While the year 2001 will forever be synonymous with the worlds and imagination of Sir Arthur C Clarke, it was the year 2017 which saw the centenary of his birth in Minehead, Somerset, an event which Ian Whates of NewCon Press and Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C Clarke Award, proposed to celebrate with an anthology inspired by the work of the late grand master of science fiction.
An “odyssey in words” composed of stories each running precisely 2,001 words initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign launched in December 2017, it is was unavoidable that the proposed publication date of March 2018 was missed by a few weeks, but like Clarke’s long wished-for space elevator or the establishment of a permanent Moon colony, the result is worth the wait despite the delay.
The collection echoing the style of Clarke’s prolific short story career where never a word was wasted or out of place, after Whates’ introduction Dave Hutchinson opens with Golgotha, a cautionary tale considering the impact of contact with an alien race on organised religion, complicated by the realisation that an aquatic race’s preferred liaisons may not be with a land-based species.
The designated length of the pieces imposing a uniformity not unlike the exterior dimensions of the Monolith, always in the ratio of 1:4:9, the apparent specifications may match but each contains a different vision or interpretation, many of them echoing the works of Clarke or the man himself in a myriad of ways, both abstract and direct, his love of the ocean, a space vessel named Karellan, even the inspirational legacy of his fiction itself in Paul McCauley’s devout but slight travelogue The Monoliths of Mars.
Jane Rogers‘ melancholy Murmurations considers first contact from the human point of view, two expeditions to the same planet reporting different perspectives, the first reporting back long after the second due to the vast distances and the limits of their more primitive technology, while Ian R MacLeod’s Ouroboros, as the name suggests, is a story which eats its own tale, a reworking of The Nine Billion Names of God in a modern context with a little dash of Dial F for Frankenstein.
As befits the legacy of Clarke, the language is precise and sharp, the characters clearheaded and intelligent, and in many of the pieces such as Matthew De Abaitua’s The Escape Hatch offer a distorted reflection of the English summer days of Clarke’s youth, as well as the longing to leave it for a wider existence.
In the cleverly titled Childhood’s Friend, Rachel Pollock offers an inversion of Clarke’s original idea where the story is told from the point of view of the elevated children, demonic in appearance and powers, while Bruce Sterling resurrects Clarke’s fictional associate Harry Purvis in Takes from the White Hart, an entertaining dissection of the grand master’s work, the literary tropes of science fiction and the fast-sinking post-Brexit nightmare.
Even in an age of increased longevity and medical intervention bordering on the miraculous, mortality will not be overcome, yet while Emma Newman offers Your Death, Your Way, 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed! even the best laid plans of billionaires can still be derailed at quite literally the last moment by a wronged child before Gwyneth Jones’ Distraction takes its cue from one of Clarke’s dry observations of human foibles as a crew return to Earth after a time-dilated trip to find changes in body form and fashion have left them as outsiders.
Allen Stroud’s Dancers is a compact mystery on a space station with a surprise role for a welcome guest character, the political expedience of the cleverly deduced solution a foreshadowing of trouble to come, then Yoon La Hee models complex systems as gameplay, considering parallels and teaching lessons in Entropy Wars, and there is a hint of the abstraction of Ray Bradbury from Liz Williams, The Ontologist confronted with a very different monolithic object.
Tying Clarke with another creative giant of the 20th century now gone, Tom Hunter turns from space odyssey to oddity as Waiting in the Sky anticipates the arrival of life on Mars, and Adrian Tchaikovsky captures the optimism and grand vision of Clarke in The Collectors, a long term project in a distant solar system as suggested in The City and the Stars and the vast patience to see it through.
One of the few stories to run harshly aground on the word count, Philip Mann’s I Saw Three Ships doesn’t land quite as it should, while in Before They Left Colin Greenland considers the promise of Childhood’s End, requiring knowledge of that (fortunately widely-read) novel, and Jeff Noon is very much on his home turf with wrenching emotions and manipulated brain chemistry in Drawn from the Eye.
A spiritual encounter from the point of view of a non-corporeal visitor, Olaf Stapledon would appreciate the perspective of Emmi Itäranta’s Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold, in The Fugue Stephanie Holman depicts love and devotion overcoming an emergent forgotten personality, and Chris Beckett’s Memories of a Table is similarly personal, fragments of ancient time revisited, some frustratingly without context, though the most meaningful date not from antiquity.
An artificial intelligence collective debates and votes upon its preferences for the specifications of its offspring in Claire North’s Child of Ours and Ian Watson also considers the output of automation in Would Be AI, Tell us a Tale… which becomes an indulgent whimsy whose momentary charm fades long before it fulfills the slim word count.
Conversely, Becky Chambers uses that restriction as part of the narrative in her ambiguous but optimistic Last Contact, an attempted communication curtailed by short-sightedness but which lays hope for the future, while fully in the immediate present is The Final Fable of Ian Whates, a twisted “what if?” in the true Clarke style which it would be easy to imagine he would have conceived himself had he still been with us.
It is not easy to convey a visual medium in prose, but Ian McDonald makes a valid and evocative effort in Ten Landscapes of Nili Fossae, his tale of a Martian artist made easier if the reader is familiar with the works referenced, though it is unlikely that anyone will not know the inspiration for Adam Robert’s Child; Clarke was never averse to revising his own plans for future stories, so why should another not tell a tangent tale of what might have been had the enigmatic Star Child been more direct in action?
Clarke having considered the interaction of faith and science in The Fountains of Paradise among other works, Alastair Reynolds‘ Providence brings the moving and noble sacrifice in a no-win scenario of a religious order on a deep space colony ship faced with the aftermath of a catastrophic accident, the final piece of fiction leading onto the three closing essays.
Andrew M Butler’s 2001: A Space Prosthesis – The Extensions of Man offers superficial insight into the book and the film better explored at greater length elsewhere, Neil Gaiman discusses the judging process of the Clarke Award, oddly a shorter piece of only two pages.
Finally, three time Clarke Award winner China Miéville considers the breadth of the nominees and winners, the borders the prize has dissolved and the penetration of genre into the mainstream, concluding, as exemplified by the contributors to this collection and their myriad disciplines and achievements, that “any sufficiently advanced literature must be indistinguishable from science fiction.”
2001: An Odyssey in Words is available now from NewCon Press