Clarke, Arthur C. Expedition to Earth.

NY: Ballantine, 1953.

Along with Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke is considered one of the Big Three of the Golden Age of science fiction. He was just as much a geek as the other two, but his literary style was rather more subtle, which made him a favorite (along with Ray Bradbury) with those who didn’t want to admit they read “that sci-fi stuff.” And after six decades, his books and stories are still well worth reading. They haven’t “aged out,” even if space ships don’t have radio tubes.

This collection of eleven stories includes several true classics — especially “Sentinel,” which laid the groundwork for 2001. Among the others, my favorite is probably “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth,” in which a boy in the Moon colony is taken out onto the surface for his first live look at the remains of the ruined planet from which his people came. It’s a sentimental but affecting story. The other really superior piece is “Second Dawn,” which considers the developmental limitations of a species which has an advanced intellect but no hands or other manipulative limbs. If nothing else, it will stir discussions of whether such a thing could really be possible in evolutionary terms.

“Breaking Strain” is a “problem” story in the Heinleinian mold, in which two men are stuck in a damaged space freighter on the Mars run with only enough air for one before they can be rescued. “History Lesson” is an often reprinted piece about the discovery by the Martians of the long-vanished civilization of Earth, after the glaciers have scoured everything away — except for a couple of hidden artifacts on which they must base all their speculations and conclusions. “Superiority” is a humorous treatment of the problem of vastly superior but not quite trustworthy ultra-high-tech weapons of war vs. the old, dependable way of doing things. Not even close to Clarke’s best work, but not bad. “Exile of the Eons” is very good in its depiction of unimaginable stretches of time into Earth’s future, but the lesson the author wants to teach comes straight out of the post-World-War-II mindset. “Hide and Seek,” on the other hand, is another problem story that isn’t dated at all, about a spy on the run who takes his cue from the squirrel who hides behind a tree.

“Expedition to Earth,” also frequently reprinted, considers the first contact between a galactic survey ship and the stone-age inhabitants of a newly discovered planet. The whole point is in the final paragraph, which you can probably see coming. (It’s a cliché now, but Clarke invented it.) “Loophole,” another humorous “gotcha” story, recounts how Earth deals with an ultimatum from the much more powerful Martians. “Inheritance” is one that hasn’t aged so well because the Real World space program went in a very different direction, but you could revise the techie part of it and still have a very readable story about people.

Younger readers who think even cyberpunk is old hat really ought to be encouraged to rediscover the Golden Age. These guys provided the shoulders upon which all later purveyors of science fiction have stood.

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