Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Islands in the Sky" (novel): Description of futuristic space stations

Review of the novel titled Islands in the Sky by Arthur ClarkeVery readable space adventure, but with a somewhat filmy presentation.

Story summary (spoiler).

This story is set in the mid twenty first century (or is it late twenty first - I forget). Told mostly in first person, it describes the adventures of a young man in near earth space & on a trip around moon - over a period spanning a few weeks.

Main protagonist, Roy Malcolm, wins an all-expenses-paid trip to "Inner Station" by winning a television quiz. This Inner Station is a space station about 500 km above earth, & is a kind of fueling & maintenance depot for space ships. Travel between earth & Station is via rocket powered machines that are somewhat advanced versions of NASA's current space shuttles.

This space station, & others described, don't look like the kind we normally read about. But the claim is they are realistic, if futuristic.

About half the story is a description of this station, & life aboard it. There are far more human interest elements here than in "Rendezvous with Rama" - another novel that is chiefly the description of a machine. Among the many generally interesting events & devices is the shooting of a movie in space that occupies not insubstantial part of this first half.

An interesting device described is a solar electric generator that doesn't use photo-voltaic elements, but a curved mirror to focus heat at a point - to heat water that will then be converted to electricity via a steam based generator! The mirror reminded me of the lens I sometimes used as a child to concentrate solar heat to make burn marks on dry twigs.

Much of later half of the story is adventure travel to other space stations & around moon in circumstances that are often very filmy. We are given a tour of a space station that is a hospital & a biology research center, much above the orbit of Inner Station. We are also shown how tiny earth creatures can grow to huge sizes in zero gravity conditions.

Next is an accidental trip around moon as part of a journey from hospital station to Inner Station! Here we are introduced to a new kind of space launch device: a kind of magnetic rail - several km long, with one end open, on the surface of the moon. To launch a payload, you accelerate it to moon-escape velocity & let it fall off open end! Because moon has much more curvature than earth, if enough velocity is given, the payload goes to space! No rockets!

We then go to one of the three Relay Stations in geosynchronous orbit - the kind of radio communication relays Clarke is often credited with first describing. Only they don't look anything like communications satellites we are familiar with. Also, in the scheme here, only 3 huge devices (and manned space stations at that) live in this orbit, 120 degrees apart - giving coverage over entire earth's surface. Presumably, some kind of UN agency must be running them, though it is not mentioned.

A few days after return to Inner Station, our friend must leave for earth via a space hotel - a machine very similar in concept to Rama, along with a swimming pool that is essentially a smaller version of Rama's cylindrical sea.

We are told Mars, Venus & Moon are now inhabited. This hotel, located in orbit of Inner Station a few kilometers away, provides three levels of Rama-style gravity - earth level, two thirds of it, & one third of it. This is used by travelers from smaller worlds to adjust to earth's higher gravity. Our friend will have to readjust as well, because he has spent some weeks in zero gravity.

In between, there are two stories told by people other than Roy.

One is a manned trip to Mercury's "night side". I am not sure the latest data supports the assumption that Mercury always shows same face to Sun, but this is an old story. We also meet an animal native to Mercury here!

Other story is of Martian colony. Chief highlight of this story is to tell us that current novel is kind of a sequel to "The Sands of Mars" - the story assumes background set by Sands.

One thing that was very obvious from this story, & also some other space travel stories of Clarke as also the Wikipedia article on NASA space shuttles, is something very familiar to every Mumbaikar: humans tend to litter when they are not being watched.

There are probably a lot of meteorites floating in earth orbit & in space that are man made, as also some of the stuff falling from the sky. You don't need something anymore? Just jettison. With luck, nobody will get hurt. At least not often enough for substantial court settlements! I am getting sympathetic with environmentalists!

Fact sheet.

"Islands in the Sky", novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
First published: 1952
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: A

See also.

  1. "Rendezvous with Rama" (novel): Both stories are essentially about the description of a machine. Also, the space hotel near Inner Station is very similar in design to Rama, though of much smaller size.
  2. "The Sands of Mars" (novel): There is a hint Islands is a kind of sequel to Sands.
  3. Robert Heinlein's short story "Misfit" (1939) is about construction of space station, but at a scale much grander than Islands. And Heinlein's station won't orbit earth, but sun - between the orbits of earth & Mars - to support interplanetary traffic.
  4. "Maelstrom II" (short story): Shares a small plot element with this story - space launches on moon via electromagnetic rail based catapults.

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