Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Superiority" (short story): Dilbert in prose

Every time I begin to get bored with Clarke's stuff, he throws in a surprise. This is an outstanding & hilarious comedy - probably the best single story I have read yet of Arthur Clarke.

He anticipates Dilbert by decades. If you manage a business or a project, you will find a lot you can relate to. It also is a story about rolling out new technology in an enterprise - what the software industry calls deployment. A 1951 story still totally relevant today, wow!

Story summary (spoiler).
The plot is about a war. One side has vastly superior technology & financial resources - too superior for its own good! Other side wins by shear tenaciousness, & ruthless focus. Hare vs tortoise.

Comic situations are all on the superior side. They begin with vastly larger number of war machines, their machines are more efficient too, & they have been the winning side till now. And then they get a new technology head - a true geek.

Now this geek looks at deployed war machines, & wonders why we are still using 100 year old technology - only innovations, of late, in weapons have been minor tinkering. Cannot we change the paradigm, & quickly end the war?

He convinces the generals to instead use his new weapon, the "Sphere of Annihilation". When activated, it makes all matter within several hundred meters of it vanish. Demonstrations are very convincing. Deployment begins. Ouch - it annihilates its own ship! OK - so then need to be mounted on missiles. But existing missiles cannot carry its heavy load - need minor improvements, etc. You get the idea.

On the battlefront, war situation has been changing. Enemy is not only sticking to old technology, they have been producing those weapons in great numbers.

No problem, the geek says. He has yet another weapon that can compensate for loss of advantage in conventional weaponry, while the Sphere is undergoing teething troubles. It's "Battle Analyzer" - a computerized system that can double the effectiveness of a conventional warship.

When the Analyzer deployment begins, we begin seeing little issues. This machine needs some 500 odd technicians to operate. We need to both train the technicians, & make space for them on the warship. Of course, fewer numbers are actually trained than planned. And to house the additional technicians not on duty, an unarmed liner will accompany the equipped warships. Of course, the enemy quickly figures out the simple way to win - destroy the liner.

Battlefront situation has become grim for the superior side; enemy is knocking on their own door.

Ever an optimist, our geek produces yet another wonderful weapon - "The Exponential Field". It is both defensive & tactical. On the press of a button, it distorts the space around its location in a way that you effectively move far away along a fourth spatial dimension - relative to your physical neighborhood when field was not active.

How do you use it? When cornered, you activate the field, & vanish! When attacking, you suddenly appear in the midst of the enemy & surprise them. Wonderful. Only there is a little glitch. After a couple of uses, deactivation leaves you a little away from target, & the various precision systems on board have been failing - including intership communications.

Some debugging sessions later, we are told the deactivation doesn't move all matter displaced to exactly the original location; there are computational errors. Original particles of matter have moved very slightly around relative their immediate neighborhood. This, of course, kills all electronics. We are not told why it doesn't kill the humans on board, but why do nit picking?

I am not complaining. Fantastic story.

When introducing this story in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke", Clarke mentions the inspiration rooted in World War II: "German V2 rocket program" - an inter-continental ballistic missile program, too late to influence war & sapped resources - made Germans as the superior side; Allies were the inferior side that won.

Fact sheet.
Superiority, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Humor
First published: Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, August 1951
Rating: A

The story appears in the following collections.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "Expedition to Earth"
  3. "Across the Sea of Stars"
  4. "More Than One Universe"
See also.
  1. Eric Frank Russell's "Allamagoosa" (A), & James P Hogan's "Making Light" (A): Other lovely Dilbertian tales, but about organizational bureaucracy. Similar tone.
  2. A device that lets you move along a fourth spacial dimension also features in Arthur Clarke's "Technical Error".


Anonymous said...

The last part of the summary is not quite right - on-board electronics systems are not killed. "Things" don't return to their original sizes, so calibrations are thrown off. Communications systems stop working because tuned circuits are no longer tuned.

Anyway, nit-picking aside I agree that the story is amusing and is wonderfully applicable to chasing commercial advantage by changing technologies. After reading I was prompted to search for articles like this one!

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite shorts. It's funny and just the right length. It has interesting technical twists. And there's a good life lesson here too. I like that the technology guy who manages to lose the war despite starting with a huge advantage, both in technology and in numbers, is based on a real, historical person. Gives it an extra edge.

Tinkoo said...

Anonymous 23 August 2009: I could identify with it instantly, being in tech business myself. But I didn't know it was "based on a real, historical person". Who's that?

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Story. The story is shorter than your summary.

Tinkoo said...

Yes - I used to be very verbose when I started blogging. I think I've learned a thing or two about writing since, though I'm probably still far behind those trained in literature.