Arthur C. Clarke
The View From Serendip
Pan, Paperback, 1979.
12mo. 237 pp.
First published thus, 1978.
Dawn of the Space Age
Servant Problem - Oriental Style
The Scent of Treasure
The Stars in Their Courses
How to Dig Space
A Breath of Fresh Vacuum
The World of 2001
'And Now--Live from the Moon . . . '
Time and the Times
The Next Twenty Years
Satellites and Saris*
The Sea of Sinbad*
Willy and Chesley*
Mars and the Mind of Man*
The Snows of Olympus*
Introducing Isaac Asimov
Life in Space
Last (?) Words on UFOs
When the Twerms Came
The Clarke Act
Technology and the Limits of Knowledge
To the Committee on Space Science
The Second Century of the Telephone
* Reprinted in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999).
The first and most important thing about The View from Serendip that must be stated unambiguously is that this is a book for Clarke aficionados. The subtitle is rather telling: "Speculations on space, science and the sea, together with fragments of an equatorial autobiography". There is a good deal of the former in Clarke's extensive bibliography, but the latter is something of a rarity. Like all great writers - for great writing is measured by its impact on you, not by stylish linguistic acrobatics - Arthur Clarke always had very personal writing style, combining simplicity and lucidity in the best Maugham-fashion, though in a rather different fields of both fiction and non-fiction. For my part, when great artists are concerned, the man and his works are the same thing, and it is terribly fascinating, to say the least, to have some glimpses how any writer who has attained such stupendous popularity as Arthur Clarke views his life and his achievements. The experience is extremely revealing, and these "fragments of an equatorial autobiography" are one of the main reasons for The View from Serendip to be a really great book. But I am only too well aware that if you happen to love Clarke's writings but for some reason disliking the man - a strange dichotomy, I should think, but it happens - you may find this book appallingly self-serving and impertinent. Needless to say, I don't.
The View from Serendip is a very curious book indeed. For bibliographical purposes it is a collection of essays written during the 1960s and 1970s, more or less all of them appearing here collected in book form for the first time. Yet there are many introductory and concluding remarks printed in italics - indeed the whole of the first two pieces are thus printed! - which discuss the historical context of each piece, when and why it was written, and how the things have changed since then. Considering this rather desultory fashion, often spiced up with quotations from other works by Clarke, the final result is surprisingly coherent. Since many of these ''notes in italics'' go into detail about quite a few personal and professional moments from the author's life, the book can also be viewed as a kind of autobiography encompassing the period from the early 1950s to the middle 1970s, surely the most momentous one in Clarke's life, the accent being on the three big "S" that shaped it: Space, Sea and Serendip. For my part, the book is compulsively readable, stupendously entertaining and enormously thought-provoking on several different planes. Since the scope ranges from Indian politics to Moon colonization, I can do no more than merely point out few highlights.
One bibliographical highlight is the only short story in this book, "When the Twerms Came" which is actually supposed to have been Clarke's last work in the genre, as he tells us in his notes. The story has subsequently appeared in the expanded 1987 edition of the collection The Wind from the Sun (originally published in 1972) and is omitted from the mammoth volume The Collected Stories (2001). It is no big loss, for the "story" really is a 400-word sketch for one that was never written. One of the many precious bits of autobiography is Clarke's mentioning that in 1973, after the publication of Rendezvous with Rama, he made up his mind to stop writing non-fiction, which others could easily do as well, and short stories, of which he thought he had written enough, but to concentrate entirely on novels - which nobody else could write he tells us, a somewhat immodest statement perhaps, but eminently truthful as well. In terms of short stories Clarke was almost as good as his word: he wrote very few during the 1980s and 1990s. Fortunately enough, he didn't stop writing "journalism", much of which is on uncommonly high level as the magnificent collection Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999) amply testifies. So "Life in Space" - a compelling discussion of the nature of life and the chances to find it anywhere in the Solar System - was his ''last piece'' in this department only for a few years. And here is another fine definition of great writer: one that makes even the most hackneyed subject absorbing.
Although the shadow of Serendip - just another name for what the ancient Greeks and Romans called Taprobane but we know as Ceylon or Sri Lanka - hovers over the whole book, there are several pieces entirely dedicated to Clarke's long-term residence there. These make a very pleasant contrast with space exploration and are just as varied. As obvious from the title, "Servant Problem - Oriental Style" deals with hiring Ceylonese butlers and other creatures no longer known in the West. In some other, less competent, hands (and minds), such stories about theft, cheating, adultery, drunkenness and whatever other vices you care to name would become a sordid and all but readable business. What Clarke makes out of it is a hilarious piece of non-fiction, full of good-natured fun and rare understanding of human nature. If you doubt the latter, put yourselves in Clarke's shoes and imagine your house servant - perhaps obsolete in the West today, but certainly not in the East few decades ago - asking you for a loan big enough to shoot a movie, or stealing your own colour film, using it and then returning it - for development, if it's not too much trouble. I don't even want to mention the first "boy" they hired, who actually was about forty years old and had a wife and nine children (the legitimate at least). In stark contrast, "Satellites and Saris" is a very serious piece, though dealing more with India than with Sri Lanka, recalling the giant endeavour in the 1970s to create an educational TV network in this superstitious-ridden country. I don't know about India, but worldwide, it seems to me, education has been one of the least successful incarnations of TV. And Internet doesn't exactly help the matter.
But Clarke is not always so naughty when writing about Sri Lanka. Far from it. "The Sea of Sinbad" consists of two pieces written for the London Observer in 1966. Clarke is apologetic about his prose not matching the photographs of ....., but the fact is that these pieces do contain some of his most gorgeous prose. They are brimming with genuine affection, nay something more than that, for in the mid-1950s he fell in love with the small island. Unlike most love affairs, however, this one lasted for more than half a century. It is probably safe to say that Arthur Clarke is by far the most eminent resident Sri Lanka ever had. In these two pieces he has paid a moving tribute to this enigmatic place, going through its people, nature, history, and just about everything else in a most absorbing manner. In some other reviews of Clarke's books, I have deliberately refrained from quoting lest I end with ''review'' entirely comprised of quotations. Then again, this is probably the best kind of review of so rich and brilliantly written book. The first and last paragraphs of ''The Sea of Sinbad'' will give you just a hint of the ''small universe'' locked between them, but it is a pretty promising hint I think:
The island of Ceylon is a small universe; it contains as many variations of culture, scenery, and climate as some countries a dozen times its size. What you get from it depends on what you bring; if you never stray from your hotel bar or the dusty stress of Westernized Colombo, you could perish of fulminating boredom in a week, and it would serve you right. But if you are interested in people, history, nature, and art - all the things that really matter - you may find, as I have, that a lifetime is not enough.
The drab, chill northern beach on which I had so often shivered through an English summer was merely the pale reflection of an ultimate and long-unsuspected beauty. Like the three princes of Serendip, I had found far more than I was seeking - in Serendip itself.
Ten thousand kilometres from the place where I was born, I had come home.
Somewhat disappointingly, the sea is rather slightly presented with only one short piece: "The Scent of Treasure", dealing with treasure hunts underwater of course. If anything, it shows that the part of Clarke's oeuvre concerned with underwater adventures is very unjustly neglected. It consists of at least four full-length books: The Coast Of Coral (1956), The Reefs of Taprobane (1957), The Challenge of the Sea (1960) and The Treasure of the Great Reef (1964).
On the other hand, the biggest ''S'' in Clarke's life - Space - is more than amply presented with a number of pieces, most of them minor masterpieces. The range is typically Clarkian, encompassing everything from pieces of popular science discussing the ever-fascinating issue how long a man can survive in vacuum (''A Breath of Fresh Vacuum'') and tributes to legendary names in the field (''Willy and Chesley'', namely the German rocket scientist Willy Ley and the great illustrator Chesley Bonestell) to absorbing discussions about the first landing on the Moon ('''And Now--Live from the Moon . . . ''') and the even more mind-opening mission (only robotic, alas) to Mars with Marriner 9 (''Mars and the Mind of Man''). Having mentioned Mars and Marriner 9, to them is dedicated also ''The Snows of Olympus''. Reading this incredibly poetic and evocative piece, I can well understand why Clarke describes it as one of best non-fiction writings; interestingly enough, it was commissioned by Playboy where they were quite enough in love with Clarke to ask him to write a short piece on any subject he fancied. Here is one unforgettable passage which makes the natural wonders of Mars almost rising before your eyes:
This new world has nearly twice the diameter of the moon and is almost four times as large as both Americas. And it has the most spectacular scenery yet discovered anywhere in the universe. Think of the Grand Canyon, the greatest natural wonder of the United States. Then quadruple its depth and multiply its wide five times, to an incredible seventy-five miles. Finally, imagine its spanning the whole continent, from Los Angeles to New York. Such is the scale of the canyon that is carved along its equator.
Clarke's fame, or notoriety if you like, as a futurist has naturally led to many commissions for pieces with predictions about the world after any number of decades you like. Rather reluctantly - as he was always much more interested in defining the broad limits of future, not its minute details - Clarke obliged and the results - ''The World in 2001'' (1966) and ''The Next Twenty Years'' (1972) - are well worth reading and re-reading. The latter is certainly the better piece, for it has some amazingly prescient moments. It is funny to see Clarke describing online shopping and data mining long before Internet was to come on stage. He recalls his predictions about oral contraceptives and accurate methods for proving the real father of a child made in the novel Childhood's End (1953) nearly twenty years earlier, and rightly remarks that by 1972 the former had indeed been invented. He would have been pleased to know that few decades later the latter would be almost as commonplace. Ladies with feministic inclinations would, I guess, accuse Clarke of misogyny because of his hardly tactful remark that ''the liberated woman of that day may not give a damn'' (about the father(s) of her children) but, being a male myself, I find it rather charming, if decidedly cynical. Of course sometimes Clarke is grossly wide of the mark, but for most of the time - sadly - he is still much, much ahead of our own time. I believe it is mere common sense to take these pieces seriously, rather than dismissing them outright as ''outdated''. The ending of ''The Next Twenty Years'' is as poignant as it is chilling:
The two decades from 1972 to 1992 present nightmare problems, but also tremendous opportunities. How we face them will determine not only whether we will survive but whether we deserve to survive.
As in most collections with Clarke's essays, this one too contains several deliberately flippant pieces whose sole aim is to amuse. Perhaps my personal favourite here is "How to Dig Space" which is a fabulously funny speculation about some rather far-fetched practical influence of space exploration over everyday's life. In his prefatory note Clarke charmingly remarks that he has been accused of having "schoolboy sense of humour" and if we have some trouble with that, we'd better skip the next few pages. Personally, I find the trademark Clarkian wit perfectly delightful, even in such cases when it is quite over the top. Similarly humorous, just a more serious, are "The Stars in Their Courses" and "Introducing Isaac Asimov". The former is a facile piece of popular science written for the ridiculously superstitious Eastern public who was horrified by a not-so-uncommon, and certainly not linked with Armageddon, celestial phenomenon. And the latter, of course, is another arrow, or bunch of arrows, in the everlasting war with words between the two most successful sci-fi writers of all time. After Clarke's ''impromptu speech of carefully contrived insults'', there is a short ''Asimov's Reply'' in the end, apparently completely improvised by Isaac, which backfires in a most spectacular way, especially the final lines:
And I will tell you right now, that from here on in, I won't mention him at all. Let us instead talk about science fiction, which, after all, is what we both do - I because I am a great writer, and Arthur because he is a stubborn writer.
What a cheek, eh! For everybody who can see just in front of his nose, however, it is crystal clear that behind the wall of cynical barbs there always were respect and affection you seldom find between writers of such calibre. While we are on a hopelessly hilarious note, I cannot resist my favourite passage from this monument of human laughter, ''Servant Problem - Oriental Style''. I don't know if this is a ''schoolboy sense of humour'' or not, but I find it totally irresistible. So how do you ''translate'' the cryptic messages left in the pocket register of your would-be house servant by his previous employers:
'Good plain cook.' (You'll need plenty of magnesia.)
'Appears honest.' (We could never prove anything, but you've been warned.)
'Needs more experience.' (But not at the expense of our stomachs.)
'Leaves to better his prospects.' (Hopes to find a bigger sucker.)
'Not overfond of work.' (Time-lapse photography might reveal signs of movement.)
'Works well under supervision.' (We'll be glad to lend you our rhinoceros-hide whip.)
'Leaves at own request.' (He just beat us to it.)
'Left because of disagreement with other servants.' (The charge was reduced to manslaughter.)
And, most ominous of all, the two little words: ''Means well.''
Last but by no means least, actually one of the most important features of the book as far as I am concerned, the numerous personal details mentioned casually here and there are extremely revealing about the kind of man Arthur Clarke must have been. A most compelling parallel with Somerset Maugham can be drawn here - oddly enough, it mirrors the remarkable similarity of their economical and sparse yet rich in meaning and nuances writing styles. There is in Clarke the same mixture of evasive and self-deprecating modesty, occasionally a trifle disingenuous perhaps, but in general perfectly sincere. Anti-Clarkian cynics would be only too quick to declare the essential dishonesty of such passages, but I am definitely not one of them - I am not anti-Clarkian at any rate. And I do believe that the man who comes out of the writings of a truly great writer - such as Arthur Clarke - is at least as real as any other you may encounter is the vastly subjective, and hardly more reliable, reminiscences of other people, not to mention literary critics. Indeed, now that I have let the cat out of the bag, I may make it fly as well. I would venture to suggest that the man embodied in the oeuvre of any great writer is by far the most real one; save mundane and tedious stuff such as endless biographical trivia, the writings of any writer by vocation express his whole personality more powerfully than any second-hand source. The most wonderful thing about Clarke - and Maugham - is that their modesty is not just sincere, but it is never carried too far into some kind of pathological self-debasing, yet it is never overdone either; this may be the case with lesser authors but never with great ones. The latter are certainly conscious, if dimly, that they are doing something that will endure through the years. They have every right to be proud of that, yet they do, as a rule, have a strong streak of perfectly dosed modesty. Arthur Clarke certainly is, and does. That makes his startlingly frank remarks that surface every so often all the more compelling. Few examples:
Though I have always been under the impression that I was an extremely poor swimmer, this could hardly have been the case; I used to enjoy bathing in water so rough that spectators gathered along the sea wall, unable to decide whether I was waving or drowning. (Even in those days, I was a show-off, and it's much too late to do anything about it now.)
Saul Bellow's 'Literature in the Age of Technology' opened in fine style by quoting an 'extraordinarily silly' statement from a book by one Arthur C. Clarke. I count it a noble (and possibly unique) example of my self-restraint that, though I had the last word, I refrained form comment.
And I still do.
Here is the bottom line. If daring and lucidly written non-fiction of highly speculative character is your cup of tea, The View from Serendip cannot be recommended highly enough. But if you happen to dislike Clarke's style or personality, you read the book at your own risk. On the other hand, if you are a Clarkian aficionado but have not read this volume, you haven't read anything yet. It's long out of print, of course, but second-hand copies in very decent condition are offered virtually for free.