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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke

Prelude to Space - Arthur C. Clarke

I've always liked this book, since I first read it in the 70s. Written in 1947 and first published in 1951, it plays on the wonder of space travel that died with the men and women aboard the Challenger. But it isn't the typical science fiction novel, set in the far future, when space travel is taken for granted. As the title suggests, it's about the first step on that journey, a manned mission to the moon, and the men who make that happen.

You caught that, right? Reading the book today, it's impossible not to be struck by Clarke's warm embrace of all the nations on Earth and the cold shoulder he turns to half of the world's population. No women scientists, no women astronauts, not even any female PR people, except for secretaries. With the exception of the occasional "pretty girl" -- a wife in a photograph, a partygoer -- it's almost as if women don't exist.

I noticed something else I'm sure never crossed my mind when I read this as a kid: the absolute superiority of scientists and their hangers-on. The "hero," Dirk, a historian sent to record the momentous project, is initially taken in by a couple of men from the PR department, both of whom treat him very well. Then he meets the scientists. And they're oh so much more interesting. He becomes, in essence, a scientist groupie, preferring their company to anyone else's. And why not? They are above the petty strife of the rest of the world's inhabitants.

Now, all of this is understandable and none of it ruins the book (believe it or not). It's just that I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who didn't long to return to that sense of wonder and excitement that early science fiction provides. In fact, if that isn't your sole motivation going in, you'll be sorely disappointed. The book is about getting into space and why that's a good thing. Clarke didn't choose a historian to carry the action for nothing. Not that there is any action, really. It's all talk and gentle propaganda. Clarke admits he was proselytizing. But if you agree with the message, you might enjoy this.

On a practical note, Clarke provides a "Post-Apollo" preface, written in 1975, that discusses the book's "predictions." It's a funny one, too, in that, though he got so much wrong the first time around, he then proceeds to get it all wrong again, when he predicts that serious space-flight is only a decade or two away. If only.

In an amusing aside, he refers to a quotation against space flight by C.S. Lewis which he included in the book. (Whether the quotation was real or fabricated, I honestly don't know.) In any case, Lewis took it good-naturedly and Clarke tells of how he sat down with him and a colleague in an English pub to discuss the matter. The colleague, as it happens, was J.R.R. Tolkien. By the end of the conversation, Clarke says, "Lewis cheerfully compromised with the observation that though we were probably very wicked people, the world would be an awfully dull place if everyone was good."