Book Review: Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky

And here’s another book I finished reading a couple days ago, but only now have gotten down to start writing a review. Last one, I promise.

So, Arthur C. Clarke. He’s one of the Greats of science fiction, the guy who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, (which, if you haven’t read, I’m pretty certain you’ve seen), and coined the much-used Clarke’s Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It’s funny, then, that most of the technology in Islands in the Sky is fairly plausible.

Islands in the Sky is a short, straightforward book. It’s a “juvenile,-” or, as we call it these days, a YA novel. The premise is simple, but pretty fun; Roy Malcolm, a brilliant young teenager, wins a trivia contest put on by an airline, and uses a loophole in the rules to get a free trip to a space station. If the book were written today as a YA novel, the contest would take up the first book in the trilogy and also there would be a love triangle and maybe some kind of arbitrary dystopia where everyone’s segregated by blood type or something.

Clarke doesn’t have time for any silliness like that, as he wastes little time in sending Roy into space, where he gets into some vaguely episodic adventures, and learns more about space travel in general. Roy is lucky enough to get to tour pretty much every space station in orbit, through various contrivances. It’s more of a travelogue than a proper novel.

The space stations are the real stars of the story- Roy himself is a pretty dull narrator, to the point where I had to check the back cover to remember what his name was. The whole point of the book is for Clarke to lay out various ideas he had for the uses of space travel; communication stations to transmit signals all over earth, microgravity hospitals for people with heart conditions, and so on.

The plot (such as it is) chugs along, mostly to whisk Roy from one cool place to another. Clarke sprinkles in a couple of pulpy cliffhangers, but they’re always resolved at the beginning of the next chapter. Someone’s smuggling rayguns to the space station! …but they’re just props for a movie someone’s shooting in space. Roy finds a weird alien in a bio lab! …but it’s actually a hydra microorganism that’s been grown to an enormous size in low gravity (I’m not sure that’s how gravity works, but I digress). The space station is struck by a meteorite and has a hull breach! … that was just a test the stationmaster was running on the space-cadets. (Seems like purposefully blowing holes in your station would be a pretty inefficient way of teaching people, but what do I know).

Really, the best part of Islands in the Sky wasn’t part of the original text at all. The book was originally published in 1952, before the space race really took off. However, the edition I snagged was from 1987- and it came with a foreward by Clarke, in which he mulls over all the stuff he got right, and what he got wrong about space exploration. For example, he didn’t predict the rise of micro-computers, and admits that unmanned communication satellites are a lot more efficient than a whole TV station in outer space. There’s stuff that Clarke gets out and out wrong, of course, in that charming dated sci-fi way: manned missions to Venus in 1985!

It’s easy to snicker at old sci-fi for being quaint (and perhaps overoptimistic) about its predictions. What makes Islands in the Sky interesting, however, is that a lot of the stuff that Clarke does propose is stuff we’re doing today- albeit on a smaller scale. Considering Clarke wrote the book in 1952, before so much as Sputnik had been launched, is rather impressive. Islands in the Sky is classic science fiction at its most optimistic, laying out a future that could happen- something that’s almost attainable with the technology we have today. It works best as a way to compare what people thought we would do in the future, and what we’ve actually done with it instead.

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