by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 2, 2019
I’m sure I’ve consumed thousands of science fiction stories in the last sixty years if you count all the novels, short stories, movies, and television episodes. Now that’s something to think about. Especially, when you consider science fiction has a limited number of themes in its repertoire. Science fiction concepts are like legos, a finite set of building blocks to assemble an infinite number of stories. What makes our genre unique is the blending of the standard elements of storytelling; character, setting, plot, dialog, POV, description, with one or more science fictional themes.
Whether we call them themes, memes, ideas, or concepts, they’re each a unique mind-blowing concept that evokes a sense of wonder. Most are far from new, and even the latest popular concepts, such a brain downloading, are variations of older ideas. For example, I recently read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke that first appeared in the May 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s so chock-full of science fictional memes that I’ve made a game of identifying and counting them.
I liked reading this story so much I immediately reread it by listening to the audiobook version in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. In case you don’t own this story, you can read it online here, and listen to it here. It was Clarke’s first professional sale, and his second story to be published. In 2013 Escape Pod did a full-cast audio version and presented another online copy to read.
2018 was the year of the science fiction short story for me, reading twelve anthologies of classic SF tales. I expect I will continue the trend in 2019. More and more I’m paying attention to those science fiction building blocks, and I realize its the science fiction concepts that make me love science fiction. I’m realizing how important they’ve been to me over my entire lifetime. When I was young, those far-out ideas gave me hope for the future, and now that I’m older and wiser, I realize most of them won’t be coming true, at least in my lifetime. They are now a kind of legacy of desires.
I was especially impressed with “Rescue Party” because Clarke weaves so many different SF themes into one story. I’ve decided to write this essay and identify as many of them as possible. I might even start tracking science fictional ideas in a database. Looking back over my lifetime of reading science fiction, I see Sci-FI’s addictive properties comes from these sense-of-wonder concepts. They are the colors on an SF writer’s palette.
Interstellar Exploration Ship
I believe today when fans think of interstellar exploration ships they first think of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Star Trek, but there were many examples of this idea before 1966. Ten years earlier, in 1956 there was Forbidden Planet and its starship C-57D. And ten years before that, in 1946, there was “Rescue Party” with its vessel the S9000. And even before that, in 1939, A. E. van Vogt began his Voyage of the Space Beagle stories with “Black Destroyer.” Science fiction writers have borrowed Darwin’s five years of scientific exploration on the sailing ship HMS Beagle many times. Instead of visiting distant lands and people, science fiction visits distant worlds and aliens. Instead of botany and biology inspiring the concept of evolution, astronomy, and cosmological events give cause to science fictional plots.
Belonging to the crew of a giant vessel exploring the galaxy is probably one of the more appealing fantasies in science fiction. Of course, most SF fans will picture themselves as the captain or one of the executive officers. Does anyone ever see themselves as a janitor on an interstellar ship?
Wikipedia has a long and fascinating article on interstellar travel. It describes the scientific details behind science fiction’s number one fantasy. As a kid watching Star Trek, the best possible future I could imagine for myself was traveling on an interstellar exploration ship. But after a lifetime of also reading science books, I doubt this concept will ever become real. I can picture this future for AI machines, but not us humans. In my old age, I fantasize about being an AI mind living for millions of years in a robotic probe of the galaxy.
In most science fiction stories about aliens, we see them from the human perspective. In “Rescue Party” the aliens are the POV characters, and humans are the mystery of the story. I’m sure there are other SF stories based solely on the aliens’ POV, but they are rare and I can’t think of any others at the moment. Often, the alien is the enemy in science fiction, like the classic World of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In the 1930s, many space opera stories had alien sidekicks. All too often, aliens are just humans with a few physical and mental quirks, like Spock and Worf.
The exciting challenge for science fiction writers is to come up with truly alien bodies and minds. The crew of S9000 in “Rescue Party” is quite diverse, but their distinguishing feature that makes them alien seems to be tentacles. The Paladorian is not an individual, but part of a collective, so it doesn’t have a singular consciousness. But the dialog of the other characters, who Clarke had to invent alien names like Alveron, Rugon, Orostron, Hansur, Klarten, Alarkane, T’sinaderee, and Tork-a-lee, still sound rather human even with their funny names and tentacles.
There have been several science fiction books where far from human alien-POVs have played a significant part of the story. Titles include Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, The Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.
The concept of a galactic federation is so widespread that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page. Again, we think of Star Trek. “Rescue Party” has a unique twist on the concept, because Clarke has an all-alien federation and humans are not in the federation yet. Of course, the original film of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel, and many other science fiction stories have galactic federations showing up and inviting us to join. I’ve never thought of this, but in Star Trek, did the humans create the federation, or join it?
Of course, most science fiction with galactic federations is humancentric. John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous editor of Astounding Science Fiction was adamant that our species should be the dominant life-form in the galaxy. If Arthur C. Clarke hadn’t provided the coda to “Rescue Party” I’m not sure Campbell would have bought his story.
The End of Humans
One of the most haunting scenes in all science fiction was at the end of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, when the time traveler went forward in time to that lonely beach and knew humans had become extinct. I’ve always considered The Time Machine to be the archetype of science fiction because it had so many intense science fictional concepts in one novella. I wonder if it inspired Clarke to write “Rescue Party.” In his story, he has aliens visiting Earth and only finding deserted cities and wondering if our species was extinct.
Individual humans can’t comprehend their own death. Most humans believe our species is the crown of creation and all of reality is about us. So it’s quite wonderful to imagine people gone and reality continuing without us.
One of my favorite senses of wonder is to contemplate Earth without people. I love the book and documentary The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
The Dying Earth
Again, Wells in The Time Machine gave us the image of Earth dying. 19th-century science had predicted the sun would eventually become a red giant, so Wells merely extrapolated to that time. In “Rescue Party” the Earth is destroyed by a nova a few centuries from now. That’s not very likely, but Clarke needed a cataclysmic event to do us in. The destruction of the Earth is fairly rare in science fiction, but it does happen. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy starts off with the destruction of our planet for a hyperspace bypass.
I know there were billions of years before the Earth existed, and I know there will be a time when the Earth ceases to exist and billions of years will follow. Probably, there is an infinite amount of time before and after the Earth, so its existence is rather fleeting.
Clarke also uses the Moon as an indicator of impending doom in the same way Larry Niven used it in “Inconstant Moon.”
Deserted Cities of Extinct Beings and Abandon Automatic Machines
One of my great sense-of-wonder experiences came when reading After Worlds Collide by Wylie and Balmer when the Earth people were walking through the deserted alien city of Bronson Beta. I was in the 7th grade and just discovered science fiction was a separate genre. Humans walking through alien cities of extinct beings is one of my favorite science fiction themes, so when the aliens in “Rescue Party” walk through our deserted cities it made the story even better. Clarke must have like this image too because he also used it in Against the Fall of Night when Alvin takes the ancient automated subway to visit abandon parts of Diaspar. The same theme plays out in Forbidden Planet when the humans inspect the abandoned technology of the Krell. This meme was also used by John W. Campbell in his class story “Twilight.”
The Omega Point and Hive Minds
In “Rescue Party,” one of the alien races aboard S9000, called the Paladorians, believe all beings are evolving towards one hive mind that transcends the physical limitations of individual bodies. Olaf Stapledon used this in Star Maker, and Clarke used it more than once himself, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This reminds me of The Omega Point by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Clarke who was known as a hard science writer often speculated about mystical theories that come to us from religion. I’ve long thought that science fiction is a modern substitute for religion.
Most science fiction rejects the concept of the hive mind and even shows a fear of the concept. The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation is our ultimate enemy. I don’t think Heinlein or Campbell could stomach the idea. That probably explains why Clarke was never famous as an Astounding Science Fiction author.
I recently read The Feed by Nick Windo Clark, which starts out in the near future where all humans have internet like technology added to their brain. I thought it was going to be a positive hive mind story but it quickly turned into a different plot.
In “Rescue Party” the aliens find radio telescopes left on Earth pointing to a place in the sky where there are no planets and sending rather enigmatic messages. Eventually, we learn the messages are being sent to a fleet of rockets leaving the solar system, and the radio telescopes are monitoring the destruction of the Earth by the nova. But this reminds me of how often science fiction has been about deciphering alien signals from space, or writings in deserted cities of extinct aliens.
Humans Are the Top Predator Species of the Galaxy
John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein loved the idea that humans would be the top predator species of the galaxy. Campbell couldn’t stand stories where humans were portrayed as lesser beings to aliens. The ending of “Rescue Party” has the aliens discovering the fleet of humans moving away from the solar system, and they finally make contact with us. But there’s a hint that humans will be a danger to the federation in the future. I like to think that Clarke included that to get Campbell to buy the story.
There’s Many More
If I wanted to take the time and examine “Rescue Party” line-by-line I could find many more classic science fiction themes in this story.
I enjoyed the heck out of “Rescue Party.” I can honestly say it’s my favorite Arthur C. Clarke story. Many fans have told him that, which began to bother him. Here’s what Clarke said in one of his introductions:
I don’t believe I’ve reread it since its original appearance, and I refuse to do so now — for fear of discovering how little I have improved in almost four decades. Those who claim that it’s their favorite story get a cooler and cooler reception over the passing years.
Like I said, reading “Rescue Party” makes me want to start a database of science fictional ideas. I’m pretty sure there’s a finite supply of them, but I have no idea how small or large the set will be.
I reread this story again by listening to the Escape Pod full-cast audio version and noticed even more details. Rereading stories is very important. I’m learning fiction becomes much more multidimensional in my comprehension through rereading.
I also checked the Analytical Laboratory for August 1946 to see how readers back then thought of “Rescue Party.” I was disappointed it wasn’t a standout story for them. Campbell will usually talk about a new author if they get a lot of attention or he thought they were great when he first bought their story. And for most readers, a score of 3.00 suggests that “Rescue Party” was seldom anyone’s first or second favorite story. But Clarke soundly beat several popular authors of that era. Because no story stood out, readers probably thought it was a ho-hum issue.
Why does the story stand so much to me now, but wasn’t popular then?