Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Rescue Party" (short story, free): First of Clarke, also mother of all his stories

According to Clarke's opening remarks in the story collection "Reach for Tomorrow", "Rescue Party" is not only his first published story, but shares the roots with another story - "History Lesson". Also see the note on first story near end of this article.

After reading it, I am getting a feeling that this also is the mother story of all of Clarke's life. Just too many ideas in his later stories already appear here! And it must be among the most influential science fiction stories by anyone; see Influences section below.

Full text of this story is available online (link via Sf Signal & Free SF Reader). I've not read this online version.

Story summary (spoiler).
This doomsday story is set in about 2200 AD.

Sun is about to blast, & will take earth & rest of solar system with it. A kind of galactic administration of aliens not aware of the existence of humans suddenly learns two facts:

  1. That our Sun will burst - less than 10 hours before the event.
  2. That it contains a world inhabited by intelligent beings. It seems - these beings discovered radio 200 years back, & one of their transmissions has just been intercepted by a alien station 200 light years from earth.
There is a ship of galactic administration just about a billion miles of earth. It is entrusted with the job of rescuing what intelligent creatures it can from the doomed earth. It will have just about 4 hours on earth, after accounting for the time needed to reach it & then to escape.

Will they be able to help humans?

I enumerate here those of Clarke's stories that carry influences from this story. Note that I haven't probably read even half of his total work - so this list will likely expand in future!
  1. Expand this story a bit, & you get "The Songs of Distant Earth". Another very similar story is "The Star".
  2. Alien ship in question is a cylindrical one, with kilometer scale dimensions. Its elaboration will yield "Rendezvous with Rama". Plus the ships in its 3 sequels.
  3. "History Lesson" is similar in that Sun is changing in a way that dooms earth. But rather than exploding, it cools - to turn earth into an icy wasteland. But both the response of humans to the event, & story ending, are very different.
  4. In "History Lesson", aliens begin drawing funny conclusions about humans by interpreting the scenes in a movie reel. Something very similar happens here; early in their search on earth, they find a portrait of a man & begin wondering how the poor bipeds managed with just 4 limbs & 2 eyes - may be they have more eyes in the back not visible in this primitive 2D portrait!
  5. There is a brief mention of a black rectangle that gives the illusion of having infinite depth. This reminded me of the various Monoliths (TMAs) in Space Odyssey series.
  6. Tentacled aliens in this story might have morphed into octospiders seen in various Rama sequels.
  7. Galactic administration entrusted with their duties by powers beyond the beginning of time reminds me of the end of "Rama Revealed". The powers beyond the beginning of time also appear to be indistinguishable from Brahma, the Creator, of Hindu Trinity (other two are Vishnu - the Executive, & Shiva - the Destroyer; these two don't have any avatars here).
  8. While beginning operation rescue humans on earth, these tentacled aliens carry a paralyzer because they will likely have to do forcible evacuations because of lack of time. In "Rama Revealed", octospiders actually use paralyzers when they "kidnap" a woman.
  9. Galactic survey ship, & the survey administration, here is very similar in concept to the one in "Encounter at Down".
  10. Aliens keeping a watch on development of earthlings, among other promising beings across galaxy, is found in Space Odyssey series, & in "The Sentinel".
  11. Benign aliens helping intelligent beings everywhere in galaxy is an idea you also find in "2001 A Space Odyssey". Though its sequels somewhat dilute it.
  12. Anti-gravity devices mentioned here are also seen in "3001 The Final Odyssey", but with a different application - to power a spaceship.
I am also aware of some stories by Issac Asimov that have ideas very similar to those in this story:
  1. You find Issac Asimov's Gaia here, as Palador; one of his Foundation sequels - "Foundation's Edge" - introduced it; another of his novels - "Foundation & Earth" - further developed it. Another of Asimov's novels - "Nemesis" - also has a planet scale hive intelligence. Palador in this story is very similar to Gaia, not the one in Nemesis.
  2. The idea of a Sun blasting, & rescue of an entire planet, is also the theme of Asimov's novel "Currents of Space".
  3. Galactic administration described here could have been Asimov's Empire, though Clarke doesn't really elaborate the administration part. And Asimov's Empire was of human origin, & his stories on the subject focused mostly on the politics.
  4. I recall more than one of Asimov's sequels to Foundation series that had anti-gravity devices, though in different applications - as an ordinary elevator & a spaceship.
You get a feeling of the age of the story when you see mentions of "vacuum tubes" (as in computers), or of cupboards full of some 5 million punched cards! But they don't hamper readability.

Is it really the first story by Clarke?
When I originally wrote this article, I had referred to Clarke's "Reach for Tomorrow". Here is the quote: '"Rescue Party", which was written in 1945, was my first published story'. The publication actually happened a year later, in 1946.

I now (on 25 August 2007) hold in my hands "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke". And here is the quote from introduction to first story in the book - "Travel by Wire!": "'Travel by Wire!' was my first published story."

Actually, the later appears right. "Travel by Wire!" was published in 1937 in Amateur Science Fiction Stories; "Rescue Party" was first published May 1946 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.

Based on Clarke's other remarks introducing "Travel by Wire!", he seems to think this was published in one of the fan magazines while "Rescue Party" was in a mainstream publication; also that Travel is probably of lower quality than his later works. I actually find Travel to be among his best stories.

Fact sheet.
Rescue Party, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Science fiction
First published: 1946 (in "Astounding Science Fiction")
Rating: A

Series: "Rescue Party" (A), "The Songs of Distant Earth" (A)

Collected in.
  1. "Reach for tomorrow"
  2. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  3. "Across the Sea of Stars"
  4. "The Sentinel (collection)"
  5. "More Than One Universe"
  6. David Drake, Jim Baen, & Eric Flint (Ed)'s "The World Turned Upside Down"


Melior said...

The idea of an intelligent species, overseeing development of other races and their joining into some form of galactic community is the concept of his novel "The Childhood's End"

Anonymous said...

Rescue Party first published 1946

Childhood's End first published 1953

jack said...

The idea that intelligent civilizations will tend to evolve to a single interconnected mind also appears on "The Last Question" short story by Asimov.

jacderida said...

I think the original 'supermind' idea came from Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 novel 'Star Maker'. Arthur C. Clarke openly spoke of being directly influenced by Stapledon.

Tinkoo said...

jacderida: A lot of old authors have been influenced by Stapledon.

Where does supermind feature in Rescue Party? If you are referring to one from Childhood's End, that idea is very very old - at least in Hinduism.