were equally certain that no life could exists in the depths of our own oceans.

There may even be “seas” on the Moon; if there are, they will be of dust. Some astronomers have suggested that the flat lunar plains may be covered with finely divided powder that has been flaked from the mountains by the relentless blasts of solar radiation. Dry and slippery as talcum, it could have gathered during the ages in low-lying areas, where it may be waiting to trap future explorers.

As I have suggested in a novel A Fall of Moondust, it could be very unpleasant stuff to negotiate. In some ways it would behave just like a normal liquid, flowing slowly under the low lunar gravity. You could walk across it with the aid of skis or snow shoes, and one day there may be paddle-wheel moon boats sailing the lunar seas, long after they are extinct on Earth. This delightfully nostalgic idea was first suggested by the science-fiction writer James Blish, and I hope that one day he receives due credit. It will also be an amusing irony if the old astronomers who gave the Latin names Mare and Oceanus to many of the dark plains on the Moon turn out to have been not so far off the mark after all.[1]

Much more formidable seas may exist on some parts of Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun. It is hot enough here to melt sulphur, and possibly even such metals as lead and tin. There may be regions of the planet where the temperature never falls much below a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, for Mercury keeps one face turned always toward the Sun.

Above any valleys on the day side of Mercury, the Sun could hang almost vertically overhead forever, while its rays – ten times as powerful as on Earth – reverberated from the surrounding walls. From such valleys might flow rivers of molten metal, seeking, as do the rivers of Earth, their own infernal seas. Any mariners who ever brave these fiery oceans will require stout ships indeed.

But even molten metal is something that we can understand and can handle with techniques which date back five thousand years or more. However, at the very frontier of the solar system, almost four billion miles from the Sun, we may encounter the strangest and perhaps most terrible seas of all.

On the outermost planet Pluto, the noon temperature may occasionally soar to 350 degrees below zero. On the dark side, it must be much colder; the aptly named Plutonian night lasts six times as long as ours, and in the small hours of the morning it may grow cold enough to liquefy hydrogen.

We are now handling liquid hydrogen on the large scale as a rocket fuel, and it is most peculiar stuff. Quite apart from its extreme coldness – it boils if allowed to become warmer than minus 423°F – it is extraordinarily light, having less than a tenth of the density of water. Any vessel of normal design would thus sink like a log in a sea of hydrogen; even balsa wood or cork would plummet to the bottom like lead.

Whether or not there are hydrogen lakes on Pluto is, today, anyone’s guess, and it will be quite a while before we know the answer. But there is one yet stranger possibility that should be mentioned; if Pluto cannot provide it, it must surely occur somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps on a giant Jupiter-type planet that has lost its sun and been frozen for ages in the interstellar night.

The ultimate ocean – the sea to end all seas – is one of liquid helium. At the unimaginable temperature of minus 455°F – only four degrees above the absolute zero of temperature – helium turns into a liquid called Helium II. This is a substance absolutely unique in the universe, with properties that defy common sense and even logic.

This is what could happen, if the explorers of the far future ever meet a sea of Helium II and are reckless enough to set sail upon it. To get a better picture of the improbable events that would follow, we will assume that our mariners are using an open boat.

They would get their first surprise immediately after they pushed off from the shore. Whereas on water – or any other liquid – friction brings a moving body to rest within seconds, this does not happen with Helium II. It is almost completely frictionless; by comparison, the smoothest ice is like sandpaper. The boat would therefore head out to sea with undiminished velocity, without benefit of motor. It would eventually reach the far shore – even if that were a thousand miles away – if something much more disconcerting did not happen first.

The voyagers would suddenly become aware that their boat was filling at an alarming rate. We can assume, of course, that they have already checked it carefully for leaks, and are confident that none exist. Then why is Helium II rising so rapidly above the floor-boards?

Though the boat has plenty of freeboard, the stuff is coming straight up the side and over the gunwales, in a thin but swiftly moving film that is defying gravity. For Helium II can syphon itself from one container into another, provided that there is a connecting path between the two. In this case, the process will stop only when the level inside the boat is the same as that outside; and by then, of course, it will have sunk…

Let us suppose that our explorers, a little shaken, manage to get back to land and build themselves another boat. Obviously, it must be totally enclosed, not an open dinghy, but something like a submarine. They check the hull very carefully for leaks, going over every inch of it with a magnifying glass. Not even a pinhole is visible, so they set sail again with complete confidence.

All that happens this time is that their ship takes a little longer to sink. Helium II is a “superfluid” that can race like lightning through microscopic pores and holes. Even a hull that was, for all practical purposes, airtight, would leak like a sieve in a sea of Helium II.

After these imaginary, yet possible, adventures, it is a relief to return to the familiar seas of Earth. We will never escape their call, as long as we are human. For we were born in water, and the salts of the ancient oceans still flow through our veins, though we left them half a billion years ago.

Whatever strange oceans the men of the future find upon far worlds, they will never love them as we loved the seas of Earth.

The Playing Fields of Space

Space travel will not be all hard work and no play; wherever men go they must have relaxation, physical or mental. Though it may seem a little premature, not to say frivolous, to spend much time discussing space-age sport, the subject turns out to be highly instructive. It is also full of surprises, for the new gravitational and physical conditions beyond the Earth will not only transform many existing sports, but make possible fantastic new ones.
                                       
By an irony that the crews will hardly appreciate, there will be very little space in the first spaceships; it will be all outside the walls, and everyone will be most anxious to keep it there. During their off-duty hours pioneer astronauts will have to relax with cards and chess (checkers, we must assume, will be beneath the dignity of men who will probably average two doctor’s degrees apiece). Not until fairly large bases are established on the Moon and planets, and in satellite orbits, will space sports really come into their own.

The Moon, thanks to movies and comic strips, already has a certain cozy familiarity. As it is an utterly airless world, the first explorers will have to wear space suits when they leave the shelter of their ships. These suits will be elaborate and bulky affairs, for they must not only supply the wearer with oxygen but must also provide protection from the fierce temperature extremes that exist on the Moon – where a single step from sunlight into shadow may bring the thermometer tumbling four hundred degrees. No one wearing a space suit will feel very athletic; but sooner or later very large areas of lunar landscape will be enclosed – either by rigid domes or flexible, air-supported structures – and provided with artificial atmospheres. When this happens, the colonists (they will no longer be pioneers) will be able to discard their clumsy pressurized suits and will be able to move around unhampered.

They will do so with a dreamlike ease that we on Earth may well envy, but will never be able to emulate. For the gravitational tug of the Moon is only one sixth as powerful as that of our planet; a man who weighs 180 pounds here will weigh just under thirty pounds on the Moon.

All objects thrown, tossed, shot or otherwise projected on the Moon with travel six times as far, and rise six times as high as they would on Earth. A high jump on the Moon would thus be a spectacular performance, though not quite as spectacular as you might think. The present terrestrial record is just over 7 feet, but this does not mean that a lunar high jumper could do six times this, or 42 feet. When an athlete clears a 7-foot bar, he actually hoists himself less than 5 feet; his center of gravity, which is around waist level, is already some 3 feet from the ground. Allowing for this, the high-jump record for the Moon will be around 30 feet, and the whole performance will take almost ten seconds. The broad-jump record, now about 27 feet, would become more than 150 feet on the Moon.

The various objects which athletes like to hurl will cover correspondingly greater distances on the Moon. There won’t be enough space, unfortunately, in our pressurized lunar cities, for throwing the discus (the terrestrial record would correspond to a lunar 1,175 feet), the javelin (1,500 feet), or the hammer (1,280 feet). Even putting the sixteen-pound shot – which will became two and a half-pound shot on the Moon – will strain the available accommodation. It will travel close to 375 feet.

If anyone ever drives a golf ball on the Moon, he’ll have to put a radio transmitter inside it to track its flight. (A perfectly practical idea, by the way.) Even on Earth, golf balls have traveled 1,290 feet. A good drive on the Moon could cover at least 10,000 feet. Not only the low gravity, but the absence of air resistance, would help to give the ball an enormously increased range. All that this proves, of course, is that if we do transfer conventional sports to the Moon, we’ll have to change the equipment. I dare not imagine what a St. Andrews pro would say about golf balls stuffed with lead, but we may be forced to some such solution.

There are certain games, however, that would be virtually unaffected by change of gravity. These are games that depend not upon weight, but upon mass or inertia. The two characteristics are very frequently confused, though they are really quite distinct.

The weight of a body depends entirely on the gravity field it happens to be occupying. That’s why the same object can weigh a pound on the Earth, a sixth of a pound on the Moon, twenty-eight pounds on the Sun and nothing at all in an orbiting satellite. But its mass – by which we mean the opposition it gives us when we try to set it moving – is absolutely independent of gravity, and is the same throughout the universe. An object that would be weightless in orbit requires the same effort there as on Earth to set it in motion.

We can make a list, therefore, of the games that can be played on the Moon and planets without any alteration to the rules or equipment. They’re all games that involve rolling, sliding or bumping, but not throwing or projecting. Two obvious examples are bowling and billiards; and I’m sure that Lewis Carroll, who described the most famous croquet match in all fiction, would have loved the idea of transferring this gentle game to the Moon. It would work fine there.

It hardly seems worthwhile going to the Moon to play croquet; however, there is one lunar sport that may one day become a major tourist attraction. On the Moon, inside the air-filled domes that the future colonists will erect, a man could fly like a bird. It would be relatively easy, and would probably require little more than batlike wings attached to wrists and ankles. With these, we could enjoy during waking hours an experience we have known so far only in dreams.

Muscle-powered flight opens up a whole new spectrum of sports and games, from straightforward racing to an aerial equivalent of water polo. I can see the time coming, not more than thirty years from today, when the TV-channels will be dominated by sportscasts from the Moon. The sluggish and leaden-footed sports of Earth will seem tame compared with those that could be played on the Moon.

[…]

The Moon and Mars, and the major satellites of the giant planets, are fairly large bodies with respectable gravities. But besides these there are thousands of pint-sized moons and asteroids (minor planets) in the solar system. Some very peculiar things could happen on them.

Consider little Phobos, the inner moon of Mars. It is a chunk of rock about ten miles in diameter – at least we think it is rock, though a Russian scientist has recently given plausible reasons for believing that Phobos may be an artificial satellite put up by the Martians a few million years ago. In any event, its gravity pull is tiny; a simple calculation shows that a man standing on Phobos would weigh about four ounces.

This is practically, but not quite, the same as no weight at all. A stone would take a minute to fall sixty feet, instead of the two seconds it requires on Earth. Such a state of affairs is almost impossible for us to imagine, yet this is what would happen on a world like Phobos. Anyone attempting a really high jump would be in grave danger of never coming down. Indeed, it would be possible to jump clear off the world – to reach the “velocity of escape” by unaided muscle power. Our own planet’s velocity of escape, so far achieved only by a few space probes, is 25,000 miles an hour. But on miniscule worlds like Phobos, speeds under twenty miles an hour would be enough to send a body out into space forever.

If you did jump of Phobos, however, you would be in no danger of falling down to the enormous disc of Mars, dominating the sky only four thousand miles away. You’d still be moving around Mars in practically the same orbit as Phobos and would complete one circuit in about seven and one half hours. The view would be excellent.

[…]

So far we have spoken of sports on worlds that have some gravity, even if it is only a thousandth of the Earth’s. But what about the situation in spaceships or space stations, where the very conception of weight – but not mass – is meaningless?

Flying, of course, would be not only easy but unavoidable; it would be the only way of moving around. When we build satellites with really large interior spaces, aerobatics could become an exhilarating recreation, combining the characteristics of ballet and high diving. Zero-gravity athletics is a vast, utterly unknown territory waiting to be explored.

[…]

There may be other factors in space besides gravity (or lack of it) which will affect physical activities, and may give rise to new types of sport. It is difficult for us to conceive the possibilities. A dweller in Sahara, unfamiliar with mountains or beaches, could hardly have imagined ski jumping or surf riding. In the same way we earthlings cannot guess what wholly novel recreations our grandchildren may invent to take advantage of peculiar conditions on the other planets. I will, however, go out on a limb and make a couple of suggestions, but not predictions. They are only mind-stretching hints:

According to some theories, there are lakes and seas on the Moon. But they are not composed of water. They are made of dust, flaked off over millions of years by the expansion and contraction of the lunar rocks, during the 400-degree temperature cycle between day and night. This dust would be so dry, and so finely divided, that it would flow like a liquid and would accumulate in the low lying regions of the Moon. We have nothing quite like it on Earth. Owing to the absence of air it would be slippery and almost frictionless. (If you can imagine the behavior of talcum powder in a vacuum, you have an idea of its characteristics.) Pools of this lunar dust, should they exist, may be a considerable hazard; parts of the Moon may have to be explored on snowshoes, or their equivalent. Yet what opportunities this dust would represent! Think of the frictionless rides one could have on it, in a rocket-driven sledge! Could you ski on it? “Swim” in it? Cruise on it in a boat? We’ll soon know.[2]

My second suggestion is much more “far out,” but it is based on a number of scientific papers which have appeared during the last ten years. These have proposed, in all seriousness, that space travel may be best undertaken by sailing ships.

Few people realize that a great wind continually blows outward from the Sun. It is a wind of light, and it exerts a definite pressure. This “radiation” pressure is, for ordinary purposes, negligible. Tiny though this force may be, it could add up to appreciable amounts over the surface of a huge, gossamer-thin sail of some reflecting material like aluminum foil or mylar film coated with silver. And when I say “huge,” I mean exactly that; the sails would have to be thousands of feet across to be of any use. Even so, by using delicate rigging, their mass need be only a few hundred pounds. Once conventional rockets had carried them up into orbit, they could be employed to tow cargoes across space.

Though the acceleration produced by such a “solar sail” is tiny, it would be maintained hour after hour, week after week, and could eventually build up to respectable velocities.[3] The beauty of the system is its utter simplicity, and, above all, the fact that power is free and everlasting. Even if it never has any serious applications, it suggests a beautiful and fascinating sport.

Some day, space yachtsmen will be tacking around the orbit of Mercury, racing tiny one-man vehicles not much larger than the capsules that today’s astronauts already have ridden. Billowing ahead of them will be vast, glittering surfaces, possibly miles across – flexible mirrors little thicker than soap bubbles, reefed and furled by a spider’s web of invisibly fine threads. The skippers of these fantastic little craft would need a superb knowledge of astronautics and orbital theory, as well as skills that could not be learned in any classroom. There are many links between sea and space; here, surely, is one of the strangest. Across the centuries, the spirit of the men who once sailed the windjammers around the Horn may live again as their descendants ride the eternal trade wind between the worlds.

The haunting vision of these fragile space yachts, literally riding on sunbeams, is sufficient answer to those who think that interplanetary flight will be all cold science and massive engineering. Of course, we shall need that kind of technology to take us to the planets and to build new civilizations there, but this represents only part of life. Our picture of space is not complete if we think of it only in terms of power and knowledge; for it is also a playground whose infinite possibilities we shall not exhaust in all the ages that lie ahead.

Memoirs of an Armchair Astronaut (Retired)

[First lines:]
For my money, the heroic period of the space age lay between 1935 and 1955; what’s happened since has had a slight air of anticlimax. True, men are now actually preparing to go to the Moon, but today everyone takes a little thing like that for granted, and eminent scientists no longer rise in their wrath to denounce rocketeers as irresponsible crackpots. The only arguments about space that one hears today are of this type: Should Brobdingnag Astrodynamics or Consolidated Aerospace be awarded the $326,709,163 contract for the first stage Mastodon booster?

It was all very different in the prewar years, when the annual income of the British Interplanetary Society was about $300. (I should know; as a treasurer, I had the terrifying responsibility of accounting for it.) On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Rocket Society was slightly more affluent, but as we both operated with a part-time, volunteer secretarial stuff, contact between our two organizations was erratic. In those days, moreover, B.I.S. and the A.R.S. were divided by an ideological gulf, long since bridged.

As is well known, we British are a romantic and wildly imaginative race, and to our annoyance the conservative Americans did not consider that space travel was respectable. Though they had formed the American Interplanetary Society in 1930, the name had been changed to American Rocket Society a few years later. The suggestion was sometimes made that we should follow suit, but we refused to lower our sights. To us, the rocket was merely the interplanetary bus; if a better one came along (it hasn’t yet, but we’re still hoping) we would transfer, and give the rocket back to the fireworks industry.

Picture us then, in the mid thirties, when only a few aircraft had flown at the staggering speed of three hundred miles an hour, trying to convince a skeptical world that men would one day travel to the Moon. There were about ten of us in the hard core of the society, and we met at least once a week in cafés, pubs, or each others’ modest apartments. We were almost all in our twenties, and our occupations ranged from aeronautical engineer to civil servant, from university student to stock exchange clerk. Few of us had technical or scientific educations, but what we lacked in knowledge we made up in imagination and enthusiasm. It was, I might add, just as well that we were overoptimistic. If we had even dreamed that the price of the first round trip ticket to the Moon would be $10 billion per passenger, and that spaceships would cost many times their weight in gold, we should have been much too discouraged to continue our quarter-million-mile uphill struggle.

The total amount spent on the British space effort before the outbreak of war was less than $1,000. What did we do with all that money? Let me tell you.

Most of us talked, some of us calculated, and a few of us drew – all to considerable effect. Slowly there emerged the concept of a space vehicle which could carry three men to the Moon and bring them back to Earth. It had, even for a 1938 spaceship, a number of unconventional features, though most of them are commonplace today, and many have been “rediscovered” by later workers. Notable was the assumed use of solid propellants, of the type now employed in Polaris and similar missiles. Our first plans, based on highly unrealistic assumptions, envisaged making the entire round trip in a single vehicle, whose initial weight we hopefully calculated at about a thousand tons. (The advanced Saturns now being developed by NASA weigh several times as much.) Later, we discussed many types of rendezvous and space-refueling techniques, to break down the journey into manageable stages. One of these involved the use of a specialized “ferry” craft to make the actual lunar landing, while the main vehicle remained in orbit. This, of course, is the approach now being used in the Apollo Project – and I am a little tired of hearing it described as a new discovery. For that matter, I doubt if we thought of it first; it is more likely that the German or Russian theoreticians had worked it out years before.

There is a vast gulf, almost unimaginable to the layman, between thinking of an idea, and then converting it into detailed engineering blueprints. There is an equally great gulf between the blueprints and the final hardware, so we cannot claim too much credit for our pioneering insight. Yet I am often struck by the fact that there is hardly a single new conception in the whole field of current space research; everything that is happening now was described, at least in outline, twenty or even fifty years ago.

[…]

Though our experimental efforts were unimpressive, we made ourselves known through countless lectures, newspaper interviews, and argumentative letters to any publications that would grant us hospitality. One controversy ran for months in the correspondence columns of the BBC’s weekly, The Listener; if we could not convince our critics, we usually routed them.

Looking back on it, I am amazed at the half-baked logic that was used to attack the idea of space flight; even scientists who should have known better employed completely fallacious arguments to dispose of us. They were so certain that we were talking nonsense that they couldn’t be bothered to waste sound criticism on our ideas.

My favorite example of this is a paper which an eminent chemist presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He calculated the energy that a rocket would need to escape from the Earth, made a schoolboy howler in the second line, and concluded, “Hence the proposition appears to be basically impossible.” But that was not enough; he could not resist adding, “This foolish idea of shooting at the Moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialization will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments.” I cannot help feeling that the good professor’s compartment was not merely thought-tight; it was thought-proof.

As another example of the sort of stick that was used to beat us, I might mention an article that appeared under the eye-catching title “We Are Prisoners of Fire.” This was based on the fact, deduced from radio measurements, that there are layers in the upper atmosphere where the temperature reaches a couple of thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, the writer announced, any space vehicle would melt before it got more than a few hundred miles from Earth. He had overlooked the point that, at the altitudes concerned, the air is so tenuous that the normal concept of temperature has no meaning, and one could freeze to death for all the heat that the few 2,000-degree molecules of nitrogen and oxygen would provide.

I must admit that we thoroughly enjoyed our paper battles. We knew that we were riding the wave of the future; as T. E. Lawrence said in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “It felt like morning, and the freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us.”

[…]

Just as V-2, in 1945, marked the end of the first era of astronautics, so the announcement of Project Vanguard, ten years later, marked the end of the second. As far we old space hands were concerned, the long campaign was over. A major power was now in the satellite business, reluctantly but inescapably. Given time, everything that we had predicted was bound to follow. Some of us hoped that we might live to see the first landing on the Moon – though in one of my early novels I had stuck my neck out by suggesting 1978 as a target date. Today, anyone so pessimistic would be extremely unpopular at NASA headquarters.

That our time scale might be a little inaccurate I began to suspect in the small hours of October 4, 1957, when a London paper roused me from my bed in a Barcelona hotel and asked if I cared to comment on a news flash just received from Moscow. There is no need to elaborate upon what has happened since then; it is enough to list some of the names that have now passed into history: Sputnik, Laika, Lunik, Gagarin, Shepard, Titov, Glenn, Mercury, Telstar, Mariner… these are merely the first words in the vast new vocabulary of space.

It has been a privilege to watch the beginnings, and to have taken some small part in the greatest adventure upon which the human race has ever embarked; but now it has grown too unimaginably huge for the comfort of amateurs like myself. This has struck me many times in the last few years – never so strongly as in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, in the fall of 1961.

There, some two thousand scientists and engineers, all in evening dress, had assembled for the banquet which concluded the American Rocket Society’s Space Flight Report to the Nation. The cream of the astronautics industry (soon to be the largest business in the world) was gathered together; had the roof fallen in, that would have been the end of the United States’ space effort, and of its Vice-President Johnson, for he was the guest of honor, speaking on a nationwide hookup.

Yes, it was an impressive occasion, and I was happy to be there. But I could not help thinking of the little pubs and tearooms where we met between the wars, and dreamed the dreams we never thought to see come true.

The new generation will know the drama, the triumphs, the excitement, the responsibility of space flight.

But we had most of the fun.

Science and Spirituality

A few days ago I heard Sri Nehru quote a striking remark of Vinobe Bhave: “Politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality.” Not the least reason why the phrase is striking is that, to many people, science and spirituality are not merely incompatible; they are antagonistic.

It is a great tragedy that such an impression has ever arisen, for nothing could be further from the truth. “Truth” – that, of course, is the key word; for what does science mean except truth? And of all human activities, the quest for truth is the most noble, the most disinterested, the most spiritual.

It is also the one most liable to inculcate humility. Said T. H. Huxley a century ago: “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

Science has now led us, in our generation, to the ultimate abyss – that of space. Questions to which philosophers and mystics have given conflicting answers for millennia will soon be answered, as our rocket-borne instruments range even further from Earth.

Of all these questions, the place of intelligence in this gigantic universe of a hundred thousand million suns is the most important, the one that most teases the mind. During the last decade, the idea that life was a very rare and peculiar phenomenon, perhaps existing only upon our planet, has been completely demolished. All the evidence today suggests that it is commonplace; within ten years we may know.

But even if we encounter life on the other planets of this Sun, it seems most unlikely that we shall meet intelligence. The odds are fantastically against it; since the solar system is at least five thousand million years old, it is altogether unreasonable to expect that other rational beings will be sharing it with us at this very moment.

To find our peers, or more likely our superiors, we must look to the stars. There are still some conservative scientists (it is astonishing how often people fail to learn from the past!) who would deny that we can ever hope to span the interstellar gulfs which light itself takes years to cross.

This is nonsense. In the foreseeable future (it may take a century, but what is that?) we shall be able to build robot explorers that can head to the stars, as our present ones are heading to Mars and Venus. They will take years upon their journeys, but sooner or later will bring back news that we are not alone.

[…]

By one means or other, perhaps a hundred years from now, we may therefore hope to establish contact with other beings. The probability is that they will be much higher in the scale of creation than we are – and this means not only scientifically but spiritually. (As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.)

In the past, almost all intellectual progress has arisen from contact between different races and cultures. No nation is sufficient unto itself; there are plenty of examples to show that isolation means, eventually, stagnation. Within a fleeting moment of historic time, there will be but a single culture on Earth, with all men linked together by global communications networks so efficient that space of this planet is effectively annihilated. We shall be in need, then, of fresh philosophies and insight; we may receive them from minds which have been brooding upon the problems of the universe since the great reptiles roamed our world.

It is a strange thought that purely scientific technologies will eventually put us into direct contact with beings with most of the attributes our religions have given to the gods. The contact will be overwhelming; it may be devastating, inducing a kind of inferiority complex that may lead to loss of the will to live – as has happened many times on this planet in the past. Perhaps our eventual fate may resemble that of intelligent gorillas, doomed to look out with dimly comprehending eyes from the bars of our planetary zoo, at a universe largely beyond our understanding.

This is a risk which we have to face; to turn back at this stage would be impossible, and a negation of all the attributes that have made us human. The comforts of ignorance are ephemeral; we shall insist on learning the truth – however unflattering it may be – about our place in the hierarchy of cosmic intelligence, in the spectrum of the spirit.

All of which leads to a most ironic conclusion. At this moment, the drive into space is being conducted by the two most powerful nations on Earth, for reasons which are largely materialistic – prestige, defense, the development of new industries. But in the long run (and perhaps the short run) these things will be utterly unimportant; for the illusions of our day cannot survive the fierce, hard light that beats down from the stars.

Though men and nations may set out on the road to space with thoughts of glory or of power, it matters not whether they achieve these ends. For on that quest, whatever else they lose or gain, they will surely find their souls.  

The Meddlers

[First lines:]
From his simian ancestors, man has inherited an insatiable itch to meddle with his surroundings. There is a straight and unbroken line of evolution between cageful of monkeys in the zoo, and the Atomic Energy Commission in the Pacific.

Now a certain amount of meddling is an excellent thing; it laid the foundations of experimental science and of modern technology. But the intelligent meddler must abide by a few common-sense rules, of which the most important are:

1. Do not attempt the unforeseeable.
2. Do not commit the irrevocable.

Though these rules have often been broken, in the past it seldom mattered; for the damage was confined to the meddler and its immediate vicinity. This is no longer the case; the consequences of meddling are now global, and will soon be astronomical.

[…]

Where is this going to lead, as our powers over nature, but not over ourselves, continue to increase? If we extrapolate the present trends in technological megalomania, arrogant ignorance, and national selfishness, this is the type of press release we may expect from the Pentagon, around about the year 1990:

As there has been much ill-informed criticism of the U.S. Space Force’s proposed attempt to extinguish the Sun by means of the so-called “Black-out Bomb” (Operation Pluto), the following statement is being issued to reassure the public.

The experiment is based on the discovery of Spitzer, Richardson, Chandrasekhar and others that the injection of polarized neutrinos into a certain class of sunspot can start a chain reaction, which will cause temporary quenching or damping of the solar thermonuclear process. As a result, the Sun’s brilliance will rapidly decrease to about a millionth of its normal value, then recover in a period of approximately thirty minutes.

This important discovery has grave defense implications, for a potential enemy can utilize it to make a surprise attack on the United States under cover of artificially induced darkness. It is obvious, therefore, that for its own security the U.S. must investigate this phenomenon, and this can be done only by a full-scale experiment.

Though it is appreciated that Operation Pluto will cause temporary inconveniences to large numbers of people – a fact deeply regretted by the U.S. government – the defense of the Free Solar System permits of no alternative. Moreover, the benefits to science will be enormous, and will far outweigh any slight risks involved.

The numerous protests raised against the operation by many foreign scientists are ill-founded, being largely based upon inadequate information. In particular, the attacks launched by Lord Lovell of Jodrell and Sir Fred Hoyle appear to be inspired by political rather than scientific motivations. It is felt that their views would be altogether different if the United Kingdom possessed vehicles capable of carrying suitable payloads to the Sun.

As these critics have suggested that the Sun’s recovery time may be of the order of years rather than minutes, a full study of the blackout process has been carried out by the Los Alamos PHOBIAC computer. This has shown that the risk of the Sun remaining extinguished is negligibly small, though the actual figure must remain classified.

Nevertheless, to explore all possibilities, the U.S. Government has commissioned the well-known firm of independent consultants, Kahn, Teller and Strauss to make a study of the situation should the Sun fail to return to normal. Their report – to be released shortly under the title Economic and Other Effects of a Twenty-Four-Hour Night – indicates that, though there may be a difficult transition period, the community will soon adapt itself to the new conditions. These may, in fact, be advantageous in many respects; for example, the enormous stimulus to the electrical supply and illumination industry would remove any danger of a recession for years to come.

The protracted absence of the Sun would also render useless the Soviet Union’s announced intention of increasing agricultural production, by tilting the Earth’s axis so as to move Siberia into the tropics – a proposal which has rightly aroused the disapproval of the civilized world. Should Operation Pluto have unexpected aftereffects, there will, of course, be no tropics.

The United States government, however, is confident that no such mishaps will occur, and is proceeding with the operation in full consciousness of its global responsibilities. It will not be deflected from its plain duty either by uninformed criticism, or such temporary setbacks as the recent destruction of the planet Mercury by the premature detonation of the first blackout device. This accident has been traced to a piece of chewing gum in the inertial guidance system, and all necessary steps have been taken to prevent its recurrence.

Farfetched? I'm not so sure. For a long time, many of us have been wondering why certain types of stars occasionally blow up; and just recently, astronomers discovered an exploding galaxy. By the standards of the universe, our meddling may still be pretty small-scale stuff.

But we’re certainly working hard at it; and the best, I’m afraid, is yet to be.

The Lunatic Fringe

The lunatic fringe has always been with us. In every age, there have been people who were willing to believe anything so long as it was sufficiently improbable.[4] Religion, economics, science, politics have all had – and still have – their financial minorities who devote their fortunes, their energies, and often their lives to the cause they have made their own.

Often the cause is a sensible one but its advocates are not; they show that humorless monomania, that inability to see any other point of view, that distinguishes the crank from the enthusiast. One does not have to look very far for examples; the best publicized (perhaps over-publicized) specimens in the United States at the moment are probably the John Birch Society and the Black Muslims.

The driving force behind all such extremist groups and crackpot organizations is a mixture of fear and ignorance. It may be, as in the above cases, a well-justified fear of the Communists or the Ku Klux Klan, but often it stems from deeper and less rational causes. We can see this very clearly if we look at two of the most famous examples of mass moronity in the past decade – Bridey Murphy and the flying saucers. (If Hollywood fancies this title, it can have it.)

In the Bridey Murphy case, a Colorado housewife “remembered” her life as a girl in Ireland more than a century before, and gave an elaborate account of it while under hypnosis. This was built up, by skillful publicity, as evidence of reincarnation, despite the fact that a little careful research would have revealed the truth. When a few skeptical newspapermen did this research, and uncovered the childhood sources from which the subject obtained her memories, the whole sensation collapsed almost overnight.

Let me make one point quite clear. The Bridey Murphy affair involved a perfectly genuine and still unexplained phenomenon almost as remarkable, in its way, as true reincarnation. But this phenomenon – hyperamnesia, or the incredibly detailed and creative recall of long-forgotten memories under hypnosis – had been familiar to all psychologists since at least the time of Freud. To have placed it before the American public as proof of survival after death was an act of irresponsible incompetence; some would use stronger terms.

Yet the public lapped it up; the book became, not merely a best seller, but number one best seller, and several hundred thousand copies were soon in circulation. The publishing trade can take little pride in such exploitation of fear and ignorance – in this case, fear of death, and ignorance of psychology.

The flying saucer craze lasted much longer and indeed is still with us, so there is no need to go into details. But once again, as with Bridey Murphy, we must distinguish between a real phenomenon and the conclusions drawn from it by anxious and hysterical people.

“Unidentified Flying Objects,” to give them their non-committal name, are quite common; if you have never seen a UFO, you should be ashamed of yourself, for it means you are not very observant. (I’ve encountered seven, including two that would have convinced the most skeptical.) They have dozens of causes, many of them ludicrously simple, for it is amazing what nature can contrive when she is in the mood – look at the rainbow or the snowflake. A small proportion of UFO’s has never been satisfactorily explained, and the theory that they are visitors from outer space is a perfectly reasonable one; I would be the last to condemn it, since I have spent most of my life expounding the possibility.

What I am condemning is the credulous naïveté of those who have accepted this theory and made almost a religion of it. On the strength of a few faked photographs and the ravings of obviously psychopathic personalities, thousands were convinced than men from space had actually landed on this Earth. Many still believe this, despite the fact that ever since the opening of the International Geophysical Year the skies of our planet have been raked by armies of trained observers and every conceivable type of detecting instrument.

The chance of a genuine spaceship evading discovery in this age of multibillion dollar radar networks and Moon-watch teams is about the same as that of a dinosaur concealing itself in Manhattan.[5] When our stellar neighbors really do start to arrive, we’ll know all about it within five minutes. The idea that any government could – or would – keep such a world-shattering event secret for year after year is utterly ludicrous.

The fears of the UFO-ologists are more complex than those of the Bridey Murphy believers. (I would guess, by the way, that the two groups overlapped to a very large extent, for credulity knows no boundaries.) Alarm at the drift to atomic destruction was combined with the hope that benevolent saviors from the sky would arrive and tidy up the mess we have made of this planet. And in this case, the ignorance which made so many honest people misinterpret the evidence of their own eyes was completely excusable. Not even the scientists had realized what an extraordinary collection of optical, astronomical, meteorological and electrical apparitions inhabited our skies. The UFOs have done some good by focusing attention upon these.

[…]

You may feel that this is making too much of something that affects only a small part (one hopes) of the total population. It is true that in the past crankiness and eccentricity did little harm, and even added a certain spice to society. A generation ago, flat-Earthers, end-of-the-World cultists, and disciples of weird religions caused no embarrassment outside their immediate circle. But we are moving now into a complex and perilous age, where credulity and superstition are luxuries that can no longer be afforded. For consider this example:

In 1843, fifty thousand followers of the prophet William Miller gathered on New England hilltops to await the expected hour of judgment. The advent of a great comet, its tail streaming like a fiery banner across the sky, seemed to them a sign that the end of the world was at hand.

Men are still watching the skies for signs of doom; but now they look into radar screens. And here is the important difference; the beliefs of fifty thousand Millerites could have no influence, one way or the other, upon the end of the world, but today, when we carry the power of Vesuvius in a single warhead, the fears or delusions of only fifty men could bring it about.

This is an extreme case; but all forms of irrationality are dangerous, because in the right circumstances they can spread like a plague, infecting not only a community but an entire nation. Those concerned may be very ashamed of themselves afterwards, but by then the damage may be done.

You cannot build an informed democracy out of people who’ll believe in little green men from Venus. Credulity – willingness to accept unsupported statements without demanding proof – is the greatest ally of the dictator and the demagogue. It is not so very long ago that there were voices crying: “The Jews are plotting against the Reich!” and “I have here in my hand a list of 205 Communists in the State Department.” Those voices are silent now; but there will be others.

One of the factors, ironically enough, which has contributed to popular willingness to accept the incredible is the success of modern science. Because so many technical marvels have been achieved, the public believes that the scientist is a magician who can make anything happen. It does not know where to draw the line between the possible, the plausible, the improbable, and the frankly absurd. Admittedly this is often extremely difficult, and even the experts sometimes fall flat on their faces. But usually, all that is required is a little common sense.

Unfortunately, common sense has always been rather rare. As a reminder of this, let me quote two final examples of mass stupidity, which may also help to dispel the idea that it is a United States monopoly.

During the darkest days of the First World War, the rumor swept the length and breadth of Britain that troops were arriving from Russia in huge numbers (this was before the Revolution) to reinforce the crumbling western front. Thousands of honest Britons “saw” them at ports and railway stations, and millions believed the rumor, because they wanted to. And how did the observers know that these soldiers were actually Russian? Not because they said so – but because they had snow on their boots.

This little detail was the clincher, as far as most people were concerned. They never stopped to ask if even Russian snow would survive the long sea voyage from Murmansk to Scotland.

My last example may surprise you; you may not know that flying saucers have invaded the Soviet Union. Yet they have, for a remarkable reason. According to Pravda, which is rather indignant about the whole affair, Russian saucer fans believe that little people from Venus constantly descend on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and then “promptly scurry in all directions in search of inexpensive Oriental sweets.”

I love that “inexpensive”; presumably, the ruble is hard to get on the Venus black market.

No one should derive much satisfaction from this proof that nuttiness is also rampant on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Unreason is always a menace, wherever it occurs; it may be even more of a danger in the Soviet Union than in a country with democratic safeguards. (Look what Hitler’s intuitions did to the world.) And there is, unfortunately, no reliable cure for it; you cannot buy sanity at the drugstore, or inject common sense into the community by mass inoculation.

The only answer lies in education, and even that is merely a palliative, not a panacea, for a college degree is no guarantee of wisdom, as anyone who has ever been near a campus will testify. There are many people in the world who are educated beyond their intelligence, but there are far, far more who have not been educated to within hailing distance of it. They are the ones who provide fodder for the demagogues and cranks, who listen to false prophets and sponsor absurd or evil causes. They cannot always be blamed, for society has robbed them of what should be every man’s right – an education to the limit of his ability, whatever his financial status, creed, or color. No wonder that, dimly realizing their deprivation, they seek any substitute that they can find.

Very often that substitute takes the form of anti-intellectualism – a pretense that knowledge, education and culture are worthless or even dangerous. This is, of course, a typical sour-grapes reaction; not long ago one could identify those suffering from it by their fondness for the word “egghead.” That engaging term is now a little out of fashion, because the events of the last few years have made it obvious to everyone that a society which despises brains is on the one-way road to oblivion.

Human nature being what it is, the lunatic fringe can never be abolished – and most of us, if truth be told, would hate to see it vanish altogether. But education can minimize its influence, can convert it from a potential danger to a source of mild amusement. A century ago, Matthew Arnold compared this world to a “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night.” The metaphor is still valid. Perhaps the greatest single task that now faces every nation is the dispelling of that ignorance, lest the armies clash again – for the last time.

“Dear Sir…”

One of the occupational hazards of authorship, not usually regarded as a high risk profession, is the Letter from the Reader. I think that I can speak with fair authority on this subject, having seriously jeopardized my amateur status by publishing, at last count, thirty-four – oops! – thirty-five books, as well as about four hundred articles and short stories. The result of this garrulity is a fine collection of foreign stamps and a thick file of letters from every part of the world, including the South Pole. Some of these letters have not been easy to answer, or even, for that matter, to read.

And I do answer them, for I feel that anyone who troubles to write to an author deserves the courtesy of a reply. However, it is a brief one, for I have long been haunted by the fate of the late H. P. Lovecraft. In case you have never heard of him, Lovecraft was a talented fantasy writer of the 1920s, who slowly starved to death while conducting a gigantic correspondence of thirty-page letters with about a hundred friends and acquaintances. He probably would have starved to death anyway on half a cent a word; but I have no intention of repeating his tragic error, and it is rare for my replies to extend beyond one paragraph.

In most cases, no more is necessary. Request for autographs, corrections of errors (invariably, of course, the fault of my secretary or the printer), gratuitous information – a bare acknowledgment is sufficient for these. A little more thought is required to deal with one recent – as far as I’m concerned – phenomenon: the class assignment. […] Every writer should be extremely kind to teenage readers; they are insurance for his declining years.

Where youngsters are concerned, it is particularly difficult to deal with letters – nay, parcels – containing elaborate plans of space rockets, together with endless pages of explanation. I treat these gently, having been through the same phase myself around the age of fourteen. It is fairly obvious that a boy cannot compete with a design team of ten thousand scientists and half a billion dollars’ worth of computers, which is roughly what it takes to produce the paper work for a large space vehicle, and most of these hopeful plans can be dismissed as sheer nonsense at a glance. (The entire fuel tankage, for example, may be tucked under the pilot’s seat where it won’t be in the way.) But I should hate to discourage any future von Brauns, and all these efforts show enthusiasm, application, and the strength of mind to ignore the TV screen for several hours on end. My reply is, therefore, noncommittal as far as the specific design is concerned, but spends some time emphasizing the training and experience needed before one can do anything useful in the space field. It ends with a short list of reference books and magazines, and a few words of encouragement.

No encouragement at all is received by helpful characters who can think of brilliant stories, but just haven’t the time to write them down. They are prepared to hand their brain children over to me, for 50 per cent of the take.

I have yet to receive a single really worthwhile idea or plot in this way. When the concept is good, it has invariably been used before, and I pride myself on being able to say at once: “I’m sorry, Mr. Smaltz, but Sam Fink published a story about giant man-eating hamsters in Flabbergasting Fiction for May 1932.”

In any case, being an independent sort of guy, I hate to use someone else’s ideas, even when they are both good and original. Twice in my life I have used plots donated by personal friends, and that was years ago. Gifts from strangers should be regarded with particular suspicion, for any author who accepts them may be handling stolen property. There is no certain defense against accidental plagiarism, but why increase the risk?

So far – touch wood – I have never been accused of this ultimate literary crime, but I have had one near miss and just a few weeks ago I was shaken when another author, Poul Anderson, brought out a story on a theme which I fondly believed I was the first to develop. Much more remarkable, we had both concocted the same nonexistent word – Sunjammer – for the title. This in itself should be enough to disprove any charges of plagiarism (no thief is that stupid), but it is just as well that the stories appeared simultaneously.[6]

As for the near-miss, almost ten years ago I made this brief entry in my little black notebook: “Plague of indecent cloud formations.” I would have bet any reasonable sum that this idea was unique to my own dirty mind; imagine my utter astonishment in discovering that Philip Wylie had got there first.

These examples have made me all the more determined to refuse pleas from budding authors to read their stories and offer criticism (by which, as Somerset Maugham remarks, they really mean praise). Quite apart from the time and effort that this would involve, I could never be sure that, years in the future, my subconscious might not dredge up some item from an otherwise long-forgotten manuscript. Then the indignant author might rush into print, or court, and would be able to prove that I’d stolen the only good idea he ever had.

[…]

All authors are afflicted by a certain amount of crackpot mail, and considering the sort of stories I write, my share of it seems surprisingly low. I have never had a letter from Napoleon; and though I have had two or three from God, there have been none – rather disappointingly – from His opposite number.

At luckily rare intervals there will be a handwritten, or horribly typed, thesis on gravity or cosmology, with a letter informing me that the writer has spent ten years developing his revolutionary new theory, which finally explains the whole universe. As he can’t get “orthodox scientists” to listen to him, he pays me dubious compliment of assuming that I will.

I never attempt to argue with these people, even when I go to the trouble (which is seldom) of reading their effusions. These are almost always scientifically illiterate, full of fallacies that one could no more explain to their benighted authors than one could teach calculus to a chimpanzee.

The wasted effort involved in these products is sometimes horrifying to contemplate, and I cannot help wondering how these unfortunate peoples’ friends and relatives are affected by their activities. This struck me forcibly some years ago, when I received a letter from a gentleman who was convinced that the Earth was shaped like an inner tire, and had a photo of a model that proved it. With the total irrelevance which is so typical of cranks, he also enclosed a photo of his wife and three little daughters. They looked a perfectly delightful family, but I would hate to take any bets on their future happiness. On the other hand, it might well be that father’s harmless insanity kept him from a harmful one. Crackpottery may be a useful escape mechanism; I hand this thought over to psychiatrists – who will doubtless dismiss it as a crackpot idea.

[…]

I hope that this has not given the impression that I don’t like hearing from readers. Far from it, for I must now overcome my natural modesty and admit that the great majority are straightforward letters of appreciation for the pleasure my books have given. These always receive a prompt “thank you,” carefully listing any recent titles that may have been overlooked. Such letters present no problems, and are of no interest to anyone except the sender and myself. I enjoy getting them, but do not think that it would make very much difference to my output, my style of writing, or my choice of plots if there was no feedback at all from the audience. Nor have I ever been responsive to entreaties for sequels to any of my short stories or novels; I really mean it, when I write THE END.[7]






[1] Cf. “The Playing Fields of Space” in the same volume.
[2] Cf. Arthur’s novel A Fall of Moondust (1961).
[3] Cf. Arthur’s story “The Wind from the Sun” (1964), reprinted in the eponymous collection (1972):
'It means that in the first second, we'll move about a fifth of an inch. I suppose a healthy snail could do better than that. But after a minute, we've covered sixty feet, and will be doing just over a mile an hour. That's not bad, for something driven by pure sunlight! After an hour, we're forty miles from our starting point, and will be moving at eighty miles an hour. Please remember that in space there's no friction; so once you start anything moving, it will keep going forever. You'll be surprised when I tell you what our thousandth-of-a-g sailboat will be doing at the end of a day's run: almost two thousand miles an hour! If it starts from orbit – as it has to, of course – it can reach escape velocity in a couple of days. And all without burning a single drop of fuel!'
[4] Cf. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dover Thrift, 1993, p. 4, Lord Henry: “…and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”
[5] I once saw a movie in which this happened. It contained the immortal line: “It’s hiding somewhere in the Wall Street area!” [Arthur’s original note.]
[6] “Sunjammer” is the original title of “The Wind from the Sun”. See note 3.
[7] Highly ironic considering later events. Arthur produced three sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey himself. Gentry Lee, to the everlasting shame of science fiction in general and Arthur in particular, wrote thee sequels to Rendezvous with Rama, presumably in collaboration with the author of the original, but really so thoroughly un-Clarkian that they Mr Lee can be considered their sole creator.



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