Friday, September 03, 2010

Tales from Planet Earth

This is a book of fourteen "hard" science fiction stories by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke, all revolving around Earth, some going back as far as the 1940s.  It is quite amazing to see how prescient Clarke was about inventions in the (at that time) future.  The stories range from a couple of pages long to a full novella.

My personal favorite is the novella The Lion of Comarre.  In the Thirty-first Century humans have been stagnant scientifically for about five hundred years, believing that all that needs to be discovered has already been done so.  Life is easy and is primarily dedicated to the arts and leisure.  Early in this period of stagnation Rolf Thordarsein, an eminent scientist and engineer, set out to create a place where perfect leisure may be enjoyed.  A place called Comarre.  A few hundred years later Thordarsein's 22-times' great grandson, Richard Peyton III, sets out on a quest for the mysterious Comarre, from which nobody has ever returned.  Peyton eventually does find Comarre and learns its secrets.  The city is completely automated and run by robots, while the human inhabitants lie in beds and live in Matrix-like artificial existences, though of pure pleasure.  Upon trying to awaken some of the inhabitants and reintroducing them to reality, Peyton realizes the futility of his effort - they all WANT to live this way, so he leaves them alone.  Peyton's biggest surprise, however, is that the primary robot controller of Comarre, called The Engineer, has full consciousness and is in many ways superior to humans.  The Engineer was Thordarsein's greatest invention and it was his hope that humans and robots in the future would complement each other, instead of humans strictly controlling the robots.  One of Thordarsein's last efforts was to document the processes for creating true life in the robots in a book that Peyton finds in Rolf's old office.  In the end, The Engineer gladly sends Peyton back on his way, while Peyton himself cheerfully contemplates the next great stage in scientific development and the end of the stagnant ways.

The critical regard for this book is not very high, but I think it is worth the read for The Lion of Comarre alone.  Some of the other stories are a bit weak, but others really make you marvel at the author's wit and imagination.

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