Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Tales From The White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke (1957)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 16.)
First, let me apologize for not posting this last week. I had a book to read for review that required me to read another book. And we're trying to wrap up content early for the holidays, so I also had to read another book for review. And, oh yeah, I read The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis just for fun. (Side note: Hey, that's a pretty good book. And though Nicholas Roeg's movie is kind of compellingly confounding, it's also weirdly faithful, in its own fractured way.) So I've been reading. It just took me a while to get around to Tales From The White Hart. But I'm glad I did. I hadn't read Arthur C. Clarke in years. When I did, I mostly read the books related to 2001: A Space Odyssey, an early cinematic obsession I first saw taped off a local UHF station. In fricking pan-and-scan. Oh, the way we watched movies in the pre-DVD era. Revisiting Clarke, I was struck by something that I wasn't struck by revisiting Isaac Asimov in advance of watching I, Robot: Clarke can write. I mean, he's not Jane Austen, but he's got a sly wit and an inviting prose style, in addition to having a head full of ideas. And wit is at the fore of the Tales From The White Hart, a collection of short stories in which science generally dispatches poetic justice on those who would try to best it. Set in the eponymous fictional pub, a place populated by scientists, raconteurs, and science-fiction writers (some of them real, including the author of the book we covered last week), it's a lively place in which everyone has a story or two, kind of like The Canterbury Tales, if Chaucer wrote for Weird Science. And nobody has more stories than Harry Purvis, who's filled with wild tales of science gone awry, "some of which, we suspect, may be slightly exaggerated," Clarke's narrator notes. Clarke isn't shy about mentioning all the ideas he's pioneered, and there are plenty of ahead-of-their-time notions here, including a device that cancels noise in "Silence Please" and an early sort of virtual reality in "Patent Pending." Based around a device that records experiences, the machine at the center of the latter is put to lewd use, and invites the most transparent of euphemisms in its telling. There's an antiquated boys-night-out air to the stories that's kind of endearing even in the thinner entries. And some of those entries are pretty thin. But they're redeemed by the wit of their telling. I'm thinking particularly of "The Reluctant Orchid," a boy-grows-meat-eating-plant story whose punchline practically announces itself with the first word. Still, I like that Clarke, one of the names first mentioned when people talk about classic, science-heavy science fiction, isn't afraid to be breezy. And I suspect that appreciation will only deepen after our next, not-at-all breezy-looking entry.
Next, after Thanksgiving: Limbo, by Bernard Wolfe (this might necessitate a one-week break between entries)
And then: The Shape Of Space, by Larry Niven