Friday, April 13, 2007

"Encounter at Down" (short story): Another precursor to "2001 A Space Odyssey"

While there are differences, there can be no doubt this story, originally published as "Encounter in the Down", inspired the first story in "2001 A Space Odyssey". Note that second story in 2001 was inspired by "The Sentinel".

A much better version of this story that actually marries it with the first story in "2001 A Space Odyssey" appears in Clarke's "The Lost Worlds of 2001" under the title "First Encounter".

Key premise in the story is: neither earth nor humans nor other familiar life forms on earth are an evolutionary oddity; indistinguishable stuff must exist at hundreds of places in the galaxy.

Story summary (spoiler).
A (mother) spaceship that is a kind of aircraft carrier is doing a Galactic Survey in "the loosely packed stars at rim of the Milky Way". One of the actual survey crafts mothership contains is loose nearby (just 100 light years from mothership) with 3 occupants. Some background conversation tells us there is trouble in their home world, & the ship might be called back home in a hurry for more important use than purely scientific pursuits they are presently involved in.

OK - so the survey craft enters a star system, skips a gas giant while heading inwards, & comes upon a promising planet. The only problem is: this planet could have been their own home planet - so similar it is to their home world.

They land at a place that future locals will label Babylon, next to a good sized river. A robot is sent out to survey the land. From the description, this robot appears to me to be rather primitive for a race that considers 100 light years nearby. Robot is remotely controlled by one of the 3 occupants using a "keyboard".

After preliminaries, they notice a path through the grass. While path itself could be a favorite of any animal, this is a lead. They decide to cautiously follow it. And behold - what they see is a village of smart bipedals just like them, only leading a much simpler life! There is some amazement, but nothing really tricky; they already know of a 100 other worlds in galaxy where the pattern repeats.

Contact is made with one of the village hunters in a rather common sensical way, without frightening him, & in bits over several days. While not making contact, the ship surveys rest of the world, finds many other communities, all at the same relatively low level of technology development.

End is a parting from the local contact, & some rather high tech gifts to him (that will be lost in a generation). There is regret on the part of surveyors of not being able to help these beings leapfrog technologically in a few generations what they would themselves do in 100,000 years (or is it million, I forget). And there is wistful recognition, as the ship is taking off, on the part of local of being the only one of his kind that has met gods.

All through the story, I was not very sure whether the occupants of ship were humans, or primitives on the world they landed! There are only two clues - the place where they landed will in future be called Babylon, & the surveyors were operating thousands of light years from their home world in the general area of "the loosely packed stars at rim of the Milky Way". Draw your own conclusions.

There is a minor inconsistency that can be ignored; may be it was modern knowledge in the year 1953. Humans as we know appeared on earth about 35 thousand years back; at least 28,000 years back, they were still essentially cave dwellers. I am not a expert on primitive history, but villages must have appeared much later. Yet this story talks of either 100 thousand or million years (I don't recall correctly) to comparable level of development - may be the space farers are talking of their level of development! If evolutionary history of earth is any guide, our descendants a 100,000 years down will probably look as similar to us as we look to chimpanzees.

Still, it's not a bad read.

A note on various titles of this story.
This quote from "The Lost Worlds of 2001" provides some interesting information: 'An editor at Ballantine Books gave it the ingenious title "Expedition to Earth" when it was published in the book of that name, but I prefer "Encounter in the Dawn." However, when Harcourt, Brace and World brought out my own selection of favorites, The Nine Billion Names of God, it was mysteriously changed to "Encounter at Dawn."'

Fact sheet.
Encounter at Down, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
First published: 1953
Rating: B

The story appears in the following collections.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "Expedition to Earth"
  3. "Of Time and Stars"
  4. "Across the Sea of Stars"
  5. "More Than One Universe"


Sergey said...

You're not entirely correct about the villages and caves - caves were never a primary living place, most people lived in some kind of villages for a long time. It's just that caves preserves signs of people living there better.

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