science fiction and fantasy book reviewsPrelude to Space by Arthur C. ClarkePrelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke

Prelude to Space is the first novel Arthur C. Clarke wrote and is generally not considered as good as Childhood’s End (1953), probably the most famous of Clarke’s early novels. The publication history of this story is not unusual for the period. Clarke wrote the novel in the space of a month in 1947 but it wasn’t until 1951 that the whole novel was published in magazine format by Galaxy Science Fiction. It was followed by a hardcover edition in 1953. What is atypical about it is that the novel does not appear to be based on one of Clarke’s short stories. Although one of his lesser works, it has been reprinted numerous times. The edition I read was printed in 1977 and includes a “Post Apollo Preface,” as Clarke himself puts it, written in 1969.

In the year 1978 humanity is ready to for the next step in space exploration — the first manned mission to the Moon is about to leave Earth. Historian Drik Alexson is sent to London, where the headquarters of Interplanetary, the non-profit organization coordinating the mission, is located. He is to document the event that will no doubt be considered one of the turning points in human history. Although Alexson is supposed to be an impartial observer, he can’t help but by swept away by the magnitude of the effort and the impact it will have on human society. As the launch date nears, Alexson realizes that this event will be his life’s work as a historian.

Although science fiction is much more about exploring ideas and what they might mean to society than actually predicting the future, seeing how many details Clarke got wrong in this novel is still almost as interesting as the story itself. Where Clarke goes for private enterprise as the driving factor and assumes the memory of the Second World War will change the way people see armed conflict, in reality is was the tension between East and West that gave space exploration a huge boost. The need for the US to prove it could outdo their Soviet rivals resulted in a moon landing nine years before the one Clarke describes, using very different rockets to get there. Many of Clarke’s novels describe futures where science, logic and reason triumph over petty squabbles, religious dogmas and ideological differences to achieve a peaceful and stable way of running the planet. In Prelude to Space this is treated as inevitable. Would that Clarke had been right on that point.

Another thing that struck me about Clarke’s scenario is the use of atomic energy to power these rockets. These days, radioactivity makes people very nervous, and rightly so as events in Fukushima have shown us. Some horrendous experiments were carried out to test nuclear devices in the 1950s, clearly showing that the long term impact of radioactive substances released into the environment was still very poorly understood at the time this novel was written. The radioactivity around the launch site in the Australian desert is mentioned several times but not considered a matter of great concern. It might be technically possible to limit the risk of radioactive contamination, even in the event of a launch failure, but somehow I think it would be very hard to convince the general public that it’d be safe these days.

Clarke’s futures are generally pretty optimistic, sometimes even utopian, and this novel is no exception. Prelude to Space is something of a cross between a love letter to and an advertisement for space exploration. Clarke carefully connects the historical desire to travel to the stars, early science fiction and lots of technological developments, all leading to this one momentous occasion. The moment when humanity will finally leave its cradle and first set foot on a strange world. A first step on a path from which there will be no turning back. Where that path will lead, Clarke doesn’t dare predict but he seems to be quite sure it is one we must take to ensure survival of the species. The author may overdo it a little in the text but his enthusiasm is contagious. It was almost enough to make me wonder why the hell we are not on our way to Mars already.

Clarke didn’t change his approach to writing a whole lot during his seven decades as a published author. Some sections of the novel are highly technical, with the science of space travel the main character. Alexson is the vehicle that allows Clarke to show the events leading up to the launch from up close, but he seems to have very little interest in the man himself (perhaps not altogether surprising, he strikes me as a bright but not very interesting fellow). You don’t read Clarke for his well-rounded characters or complex plots but for the hard science and Clarke’s visions of what they may mean for future society.

Several decades after it was written, Prelude to Space is badly dated in just about every aspect of the story, from the technical developments to the blatant sexism that plagued science fiction in those days. On top of that, Clarke wrote a novel that reads like propaganda for a space program, although it is very effective propaganda. Despite all the novel’s flaws, you can’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the enterprise and the possibilities of space travel, many of which still haven’t been realized. Clarke’s optimism has been proven unfounded in some ways but the drive to explore space is still there. This novel might well have been an inspiration to some teenager in the 1950s to pursue a career in physics or astronomy. Clarke went on to write more challenging novels but for a debut, Prelude to Space a decent read.


  • Rob Weber

    ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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