by Arthur C. Clarke



343pp/$12.95/December 2005

Clarke's Universe
Cover by Les Munoz

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In a short story collection, one doesn't expect to find an overarching theme.  In an omnibus collection, the reader can be expect to find a link between the various stories included.  In this, Clarke's Universe leaves the reader wondering what the theme might be.  The two stories and novel by Arthur C. Clarke included in the book have nothing in common.  Rather than showing a link, either thematically or chronologically, the three works seem to have been selected at random and span a period from 1949 to 1961.

"The Lion of Comarre" (1949) is the first story in the omnibus as well as the earliest published.  It is also the only one of the three stories set in the extremely distant future and the only one set on Earth. At the end of a lengthy period of innovative stagnation, Richard Peyton III expresses an interest in the possibility that things can be improved.  Peyton goes in search of the legendary city of Comarre, where he discovers secrets long buried by a long-forgotten ancestor.

Peyton's search for the lost city takes him through an interesting, and high tech, jungle, where he meets up a the guardian of the title.  While in many ways interesting in its manner of treating technology as the goal in a grail quest, "The Lion of Comarre" is the least intriguing of the three tales, possibly because it has the least amount of intercharacter interaction and gosh-wow sense of wonder.  On the other hand, the gadgetry Peyton finds on his quest for Comarre will be of interest to many science fiction fans.

Of the three pieces included in Clarke’s Universe, A Fall of Moondust (1961) is a novel. When first published in 1961, it may have appeared as an overwrought melodrama of a disaster novel.  After the flight of Apollo 13, however, Clarke’s novel appears amazingly prescient.

The Selene is a tourist boat plying the dusty surface of the Sea of Thirst on the Moon.  When an underground quake causes a sinkhole to appear beneath the Selene, the ship’s crew and passengers find themselves trapped beneath the surface, unable to make contact with the lunar base at Sinus Roris. When the Selene’s automatic signal isn’t heard, however, the lunar administration is moved to action.

Clarke’s story focuses on Pat Harris, the skipper of the Selene, who is trying to maintain the spirits of the trapped passengers, and Edward Lawrence, the Moon’s Chief Engineer.  Lawrence is responsible for the rescue operations. Both men are competent, and each finds an assistant.  For Harris, it is the unflappable Commodore Hensteen while Lawrence is saddled with the misanthropic Dr. Lawson.

Accident and disaster follow each other throughout the book.  As the characters figure out a way to cope with one issue, such as the loss of a cooling system aboard the Selene, a new crisis crops up.  These issues are as likely to be caused by human error as by the simple rules of nature and physics.  Clarke portrays the disasters and the attempts at rescue in a realistic manner which includes an understanding of the way people handle stress.  

While A Fall of Moondust may end a little too neatly, the drama of Apollo 13 which it calls to mind, does remind the reader that not all calamities must end tragically.  Clarke's depiction of a lunar rescue brings together a wide variety of motives and manages to create a scenario which is both believable and shows humanity's strengths.

Finally, the short story “Jupiter V,” (1953) which refers to the moon now called Amalthea, is tremendously dated in its depiction of the Jovian system, and Clarke’s description of the massive quantity of fuel needed to move between Jupiter’s moons seems odd given the complex and relatively low fuel consumptive orbits used by spacecraft exploring Jupiter’s moons.   However, orbital mechanics does play a major role in Clarke’s story about the discovery of an artificial moon in orbit around Jupiter.

Clarke’s characters in “Jupiter V” are straight out of pulp literature casting, from the beautiful damsel to the professor who isn’t afraid to throw a few punches. The story brings back a sense of wonder in its setting and its solution and the fact that it is dated only serves to remind the reader of the days of the pulps and space opera.

"The Lion of Comarre" "Jupiter V"
A Fall of Moondust Hugo Nominee  

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