Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ranking Arthur C. Clarke's short stories


2001 (film version) and Rendezvous with Rama both made big impressions on me as a teenager, so I'm not sure why I've hardly read any more ACC books since then.

Maybe it's those ponderous titles making me worry I'm in for something boring? Maybe it's the whole paedophile thing? Either way, I won't let that spoil The Top 104 Arthur C. Clarke Shorts.


Obsolete collections key:

Expedition to Earth
Reach for Tomorrow
Tales from the White Hart
The Other Side of the Sky
Tales of Ten Worlds
The Wind from the Sun



104. When the Twerms Came (1972)

Clarke's only comic collaboration, as far as I'm aware, it doesn't exactly leave you craving more. Skip Williamson provides fittingly half-arsed illustrations while Clarke provides blocks of text that are occasionally awkwardly chopped up and squashed into the sides of the panels.

I wonder if contemporary Playboy readers were titillated by this trite tale of the Twerms' psychological invasion by making us stoned, itchy, shitty and horny. There's some pathetic satire in there too.

103. Whacky (1942)

The young Arthur C. Clarke presents three whacky sketches for your delight and puzzlement.

102. A Slight Case of Sunstroke (a.k.a. The Stroke of the Sun, 1958)

A football story is just about the last thing you'd expect to find between these high-concept sci-fi stories. Some of his comedy stories are reasonably funny, but most of them are like this. Except usually with less football.

101. Reunion (1971)

Just a couple of pages long, this isn't so much a story as a deliberate provocation. Maybe he was trying to challenge the status quo and casual racism, or maybe he just wanted to whip up the snail mail equivalent of a volatile comments section.

100. On Golden Seas (1986)

Rather than write a scathing, humanitarian response to President Reagan's 'Star Wars' missile initiative, Clarke decided that weak satire would be more effective, rekindling his gold harvesting idea from an earlier story and adding pop culture references. It's fair to say he's past his prime.

99. Improving the Neighbourhood (1999)

That dead planet he's describing is going to be Earth, isn't it? Another humdrum cautionary tale about how we're on the road to inevitable self-destruction. But would he really be so obvious in 1999? Wait and see, maybe he's going for a double bluff. Didn't.

This is the final whimper of the four-volume Collected Stories. I've read of at least one additional story written since then – a final White Hart tale co-written with (i.e. written by) Stephen Baxter. I won't lose sleep over it.

98. 'siseneG' (1984)

After another substantial gap, Clarke returned to short-form writing but got a little carried away. This is just thirty-three words in length, but it still finds space for mysticism, blasphemy, feminism and charmingly dated computer programming.

97. The Deep Range (1954)

An ugly story about whale farming that goes against modern sensibilities somewhat. Expanded into a novel I won't read.

96. Big Game Hunt (a.k.a. The Reckless Ones, 1956)

The White Hart tales aren't all that funny at the best of times. When he brings in pointless animal cruelty, it doesn't make me more inclined to chuckle.

95. The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch (1957)

Clarke tacked this epilogue onto the end of the White Hart collected edition, which only served to reduce its quality further.

It's a charmingly sexist tale about a wife who never shuts up, her cunning evasion of her husband's trap, and her subsequent, proportional punishment of being thrown several storeys out of a window. That'll teach the bitch.

94. Neutron Tide (1970)

He still had at least one worthwhile short story left to write, but by the seventies, Clarke was mainly using the short form to piss about. This one includes gelatinous aliens known as 'Mucoids,' and the entire thing builds to a terrible pun. I didn't hate it, but it's inarguably crap.

93. The Longest Science-fiction Story Ever Told (a.k.a. A Recursion in Metastories, 1966)

The advent of a new Clarke short story was primarily a marketing coup for magazines by this point, and this is his most flagrant and honest example.

Clarke's retrospective introduction promising "an infinite number of words on a single page" was irresistible to someone as easily impressed with pompous, proggy wank as I am, but it doesn't square up with the image on the right. We're simply left with the suggestion of an endless recursion, though the author could have picked from an infinite number of more interesting scenarios for his infinite tale than a letter from an editor.

I wonder how much more he earned for this than for those early classics.

92. The Steam-powered Word Processor (1986)

Don't get excited about the prospect of an Arthur C. Clarke steampunk tale. Its historical tomfoolery and silly names feel old-fashioned for the era of Blackadder.

91. Retreat from Earth (1938)

If I'd been given the choice, I'd have preferred to learn more about the advanced pre-human civilisation that only gets a passing mention before we focus on the dull Martian invaders instead.

There's one memorable image in this very short story – an enigmatic underground sphere that has some unexplained connection to termites – but the plot surrounding it is weak and flimsy wrapping.

90. Inheritance (1947, as Charles Willis)

Shifting from tedious tech talk about rockets in the first half to airy-fairy prophetic dreams in the second, Clarke presents an unsatisfying science/fiction contrast rather than the typical blend.

89. Cold War (1957)

With the rivalry between America's sunniest states heating up, some Californians concoct a scheme to spoil Florida's idyllic image by having an iceberg towed all the way to the shore. Then there's some kerfuffle with a Russian sub. It's supposed to be funny, I think.

88. Sleeping Beauty (1957)

Clarke riffs on the (now proven) theory of the psychology of names with the tale of Sigmund Snoring. If you like the mediocre White Hart tales, you'll enjoy this one too. The threat of a character losing their unearned inheritance is never valid peril in my book.

87. Moving Spirit (1957)

A trial incorporating a chemistry lesson doesn't make for a gripping story. A couple of explosions aren't enough to remedy that. I hope not too many people have judged Clarke's short stories on the White Hart tales alone.

86. Quarantine (1977)

This was the only short story Clarke wrote across a 13-year span, and it's only 180 words long, written to fit on a postcard.

I don't know if those ever went into circulation, but I wouldn't be surprised if this tale of an exploded Earth and confused computers found its way to Douglas Adams' doormat around this time.

85. Silence Please (1950, as Charles Willis)

I was looking forward to the White Hart tales, but in their 20th century setting, based on the real pub Clarke and his contemporaries hung out in, they're a lot more down-to-Earth than I'd been hoping. Never mind, we'll always have Callahan's.

This first one features a silencing gadget that I was initially envious of, before I remembered this is cautionary sci-fi and that novel inventions never end well.

84. Critical Mass (1957)

Even the regulars are getting tired of Harry Purvis' anecdotes now, so he injects some nervous mystery into this one. Why is everyone so afraid of a truck's scattered cargo? The answer is disappointingly mundane.

83. Let There Be Light (1957)

Even after he'd published the collected edition, Clarke couldn't resist the comforting lure of the White Hart. So we get to enjoy/endure one final tale about a seemingly sci-fi gizmo that ends up having a ho-hum explanation.

82. Hide-and-Seek (1949)

If Clarke had used a pseudonym for this one, it might have had a bumpy ride getting accepted into the canon without extensive fact-checking. This simplistic war story, made pointlessly futuristic through exotic locales and silly names, has none of his usual flair. To make things worse, it closes on a painfully obvious "reveal" that we'd worked out even before the patronising framing narrative returned.

81. The Other Tiger (1953)

A short and simplistic summation of the Many Worlds Theory and its infinite potential for calamity, forgivably so considering how long ago it was written.

80. Refugee (a.k.a. ?, a.k.a. Royal Prerogative, a.k.a. This Earth of Majesty, 1955)

More erroneous predictions, this time about the ubiquity of the British royal family in the minds and hearts of their subjects. The whole thing is a blatant and quite sickly tribute to Prince Charles. Clarke finally got his knighthood 45 years later.

79. Security Check (1957)

Another comedy-Twilight-Zone-episode-style story that would be more tolerable if I didn't still have plenty more White Hart stories to get through, Clarke's written very similar stories before. If you can't see the ending coming from several light years away, I envy your modest entertainment threshold.

78. The Reluctant Orchid (1956)

Clarke was writing his more ambitious stories as novels by this point, using his short stories to have a little fun. Hopefully there are going to be at least a few more classics before I'm through.

This monster tale about a carnivorous plant is not one of them, though I do have to give it credit for not going in the obvious direction.

77. Second Dawn (1951)

This is a strange one. Readers are used to Clarke telling his stories from an alien perspective, but when that alien race happens to be unicorns rather than some conventionally tentacled thing, it's a little hard to take seriously. Maybe I'm just prejudiced.

I'm sure I'd be won over if there was a decent story behind it, but with its ultimate message that woodland creatures should work together to overcome their lack of opposable thumbs, it's just an overlong fable.

76. Love that Universe (1961)

The dying human race concocts a scheme to contact the intimidating super-beings at the centre of the galaxy. Unlike most of Clarke's stories, it eschews plausible future tech in favour of vague descriptions and the power of love. It was uninspiring enough even before he decided to write it in boring lecture format.

75. Nightfall (a.k.a. The Curse, 1947)

This dismal landscape of post-apocalyptic London is fit for purpose, but there's no shortage of similar bleak paintings in the canon.

74. Trouble with the Natives (a.k.a. Three Men in a Flying Saucer, a.k.a. The Men in the Flying Saucer, 1951)

This light-hearted take on bumbling alien observers is about as funny as a comedy Twilight Zone episode, which is to say not very. A rare break from the bleakness, at least.

73. I Remember Babylon (1960)

This is a particularly dull story made even more so through its creative non-fiction conceit that Clarke's reminiscing from the future.

He makes valid points about the potential of satellite hacking, freedom of information and the popularity of being able to watch porn in your own home, but I would have preferred a story.

72. The Food of the Gods (1964)

No relation to Wells' delightfully daft novel of the same name, Clarke speaks through a future food researcher to deliver a condescending, guilt-tripping lecture on the moral and practical failings of humanity's shamefully carnivorous past.

Right at the end, it suddenly becomes a horror story and a lot more interesting when he discloses the origin of the most popular synthesised meat flavour. Then completely fails to follow through by debating its ethics.

71. The Parasite (1953)

Clarke comes down on the sci-fi side of the fence at the end, but I'm still going to choose the more rational explanation that this whole time-travel-possession scenario we have zero evidence for is all in the guilty philanderer's addled mind. His distressed friend just saw what he expected to see. More than one person can be crazy.

70. The Secret (a.k.a. The Secret of the Men in the Moon, 1963)

Another secret is unearthed on the Moon, this time of practical benefit rather than a mere philosophical trifle. Only problem is it makes no bloody sense.

69. The Nine Billion Names of God (1953)

A computer capable of calculating and printing out a hefty sequence of characters isn't the most awe-inspiring of Clarke's technological imaginings. Its presentation of Tibetan Buddhism seems to be equal parts respectful and insulting.

The ending's noteworthy though, for potentially featuring the highest body count in Clarke's fiction. When you've destroyed the Earth as many times as this writer has, you start to crave bigger thrills.

68. How We Went to Mars (1938)

Clarke's second amateur story is a piss-take of the pulp space adventures he presumably adored as a child and grew frustrated by when he learned some proper science. But we're so far removed from it now, I'm not sure how far the sarcasm goes.

There's the obvious stuff, like Martian society turning out to be improbably just like it is in every unimaginative Martian story (especially as the astronauts had just been joking about such an eventuality). But is that all a big fat lie to gain prestige for their rocket club and excuse all the collateral damage from their latest flight? Are we supposed to take lazy futuristic concepts like neo-bakelite rockets and antigravity three-dimensional billiards seriously? We can't ask him any more, and the mystery makes it better.

67. At the Mountains of Murkiness or, From Lovecraft to Leacock (1940)

Clarke's affectionate Lovecraft piss-take condenses the earlier writer's classic novella to less than 10 pages, but still covers all the bases in its subversive way.

The joke names are a bit on the nose, but the hospitable Elder Ones going out of their way to repair the damage Lovecraft & co. did to their tourist trade is all enjoyable postmodern flippancy, a decade or so before that sort of thing was supposed to be going on.

66. Armaments Race (1954)

Clarke lets off some steam about hack B-movies and Hollywood incompetence in this fairly amusing tale of a prop guy tasked with creating a realistic ray gun. He's tragically efficient.

65. Patent Pending (a.k.a. The Invention, 1954)

Clarke goes implicitly blue in a story so scandalous, it needed a lengthy disclaimer at the front. Telling us a story about the invention of the sensory phonograph and not exploring its inevitable erotic implications would just be dishonest.

64. Nemesis (a.k.a. Exile of the Eons, 1950)

Clarke rewrites and extends 'The Awakening,' changing his sympathetic Master from the earlier story into an evil Hitler who plans to evade execution by sleeping for a very long time.

When he wakes up, it's not to an enjoyably pulpy insectoid sting, but part way through an otherwise unrelated time travel story. Clarke's enlightened future societies are as annoying as Gene Roddenberry's.

63. Superiority (1951)

This is a meaningful tale about military over-confidence, but I'm not sure how useful the allegory of futuristic space battles and space Nazis are when we already have the historical example.

It's also not particularly riveting to have abstract warfare described from the safety of HQ. Watching someone play a video game would be more entertaining, at least there'd be some graphics to look at.

62. Cosmic Casanova (1958)

Clarke's stories around this period become noticeably hornier. I don't know if that's revealing of changing content restrictions or his psychology and personal life, but this chronicle of a stud banging his way through the cosmos isn't his most inspired sexual commentary.

For all his occasional prophetic visions, Clarke couldn't conceive of there being a more convenient form of pornography available millennia down the line than magazine centrefolds, and our "hero" has to make do with drawing his own. You know there's a twist end coming when things seem to be going a little too well, but you have to read all the way to find out exactly what form it's going to take.

61. The Road to the Sea (a.k.a. Seeker of the Sphinx, 1951)

One of Clarke's longest "short" stories, I'm not sure why this pedestrian plot needed to be expanded on more than some of his other tantalising tales.

Future Earth has advanced beyond the need for ugly cities and distracting technology, which lets Clarke take a break from hard sci-fi to tell a simplistic love story.

The only really noteworthy thing about it is Clarke envisioning the ghetto blaster several decades in advance. His deadline for interplanetary travel is as optimistically off-the-mark as ever.

60. The Awakening (1942)

A dying scholar decides to Rip Van Winkle himself a century forward to the time when heart transplants are available, in a rare example of Clarke underestimating progress.

Unfortunately, he's forgotten about and has to wait for untold geological ages until he's finally awakened in a pulpy future nightmare. Short and sweet.

59. Loophole (1946)

Clarke's first properly published story was a prompt response to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. As you might expect, it's not a triumphant celebration of that awesome scientific breakthrough.

Our concerned Martian neighbours decide enough is enough, and call a halt to our progress before we can become a threat to people other than ourselves. Yeah, that's going to end well. See pic. E.A.R.T.H! E.A.R.T.H!

58. The Light of Darkness (1966)

This is Clarke's second crack at a realistic ray gun story after 'Let There Be Light.' Would-be murderers and revolutionaries take note.

57. The Shining Ones (1962)

When something goes wrong at the hydrothermal dam, its operators theorise on everything from sabotage to giant squids to Atlantis. One of these proves correct.

56. Publicity Campaign (1953)

Prince Zervashini picked the wrong day to bring his message of peace to the fickle xenophobes of Earth, reeling as it is from the latest blockbuster alien invasion movie. Predictable, but so short that it's a bit of light-hearted filler between the more dreary stories where humanity's wiped out. Oh, hang on, humanity gets wiped out in this one too.

These were simpler times, when 'Sirians' were an acceptable alien name (from Sirius, obviously).

55. The Man Who Ploughed the Sea (1957)

There are a few speculative sci-fi stories amid the otherwise frivolous nonsense of the White Hart tales. In this one, Clarke envisions a sieve that can extract valuable metal molecules from the ocean, as a more sustainable alternative to mining. Don't ask me if it's realistic.

54. The Next Tenants (1957)

This isn't the first Clarke story to be fascinated by termites. Making its supposedly 'mad' scientist Japanese adds poignancy to the typical Clarkeian claim that our time may be running out, and it's time to educate our replacements. At least he didn't choose cockroaches, I guess.

53. The Ultimate Melody (1957)

Most White Hart tall tales involve a miraculous invention that's conveniently destroyed along with its creator before the end. This is no different, giving Clarke the chance to explore a pseudoscientific theory of music that almost sounds credible.

52. The Wire Continuum (1997, with Stephen Baxter)

I'm only grudgingly including this one, and shoving it in the middle, because it's not really written by Clarke. It's the first time he collaborated with Baxter, providing the outline while the younger author handled the actual words, which is presumably how it worked for all their novels too.

One of Clarke's final stories, this is essentially an embellishment of his first published story, 'Travel by Wire!' Though it's naturally less inventive and a lot less funny than that amateur tale managed sixty years earlier.

51. The Wind from the Sun (a.k.a. Sunjammer, 1964)

This story's celebrated for its visionary solar sailing concept. NASA even named some sort of comparable real-life thing after it.

But the compulsory narrative it's wrapped up in isn't as noteworthy. It even ends on an big anticlimax.

50. Holiday on the Moon (1951, as Charles Willis)

This charming, jeopardy-free and rather boring story stands apart in the Clarke canon for being written for a female audience, serialised in Heiress magazine. He tells the story from the perspective of a teenage girl, meaning there's an excuse to have the Lunar astronomers explain various elementary concepts vicariously to the readers, who can't be expected to know such complicated things.

The feminist message that women can be scientists too is amusingly balanced out by the traditional 1950s family dynamic. The author predicts the first moon landings with impressive accuracy, gets less clairvoyant about 21st century lunar leisure trips, and isn't so hot on social progress.

49. Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting... (a.k.a. Out of the Cradle, 1959)

A Russian astronomer reflects back over humanity's conquest of space across the 20th century, which becomes a little unrealistically utopian and cooperative by the 1970s.

The discovery of a lunar conspiracy going all the way to the top threatens a gripping tale, but when the truth is finally revealed, it's disappointingly sweet.

48. An Ape About the House (1962)

We stay at home with the astronaut's housewife this time, as Clarke presents a futuristic story firmly entrenched in backwards mid-20th century upper class values.

It's not the only sci-fi story to envision genetically modified chimps as servants, rather than conventional robots, but Clarke's less interested in exploring the ethical implications than in developing the Superchimp's™ artistic talents.

47. Maelstrom II (1962)

Not Clarke's most suspenseful space survival story, mainly because he insists on letting events play out in real time over real distances. If he had cut corners, I'd have complained about that too. He can't win.

46. Crusade (1968)

Clarke makes a noble but unconvincing effort to get inside the minds of computer beings. The descriptions of their frozen world and their mastery of the elements is all enchanting, but then it descends to into routine human bashing.

45. The Last Command (1965)

This short political piece makes its points well. Clarke imagines that the Cold War deterrent failed, and that rather than seek genocidal revenge on what remains of humanity, the losers should do the right thing and send their own nukes harmlessly into space.

The last line is finely honed to kick patriotic Americans in the balls.

44. Who's There? (a.k.a. The Haunted Spacesuit, 1958)

Over the course of a few panicked paragraphs towards the end, Clarke takes us from a disaster movie through supernatural suggestions to Alien-style claustrophobic horror. Then it's all diffused by an adorable happy ending.

43. Technical Error (a.k.a. The Reversed Man, 1946)

"They want me to re-invert Nelson."

It's helpful that Clarke's first few stories tended towards comedy, so I could get to know his sense of humour and when he's being completely serious. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been sure whether we're allowed to laugh at this bizarre and tragic accident with an overloaded power generator that flips poor Nelson left-to-right. No snickering at the back, this is serious sci-fi.

It's a daft premise, but the four-dimensional theorising behind it is impressive. No one had truly thought through the ramifications of getting mirrored before Clarke.

42. Trouble with Time (a.k.a. Crime on Mars, 1960)

There's no time travel involved in this tale of a bungled heist, at least not in the sci-fi sense. Clarke thinks through Mars' security protocols in-depth, but he couldn't conceive of CCTV.

41. All the Time in the World (1951)

This time-freezing art heist feels a lot like a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits episode, disappointingly dumbed-down with its special bracelets until we get a more customarily Clarkey detailed and depressing explanation at the end. Spoiler: the Earth blows up again.

40. The Cruel Sky (1967)

Reeling from the thalidomide debacle, Clarke posits the future of one of those unfortunate babies, who invents a miraculous machine to help him overcome his disabilities and climb Everest. That's not a metaphor, it's literally his ambition. Although, with the opening of Hotel Everest and the booming tourism trade, that particular achievement has lost some of its potency.

Overall, I preferred Clarke's earlier mountain-climbing/physics-warping story, 'What Goes Up.'

39. Saturn Rising (1961)

It's disappointing that we don't get to "see" the glory of Saturn through omniscient narration, instead relying on third-hand testimony, but it helps to keep this deliberately mundane story of Titan real estate investments and the interplanetary tourism trade down-to-Earth. 

38. The Songs of Distant Earth (1958)

This is another short story tryout for a subsequent novel I don't think I'll bother reading. Clarke has a reputation for focusing on the hard sci-fi at the expense of bothering to write characters, but stories like this prove that wasn't always true. It's just that his cold, technical, mysterious tales are generally a lot better.

It's a naive infatuation story rather than a love story, and its frail and completely inept female protagonist doesn't do Clarke or the genre any favours. There are a few nice sci-fi ideas in there, from sleeper ships to aquafarming, but nothing groundbreaking this time.

37. Castaway (1947, as Charles Willis)

An extremophile living in the photosphere of the Sun is rudely spat out and hurtles through space until it plops down off the coast of Ireland. It may be the most imaginative and thought-provoking of Clarke's earliest stories, but then we switch to the human perspective and it becomes dull and ordinary.

36. Into the Comet (a.k.a. Inside the Comet, 1960)

When a research ship finds itself stranded in the trail of a comet an unable to calculate the return journey to Earth, it seems we're in for another typically doomy Clarke tale. But the simplest of technologies succeeds where state-of-the-art computers failed. These computers will never catch on.

35. The Pacifist (1956)

This might be a landmark story for computer programmers, but it doesn't go as technical as I feared. I don't know how much Clarke knew about that field, but as in 'The Nine Billion Names of God' before it, programming is simplified for the layman to a computer printing messages. Decades later, Hollywood films were still presenting things much the same way.

It's one of a not-insubstantial number of anti-war stories too, as the unappreciated IT nerd drives his bossy general to a nervous breakdown by making the computer insult him whenever he tries to use it for its intended military function. Right on, fuck the military! Whoops, I've been invaded.

34. Encounter in the Dawn (a.k.a. Encounter at Dawn, 1953)

A decade before Star Trek's Prime Directive of non-interference, Clarke's still stuck in the colonial mentality. Accelerating the evolution of primitives so they can join your dysfunctional galactic family is the ancient astronaut's burden.

The unsurprising end "reveal" that we'd worked out at the start seems like it was already a cliche in 1953, but perhaps not.

33. Transit of Earth (1971)

Most of Clarke's hopeless-seeming situations are saved at the last second, but you get the sense from the start that there's no rescue coming for the crashed Mars astronauts.

This makes it fairly depressing, but the narrator takes it on the chin, gets on with the job he was sent to do (and that his colleagues sacrificed their lives so he could do), and spends his last moments savouring the scenery.

32. Venture to the Moon (1956)

These six anecdotes from the first moon landing paint things slightly differently than they turned out thirteen years later. Clarke's back to his dull, speculative, drama-free best, and I've no doubt these tales will have sparked the imaginations of his stargazing contemporaries. But it all looks a little foolishly optimistic today.

The lunar expedition may not have been a collaborative effort. Britain may not have had such a pivotal role in the Space Race. The astronauts might not have spent several months on the moon living out of airlocked igloos. The lunar cactus is just silly. Apart from all that though, good speculatin'.

31. Time's Arrow (1950)

A couple of years ahead of Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder,' Clarke's prehistoric time travel tale is less memorable. Mainly because we're not invited along on the jaunt, and have to settle for observing its aftermath in the fossil record.

He could have told the story from the perspective of the experimental physicists building their time machine, but he decided it would be more interesting to side with the grumpy paleontologists instead. More than a few readers may have disagreed.

30. Before Eden (1961)

Scientific discoveries clearly separate this tale of a harsh, unforgiving Venus from Clarke's thriving Venusian cultures of a decade earlier. There is some small semblance of life, as it happens, but Earthlings' ceaseless colonialism messes things up again.

29. The Forgotten Enemy (1949)

Another frostbitten future, this is a more intimate affair than the earlier 'History Lesson,' featuring a lonely professor rather than a wandering tribe, and it entirely lacks the weird, alien second half.

It might be one of the few Clarke stories entirely free from malignant influence or technophobia, prostrating itself humbly before indifferent nature.

28. What Goes Up (1955)

This botched anti-gravity experiment is one of Clarke's tallest tales, but still strangely plausible... at least until the end, when it's revealed to be a load of old bollocks to subdue the flying saucer fanatics. Or is it? Yes.

27. Earthlight (1951)

Another magazine story that was later expanded into a novel I haven't heard of and I'm unlikely to get around to reading. It already feels the right length like this.

The brief (in the short story, anyway) war over the Moon's uranium deposits doesn't reach Dune heights of incisive fossil fuel allegory. Unusually – not only for Clarke, but generally – the descriptive space battle was my favourite bit.

26. The Lion of Comarre (1949)

Clarke grants our indolent wishes in his 26th+ century utopia, where machines take care of all the boring, practical stuff, scientific ambition has stagnated now that we've invented everything worth inventing probably, and nothing makes a parent prouder than their child graduating with a frivolous arts degree. Just lie back on the laurels and chomp those tasty lotus petals while you patiently wait out your medically-prolonged death.

But you know what some people are like. Richard Peyton III is one such some people, and his quest for enlightenment is Clarke's longest, most complex and, sadly, dullest story up to this point, as he warmed up for his first novel.

25. The Fires Within (1947, as E. G. O'Brien)

Clarke turns his speculations inward this time, as Professor Hancock's sonar scans deep into the bowels of the Earth uncover something impossible. An impossibility that's promptly explained with the author's customary attention to detail.

An equally customary twist in the tentacle makes for a memorable ending, but I might have preferred it if we'd ended at the discovery itself, being left to dwell on its ramifications rather than being told exactly what happened.

24. No Morning After (1954)

This is the first of Clarke's comedies since his earliest stories that's actually pretty funny. A benevolent telepathic race finally succeed in making contact with an earthling to warn us of our planet's impending destruction (yet again), but the suicidal drunk doesn't turn out to be our greatest ambassador.

23. Summertime on Icarus (a.k.a. The Hottest Piece of Real Estate in the Solar System, 1960)

Clarke speculates on a new survival setting, as a scientist finds himself trapped on an asteroid that's slowly rotating towards the baking face of the Sun.

It'd be a bit more tense if it had been written a few years earlier, when he was in the habit of casually blowing up Earths to prove some minor point. These days he lets everyone survive, the softie.

22. Travel by Wire! (1937)

The first of Clarke's stories ever published – in a fanzine when he was 20 years old – is unreasonably accomplished.

Over the course of a few pages, he presents a 1960s where commuting by fax is a cheap, efficient and largely safe form of transport, exploring the practical pros and cons, the unexpected side-effects, everything apart from the trifling technical matter of how it actually works.

That would be all well and good, but he also goes into the petty feuds between the various academic departments, as his researchers nick guinea pigs from the biology lab and select a useless classics professor as their first human test subject. Precocious upstart only bloody cracked sci-fi comedy on his first attempt.

21. Dial F for Frankenstein (1964)

Clarke doesn't usually come down so hard on the side of technophobia, but here he postulates that our over-reliance on electronic systems could be our downfall (and this was only 1964).

It's nothing so mundane as a weapon. Rather the unforeseen consequences of connecting up all the phone lines into a brain the size of a planet.

20. The Possessed (1953)

I like the alienness and resourcefulness of the swarm, optimising the evolution of promising, primitive species in the hope they'll eventually become intelligent creatures worth possessing. The ending is quite darkly comic, and also a rare instance of Clarke getting his science wrong.

19. Out of the Sun (1958)

This is a second crack at the same idea as 'Castaway' from eleven years earlier. Clarke wisely swaps the humdrum terrestrial part for an observatory on Venus and makes his creature a little more awe-inspiring.

18. Playback (1966)

Clarke's got his morbid mojo back in this short tale of attempted resurrection that doesn't go according to plan, but the recipient thanks them for trying. This could only have been written in an analogue age.

17. Breaking Strain (a.k.a. Thirty Seconds—Thirty Days, 1949)

The first, dim flickers of 2001 can be glimpsed in this story of two astronauts aboard a distinctly Discovery-style ship. But no homicidal AI is required this time, as an oxygen leak sorts the savage from the diplomat.

Clarke's stories aren't cheery at the best of times, but this one feels especially nasty. Various other tales involve the extinction of all life on Earth or other worlds, but that's usually through an indifferent natural calamity or the folly of humans who deserve what's coming to them. There's only one potential death hovering here, but the build-up is a lot more tense.

16. History Lesson (a.k.a. Expedition to Earth, 1949)

Another dying Earth story, this time by ice rather than nuclear fire. Earth's loss being Venus' gain is an interesting and challenging non-terrestrial perspective to take. Other curiosities include glaciers that move fast enough to constitute a chase and reptilians that are more compassionate and less reptile-brained than we are.

It's obvious that the wandering tribe hails from our future rather than our past, and Clarke cottons on that we've cottoned on soon enough to avoid that being an embarrassing "twist" ending. The actual twist ending is even sillier though.

15. Death and the Senator (1961)

Clarke proposes a fictional answer to the question of the practicality of space programs. The fact that he had to make one up doesn't strengthen his case, but it's one of his most realistic and accessible stories, and deservedly celebrated. Even if, admittedly, I prefer them to be less like that.

14. Hate (a.k.a. At the End of Orbit, 1961)

The sunny tropical setting tries its best to compensate for the dark themes, but this still ends up being one of Clarke's bleakest stories. Sometimes, somehow, one body counts for more than the whole population of the Earth or the universe.

There's more to it than Clarke's standard moral lessons, as the revenge-quenching protagonist also has his own demons to contend with. But the message ends up being diluted for the sake of a shock ending.

13. Transience (1949)

Reading Clarke's early stories back-to-back is a fairly depressing experience, as you watch the Earth die over and over again in different ways and from various vantage points.

This is a more poetic perspective than most, as we observe through the innocent eyes of children playing on the same beach across the gulfs of time, watching ships calmly sail by and escape pods hurtle the hell out. No scathing extraterrestrial commentary required this time.

12. Dog Star (a.k.a. Moondog, 1962)

I normally dislike Clarke's more sentimental stories, and this one even has the unpleasant stench of magic about it, despite the narrator's insistence to the contrary. But I can't deny that I found this simple tale of the enduring bond between dog and man to be touching.

11. Guardian Angel (1950)

I haven't read Childhood's End, so I don't know how closely this prototype would be adapted for the later novel. There's certainly a lot more story left to tell.

It's a smart tale of insidious benevolent oppression that's probably even stronger if you're from a country on the other side of the colonial divide. Despite being a utopian optimist at heart, it's beyond even Clarke's imagination to conceive of Third World nations having any relevance in the future as he checks off the white capitals.

10. Jupiter Five (a.k.a. Jupiter V, 1953)

That's no moon... it's a space station!

With work, this could have been expanded into a novel as compelling as 2001 or Rama. The revelation that one of Jupiter's moons is artificial is an enticing hook, and the further discovery that it contains universal greetings from our ancient galactic neighbours is heartwarming, a gesture that would be reciprocated a couple of decades later in the real world with the Pioneer plaque and Voyager Golden Record.

I could have done without the petty human rivalry and bickering. Clarke makes a valid point that we may not deserve cosmic epiphanies, but it feels like a fictional executive's demanded a distracting action scene be included, whether it suits the tone or not.

9. The Other Side of the Sky (1957)

The sort-of-sequel to Venture to the Moon, these six speculations of life aboard an international space station at the end of the 20th century hit their targets more precisely than his crazily optimistic moon landing predictions did. Apart from the space scooters and canaries, but you can't have everything.

Beyond the checklist, it's also one of his most tangible and realistic tales. He even finds time for some basic character drama, which is sometimes entirely absent even in the novels, and the scene where astronauts are forced to leap between airlocks without spacesuits is exciting enough that it doesn't come off as cheap and forced like some of his other action sequences. There's even the briefest whiff of ancient astronauts for good measure.

8. The Hammer of God (1992)

It's rare that late-period Clarke 'wastes' a good idea on a short story, but he got double bubble by writing the extended version a year later anyway. It's one of his most Hollywood-friendly stories (although they'd have to change the captain from Indian to American, naturally), directly or vicariously inspiring a slew of asteroid disaster movies. You may have seen one or two.

Before the climactic climax, it makes time for plenty of plausible and comical future-building, predicting the fall of capitalism and communism, traditional religions in favour of new harmonious blends like Chrislam, oil empires in the wake of cold fusion, and militaries in favour of people just getting along. It's one of his most appealing utopias, if only there wasn't a giant rock intent on its destruction.

7. The Sentinel (a.k.a. Sentinel of Eternity, 1951)

At just ten pages, '1996: A Moon Odyssey' is a whole lot shorter than Clarke(+Kubrick)'s later masterpiece. I'd been interested to read this for ages, but I managed my expectations.

The essence of 2001 is still there: the discovery of an impossible, enigmatic, ancient object on the Moon and the speculation that it's been waiting patiently to be discovered. The first half is mainly concerned with breakfast, which is also true to 2001's more mundane moments.

6. If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth (1951)

Does any other writer have as high an Earth-count as Clarke? I'm only a quarter of the way through these stories, and I've seen our beloved world nuked, burned and frozen to death multiple times.

At least this time he spares a few survivors who were lucky enough to be on the Moon at the time, and whose only purpose in life now is to patiently procreate and instruct the next generation for as many centuries as it takes for the Earth to become habitable again. To really rub it in, he tells the story from the perspective of a child.

On a lighter note, its descriptions of the ride across the lunar terrain and the spectacular Earthrise are some of the most visually striking prose I've read in a while.

5. A Walk in the Dark (1950)

That's not a metaphorical title about mankind venturing out into the unknown cosmos or a humble admission of how much we have left to learn. It's a completely literal account of a man walking down a dark road without a torch, and on the surface, one of the simplest Clarke ever wrote.

Beyond the surface though, it's an intimate tale of paranoia and primal fear, brilliantly embellished with casual galaxy-building factoids in every other line. It could only be improved if they hadn't included that illustration. It spoils the tension somewhat.

4. Rescue Party (1946)

This compelling and tense ticking-clock mystery was Clarke's first paid story in a proper magazine, and he isn't leaving himself much room for improvement. Unless I just need to give my mental rating system a major overhaul.

Moving on from the sarcastic parodies of his amateur pieces, this is grand, didactic, utterly humourless science fiction from the tail-end of the Golden Age. Alright, the myriad aliens all have daft names and are mainly delineated through their varying number of limbs, but the point is: they're all working together in peace and harmony on an altruistic rescue mission to a doomed world. What could possibly come along to spoil their universal utopia?

Clarke puts humanity on a pedestal – our ambition pushing us to greatly exceed the universe's conservative estimations of our development – only to yank us back down again in his foreboding final line. Sci-fi written in wartime doesn't tend to be overly optimistic.

3. The Star (1955)

In one of his shortest and most famous stories, Clarke brilliantly applies scientific logic to a line from scripture, and inevitably bothered the God-botherers as a result. God forbid a reader should find their faith fickle enough to crumble under questioning.

He must have known he was being edgy, but it's hardly blasphemous or even disrespectful. The devout narrator is a sympathetic and intelligent figure, whose upsetting discovery doesn't shake his faith, but does cause him to question the mysterious, genocidal ways of the universal creator and destroyer.

2. The Wall of Darkness (1949)

With its mythological tone, and simplistic analogies for wont of lost technical know-how, this isn't what I expected from a 1940s Arthur C. Clarke story, which shows how much I know. Conventional wisdom tells us that Clarke, Tolkien and the other giants built these sturdy, rigidly defined genre pillars that their less visionary but more free-spirited descendants could have fun mixing up. Turns out we didn't need to wait for the grandchildren after all.

Like 2001 and Rama before they were spoiled by sequels, we're only a little closer to unravelling the mystery of this Flat Earth set-up by the end. I'm not even sure if it's a future Earth we're dealing with, and I appreciate being left in the dark.

1. A Meeting with Medusa (1971)

"Space travel has become routine; you've made it a great adventure once more."

This surprising late classic (proportionally speaking; he only wrote eight more short stories over the next two decades, and some of those were just a couple of pages long) might be my favourite of the lot. It's one of the longer ones too, which is more often a hindrance than an advantage. But unlike its hydrogen-filled space Zeppelins, there's no lightweight filler.

Clarke brings back the sense of wonder and exploration that's largely been missing since he started saving up the good stuff for novels. His scientific and artistic rendering of creatures floating in Jupiter's atmosphere is similar to what Carl Sagan came up with on Cosmos, and as if the exobiology isn't enough, there's even a surprise reveal at the end that makes me want to join the further voyages.

But I'm glad he didn't make it a novel. I never would have got round to reading it then.

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