In the late 1960s, when I first became interested in science fiction, I came across frequent references to the “ABC of science fiction”: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. Of the three, I never had much time for Bradbury’s brand of ornate nostalgia, but in my late teens and early twenties, I devoured many novels and short stories by both Asimov and Clarke.
These days, I find Asimov hard going, but I can still re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s early fiction with great pleasure. Clarke is often thought of as a hard SF writer, and indeed that is a strong component of his work; but unlike Hal Clement, Clarke’s work makes room for both the rational and the transcendent. My favourites among his books are the early novels Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End, and his first short story collection, Expedition to Earth.
In these books, his writing is at its most flexible and affecting. These novels and stories are full of regret for worlds and people lost, and wonder at what is to come: if the best of Bradbury and Clement had been blended together and then filtered through a distinctively English sensibility – a sensibility no less attuned than J.G. Ballard’s to the dying of the light of Empire – these books are what might have resulted.