Arthur C. Clarke
Reach for Tomorrow
Ballantine, Paperback, 1963.
12mo. viii, 166 pp. Preface by Arthur Clarke [v-vi].
First published thus, 1956.
Third printing, 1963.
Rescue Party 
A Walk in the Dark 
The Forgotten Enemy 
Technical Error 
The Parasite 
The Fires Within 
The Awakening 
Trouble with the Natives 
The Curse 
Time's Arrow 
Jupiter Five 
The Possessed 
* In square brackets: the year of first publication, usually in magazine.
This is Arthur Clarke's second short story collection, first published in 1956 when the author was in his 39th year and consisting of pieces that had appeared in various magazines between 1946 and 1953 (with the exception of ''Awakening'', which appeared as early as 1942, but it was thoroughly revised in 1952). Like its predecessor, Expedition to Earth (1953), Reach for Tomorrow consists mostly of very short pieces, certainly uneven in merit, but delivering a glorious entertainment - and often much more besides. Unlike his first collection, Clarke wrote a wonderful preface to this one. Since I have always preferred, and no doubt always will, few sentences about his work from the writer himself to hefty volumes with the ''wisdom'' of the critics, I intend to make full use of this little-over-a-page long preface which says so much. Clarke's clear and concise style - very much akin to that of Somerset Maugham - allowed him to say a great deal with few words; even his shortest pieces, such as prefaces, are well worth reading. To begin with, the preface to Reach for Tomorrow has a most charming opening paragraph:
''Preface writing is an occupational disease of authors, but it must be granted that they have a legitimate excuse. It is the only opportunity they ever get of pining their readers into a corner and telling them exactly what they are trying to do. In my case, this can be stated very briefly. I wrote these stories to entertain one person - myself. It still seems a remarkable piece of good luck to me that other people have been entertained as well.''
Indeed, I am one of them. But I am certainly not the only one, even 65 years after the First edition. Now let's have a closer look at the stories, using Arthur's pithy remarks as a kind of guiding light.
''It seems only right to warn the reader that ''Jupiter Five'', ''Technical Error'' and ''The Fires Within'' are all pure science fiction. In each case some unfamiliar (but I hope both plausible and comprehensible) scientific fact is the basis of the story action, and human interest is secondary. Some critics maintain that this is always a Bad Thing; I believe this is too sweeping a generalization. [...] If it is done properly, without the information being too obtrusive or redolent of the textbook, it can still have at least the entertainment value of a good puzzle. It may not be art, but it can be enjoyable and entertaining.''
For once, I believe Arthur Clarke was wrong - and underestimating himself. Such kind of stories may be a lot more than ''puzzles'' or mere ''entertainment''; and his are. ''Jupiter Five'' is the longest piece in the book and, except for the anticlimactic ending, it is certainly one of Clarke's masterpieces. The technical part plays overall a very minor role towards the end of the story, but what I want to say about it I already have in the review of the collection The Sentinel (1983) where the story is reprinted as ''Jupiter V''. The other two stories are more technical, but never excessively so. In fact, both are superbly crafted pieces of short fiction.
Do not be discouraged by the very technical beginning of ''Technical Error''. It doesn't last long. The scientific premise of the story is concerned with one of humanity's oldest dreams which, alas, will probably remain science fiction forever: teleportation. It may sound ludicrous, but even here there are some scientific foundations; see Chapter 13, aptly titled ''Aladdin's Lamp'', from Clarke's non-fiction magnum opus Profiles of the Future (1962, 1999) for more details. The plot of the story is actually concerned with something like a side effect of the process, involving as it does another semi-chimera from the world of physics: the Fourth dimension (see Chapter 11, ''About Time'', in the aforementioned book). Indeed, ''Technical Error'' is a candidate masterpiece. It has everything: well-crafted plot, excellent dialogue, unexpected twists, keen insight into the characters (simple as they are in a short story by definition), suspense, drama, poignancy, subtlety and wisdom. Indeed, almost all of the stories in this volume do have most, if not all, of these qualities.
Despite equally firm scientific background, ''The Fires Within'' is rather more fanciful a story. Clarke rightly described it later in his life as a ''fable'' which might, metaphorically, prepare us for the surprises we are bound to find, not in the Space, but quite in the opposite (and even more unexplored!) direction. The story is a compelling fantasy about the discovery of a civilization deep into the Earth's crust, an area of temperatures and pressures that fills me with awe as few other things do. It is brilliantly conceived and even more brilliantly told, with the right dose of science and a great deal of suspense. And what a twist in the tail!
Apart from ''Jupiter Five'', the only other rather longish (about 30 pages or so) story in the volume is ''Rescue Party'', one of Clarke's most famous stories. Well, it's amusing and thought-provoking, but not quite up to the fame it has earned. (Or am I prejudiced because of the fame?) For one thing, the fabulously advanced aliens, virtually all characters, are a trifle too gullible, and the ''second twist'' in the end does look contrived. But these things should be expected, the former at least. It is difficult enough to draw a plausible character of a human being, and in a short story at that, so imagine how much tougher a job would be to make aliens on paper believable, no matter how similar they may be to us. ''Rescue Party'' is certainly a fine story, but I do share Arthur's opinion that ''a depressing number of people still consider it my best''; it seems that by 1956 today's tendency had already started. The most fascinating thing about this story in this collection is the parallel Clarke draws with another story from his first collection:
''Readers of my earlier collection, Expedition to Earth, may just conceivably be interested in knowing that ''History Lesson'' and ''Rescue Party'' both stemmed from the same forgotten original, though now it would be difficult to find two more contrasting endings.''
Indeed we, the readers, are very interested in this fact! Here is a rare insight into a great writer's workshop. It is difficult to imagine how so utterly different stories could possibly have stemmed from a common original. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, there are certain ''obvious'' similarities - alien expedition to Earth, annihilation (real or not) of mankind, reconnaissance of ruins - though the differences are much more overwhelming. Danger of spoiling the stories precludes their discussion, however. But if you are familiar with both works, or if you become in the future, spend some time reflecting on this issue. You will be rewarded with a vivid glance inside the mind of a great creative writer.
From the rest eight stories, only ''The Curse'' and ''The Forgotten Enemy'' did I find unsatisfactorily overall. The former (aka ''Nightfall'' in The Collected Stories) is not a story at all. It's rather a sketch that might have been expanded into a fine story about something as relevant today, nay even more so, as it was in the mid-1940s: nuclear holocaust. The piece does have certain poignancy but it is rather insubstantial to make any lasting impression. Clarke apparently viewed the story with affection since he wrote it during his war-time RAF-years when he was stationed near Stratford-upon-Avon; yes, it is Shakespeare's grave that is alluded to. ''The Forgotten Enemy'' suffers from the same drawback but on a smaller scale. Although the fight of mankind with the next Ice Age must be pretty common in science fiction, that hardly makes it less attractive. The story contains some truly eerie descriptions of London buried under snow, but the exile of the protagonist is not particularly credible, either in space or in time. The most interesting thing is the ending which is a sort of anticlimax, yet in a way it is pretty chilling. Clarke is most amusing in his preface about the stretching of the scientific facts: ''I apologize in advance to any experts who may be offended by the slight liberties I have taken with time-scales. But what is a factor of 10^3 among friends?'' Well, the ''liberties'' are certainly made a fine dramatic use of.
''Trouble with the Natives'' is just as far from serious as is Earth from Vega - but just as you need nothing more than your naked eyes to glimpse at Vega, so you need just a little imagination to capture the serious overtones. But this is perhaps missing the point. The story is pure, intentional and stupendous fun. It does make fools of ourselves, but it is reassuring to know that unimaginably advanced alien civilization may have retained this rare and elusive quality vaguely described as ''sense of humour''. It is a shame that some people don't even seem to know that when he wants to, Clarke can be extremely funny. I don't think the fabled ''first contact'' has ever been subjected to more flippant and hilarious treatment. Within its limitations, the story is perfect - including Clarke's trademark knock-out ending.
''Awakening'' explores the same fantastic idea as ''Exile to Eons'' (aka ''Nemesis'') from Expedition to Earth: freezing a human being for eternal period of time and awakening him in a totally different world. The similarities, of course, cease here. Apart from its very naïve ending, reminding me of a cheap horror movie rather than of Arthur Clarke, the story has more substance than its mere five pages may suggest. Considering the very limited space, Clarke creates a most vivid and disturbing future of stultifying Utopia. Mankind has conquered completely the Solar System - but the Stars have defeated us. The few who have not yet sunk into the oblivion of drugs are bored to extinction - almost literally - for there is nothing left to do that hasn't been done thousands of times before. Confine this picture to Earth alone, and you may be looking into the very near future - which makes the story rather terrifying. Marlan refuses to succumb to the zeitgeist and tries a daring experiment. What happens then you will see if you read the story. The arresting opening sentence may serve as an additional stimulus:
Marlan was bored, with the ultimate boredom that only Utopia can supply.
''A Walk in the Dark'' is a similar affair: distinctly disappointing ending, predictable and puerile, but truly outstanding story otherwise. In fact, the story itself is highly unremarkable - just a guy lost in the dark on an unknown planet. But as a psychological study of fear and obsession, both so common for our minds, the piece makes a spectacularly scary reading. The narrative often has subtlety and insight which strongly bring to mind Maugham's chilling ''The Taipan''.
Speaking of psychological insight, I have to mention ''The Parasite'', perhaps my greatest favourite in the collection. This story is one of the few in which Arthur plays with paranormal forces; and he does so as imaginatively as ever. The story is beautifully written, ushering you in the mystery with the very first lines, and ending with a bold yet logical climax. It's not even 15 pages long, yet after reading it I feel as if I have known Roy and Jack for years. And I have glimpsed into some of the most horrifying psychic phenomena imaginable, providing terrifyingly plausible explanation for human madness. But the thing I want to stress here is the one that Clarke is so seldom given any credit for: characterization. Keeping in mind that the genre of the short story - and science fiction in general - is no place for complex and elaborately drawn characters, Clarke often does amazing job in this department. Consider the following short excerpts from ''The Parasite'':
Pearson was not attempting to criticize his unhappy friend. He never passed judgments; he merely observed with a bright-eyed, sympathetic interest that was hardly tolerance, since tolerance implied the relaxation of standards he had never possessed....
[This might well have been written by Somerset Maugham himself!]
She was suffering not only the bitterness of being scorned, but the agony of not knowing why.
On the hilltop he had been, if not his normal self, at least friendly and prepared to talk. But now the sight of the happy, carefree crowds ahead seemed to make him withdraw into himself.
I don't know about most people, but this is what I call ''great characterization'': austere and powerful. Certainly the story of Roy's plight is as affecting as anything in fiction can be.
''Time's Arrow'' is an ingeniously told story - through the eyes of two observers and their discussions on positive and negative entropy - which deals with yet another everlasting dream of humanity that is probably destined to remain a dream forever: time travel. Perhaps the ending might have been improved a bit, description-wise, but it is only slightly less shattering because of that. Like all popular science in Clarke's stories - cf ''Technical Error'' and ''The Fires Within'' where there is a lot - the one here is marvellously integrated into the plot and lucidly explained for the layman.
''The Possessed'' is pure fantasy, but a very well-crafted and singularly mind-stretching one. It is one of those Clarkian exercises in compressing time periods beyond human comprehension into a few pages, while infusing them with a good deal of food for thought. The basic idea is one of the most compelling notions about nature there are: purposeful evolution guided by some intelligent entities. Perhaps it is rather sad that there is not a single piece of scientific evidence yet that any such entities have ever existed. But this doesn't make the notion less compelling. In the preface Clarke charmingly tells us that this is one of the few stories he has written on ideas suggested by others, in this case his friend Mike Wilson ''who can take his share in any blame'', but the treatment is typically Clarkian: the story has at least two cunningly conceived and subtly written twists. I didn't see either coming.
In conclusion, though Reach for Tomorrow does not have such superstars in its contents such as ''The Sentinel'' or ''Breaking Strain'', it does demonstrate Clarke's versatile genius for writing short stories. From the hilarious ''Trouble with the Natives'' to the heart-rending ''The Parasite'' - throwing in for a good measure near-masterpieces such as ''Technical Error'', ''The Fires Within'', ''The Awakening'', ''The Possessed'', ''Rescue Party'', ''A Walk in the Dark'' and ''Jupiter Five'' - this is a beautifully rich collection that supplies enormous amounts of intelligent entertainment. Neither your heart nor your mind is likely to suffer any shortage of material to work on.