Thursday, 23 June 2011

Review: Glide Path

Glide Path by Arthur C Clarke (1963)

It's the depths of the Second World War Flying Officer Alan Bishop, a fledgling radar technician, is assigned to a new top-secret project Ground Controlled Descent (GCD); a new application of radar that allows ground controllers to safely talk down aircraft even in zero visibility.  Working with an eccentric team of British and American servicemen, scientists, and technicians as they struggle to maintain and perfect their cranky prototype apparatus, Bishop is not only introduced to a new world of challenge and knowledge, he does a great deal of growing up in a very short time.

Sir Arthur C Clarke is best known for such science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama. With Glide Path, Clarke ventures into unfamiliar territory with his only mainstream fiction novel.  In fact, it's more of fiction mixed with a strong dose of autobiography as Clarke calls upon his own wartime experiences for material.  It's still a Clarke story with his usual love of technology and, as usual, there are no villains unless you count the Germans who are so far off stage that they might as well be on Mars.  However, it's very unusual for a Clarke novel in that it has fully fleshed out characters and the plot is largely character driven. Clarke had many real-life models for the men and women of RAF St Erryn and he made good use of them.  Indeed, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of Clarke's writing and I would judge this as being one of his best works.   The plotting is chronological and episodic, but in a book that reflects the format of the war memoir this is a strength rather than a failing. 

It's a pity that Clarke didn't write more novels like this.  Even if mainstream fiction wasn't his metier, bringing some of the power of characterisation that marks Glide Path would have added a new dimension to Clarke's science fiction efforts.

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