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Monday, August 25, 2014

Arthur C Clarke on Compassion

Driving through the mountains of Snowdonia National Park in Wales.
(They've been there for a while).

Imagine the curiosity that would ensue if a mountain appeared overnight. This is the central mystery of Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2061: Odyssey Three. As the mountain appears on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, most people simply get on with their lives. Still, it intrigues scientists, who study satellite feeds of the planet, and wonder how a mountain could suddenly just…be there.

Humans live on space stations, there are missions to the other planets, and the terraforming of Jupiter's moon Ganymede has begun. This has been made possible by igniting the gases of Jupiter, and transforming it into a tiny sun. Its rays warm her moons, turning ice to liquid and gas, and allowing atmospheres to form. But scientists cannot travel to Europa, as the strange Monoliths have banned Humans from traveling there. No Human government seems prepared to disobey this order. After all, if the aliens behind the Monoliths can transform a planet into a sun, what reprisals might they take, should Humans disobey their orders?

Yet some cannot restrain their curiosity. While Heywood Floyd, who participated in the momentous events in 2010: Odyssey Two, travels to Halley's Comet on the spaceship Universe, his grandson Chris travels on its sister ship Galaxy on an orbital survey of Jupiter's moons. Heywood and his colleagues land on Halley, and explore the surface and ice caves of the famous comet. Their exploits whet our appetite for the exploration of Europa, which begins when a hijacker puts a gun to Second Officer Chang's head and says "Land on Europa, or else."

After reading stories set on Fantasy worlds, or Space Operas in which spaceships effortlessly whiz around the galaxy, I enjoyed this true Science Fiction novel, in which particulars such as fuel and orbits become limitations and plot points. I also enjoyed seeing characters like Heywood Floyd, Chris Bowman, and the spaceship computer HAL again, even if the latter two only appear briefly in the narrative. I loved wandering across Halley with Heywood's team, and seeing how the Monolith had impacted the lifeforms emerging from Europa's seas. And, of course, there was the weighty question of how a mountain could arise between satellite sweeps of the Jovian moon. But as great as all those aspects were, what struck me the strongest was Arthur C. Clarke's sense of compassion.

Clarke treats his characters kindly: not just his Human characters, but also his aliens.  Another author would have stationed more officers on the bridge during a nightshift. Chang or another member of the crew would have fought with the hijacker, and someone would have been injured or killed to demonstrate the hijacker's determination. Likewise, Humanity would have suffered reprisals for their disobedience, perpetrated either on the Galaxy's crew, or on the larger population of Earth. 

There's nothing wrong with tense and violent scenes. Such moments can enhance the overall tension of a novel, which keeps us turning the pages. Yet Clarke chose to be kind to his characters, and make his aliens understanding and forgiving. In doing so, he suggests that space might be more than just an interesting frontier, and those we encounter on our voyages might actually be better than us. Not just smarter, or more capable, but more noble, kind, loving, and compassionate. For no person's life is without value, even if they only inhabit the stories we read, and the dreams we dream.  

Dragon Dave

A word of caution. If this post aroused your interest in 2061: Odyssey Three, be careful about how much you read about it on the Internet. There are spoilers out there, even on Wikipedia, and as Clarke's story is chiefly concerned with discovery, they may detract from your enjoyment of his novel.  

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