Thursday, 23 February 2012

Review: Islands in the Sky

Islands in the Sky by Arthur C Clarke (1952)

Young Roy Malcolm wins a quiz show competition and travels to Inner Station, a low-earth orbit space station that is mankind's jumping off point to the Moon and planets.  There he sees all the wonders of this new technological frontier, meets the men forging it and has some minor adventures before returning home.

Islands is one of Clarke's earlier and lesser-known books.  Aimed at the juvenile market, it really is incredibly anaemic.  Roy, who is almost never referred to by name, goes on holiday, sees a bunch of stuff and goes home.  That, aside from a side trip in a clapped-out spaceship, is it.  This isn't entirely surprising.  The whole point of the exercise is to give Clarke and excuse to take the reader on a guided tour of all the wonderful technology and sights of outer space that the future would hold.  And, true, he does do a very good job introducing the neophyte to things like space shuttles, stations, spacesuits, spaceships, artificial gravity and the like, which must have been very interesting in 1952 when the V2 was still hot stuff, but putting it into a fictional guise is frustrating.  Nothing happens, there is no suspense, no conflict, no tension, no nothing.  The characters aren't wooden; they're more like painted with very wispy brush strokes so as to not distract from the bigger picture.

This is a novel that would have been better served as a feature article along the lines of Clarke's "So, You're Going to Mars", which he wrote for Reader's Digest.  That worked.  As a story, this is as flat as lead foil.  In fact, in the 1960s, Popular Science  published an abridged version of the novel that whittled the plot up so much that I came away thinking that the teenage protagonist was, in fact, an adult journalist on assignment.  It worked much better.

Patrick Moore, in a foreword written for the 1970 edition, told the reader that he'll probably get through the whole book in one sitting.  Sorry, it was so dull that it took me six days of concentrated effort to finish it.

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