Sunday, April 3, 2011

"Rescue Party" (Arthur C. Clarke, 1946) - Retro Review

"Retro Review of 'Rescue Party' (Arthur C. Clarke, 1946)"

(c) 2008, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


There was a decade in which Arthur C. Clarke wrote science fiction short stories so tightly-plotted and beautifully-polished that each was a gem of its kind; a textbook example of the craft of writing. Each such story had a strong central theme, and often they ended with a twist which was both surprising and yet flowed logically from the expression of that theme.

The first of these was "Rescue Party."


The mile-long Galactic Survey Ship S9000, product of an ancient interstellar civilization, is racing toward a star about to go nova. Her mission is to save as much as possible of the native civilization. Because the existence of this culture was unsuspected until very recently, there will not be enough time to save more than a tiny fraction of its population, but the noble Galactic Federation must at least try.

The star is Sol, and it is the human race which is about to die.

Alveron, Captain of the S9000, orders down two landing parties in the starship's tenders, which are shuttlecraft of immense size and capacity (each 1/1000 the mass of the main vessel). The first, led by Orostron, finds an abandoned radio station beaming images and data from the Earth outward to some unknown location. The second, led by Torkalee, discovers a government building, filled with records, and then nearly loses a party led by Alarkane for good when they accidentally board an intercontinental vacuum-tube subway. This party is rescued with the aid of the Paladorian mass-mind (which personally likes Alarkane) and the S9000's energy cannons.

Lying in the lee of Earth's shadow, the S9000's warning of the nova comes with the brightening of the Moon. The great starship flees under maximum drive, making it safely beyond the danger zone before her engines finally fail under the stress.

The mission has been a failure. None of the people of Earth have been found -- only the abandoned relics of their civilization, now vaporized by the nova. And it must have been a worthwhile civilization. The reason that the Federation had overlooked it is that it normally takes races millions of years to progress from sapience to radio, and there had been no sapient race noticable on Earth when the planet was last surveyed a mere 400 thousand years earlier.

But Rugon has an idea. It occurs to him that the radio station was beaming its signal to somewhere else. That "somewhere else" might very well be a remote interplanetary outpost -- perhaps one so far out to the edges of the Solar System that on it humans might survive.

Under its secondary drive, the S9000 limps on the course described by that beamed transmission. And she finds ...

... a vast spacefleet, composed of thousands of miles-long arks. Primitive -- they are attempting to cross the interstellar void by means of sublight rocketry -- but this is what happened to the Earth's population. They did not die in deep shelters, but instead chose to hazard the gulfs between the stars in the hopes of finding a new home for humanity.

The Money Quote

As Orostron prepares to make contact with the Earth people, Captain Alveron and his second-in-command Rugon stand on the bridge of the S9000 and muse on the future:

"You know," he said to Rugon, "I feel rather afraid of these people. Suppose they don't like our little Federation?" He waved once more toward the star-clouds that lay massed across the screen, glowing with the light of their countless suns.

"Something tells me they'll be very determined people," he added. "We had better be polite to them. After all, we only outnumber them about a thousand million to one."

Rugon laughed at his captain's little joke.

Twenty years afterward, the remark didn't seem funny.


Minimal but effective. The issue is complicated by the fact that every character is a representative of a nonhuman race and in most cases the only representative of his race, so we do not know to what extent their characteristics are racial versus personal. However, they are perfectly believable as members of a professional service (analogous to the Royal Air Force, which Clarke would have been intimately familiar) doing a difficult and dangerous job with cool competence.

The characters are:

Captain Alveron, a multi-tentacled being belonging to the dominant race of the Galactic Federation. He is decisive and noble.

Deputy Captain Rugon, who is also the Chief of Communication, and Captain Alveron's closest friend. He is also multi-tentacled, and moves with a "graceful flowing motion that no mere biped could imitate." He may be of the same race as Alveron.

Orostron, leader of one of the two landing parties.

Klarten, "a multitentacled tripedal creature from a globular cluster at the edge of the Milky Way." He also seems to have more than two eyes.

Hansur I and Hansur II, "twin beings from the planet Thargon."

T'sindaree, a many-legged (perhaps centipedal) being from one of the oldest races in the Federation (older than even Alveron's).

Alarkane, a being from one of the youngest known races, who has a wry sense of humor.

The Paladorian, one cell of an FTL mass mind (one goes with T'sindaree, others are back on the S9000).


The Galactic Federation

The S9000 is never presented in detail (we merely know that it is a mile long, has two tenders, at least two kinds of space drives, and a viewscreen on its bridge), as most of the action occurs on the doomed Earth. We also get only a glimpse of the society of the Galactic Federation which produced her, but we do learn some important details.

(1) The Galactic Federation is over a billion years old.

(2) It was founded by Alveron's race because they felt the responsibility to rule so as to ensure that justice was done.

(3) It comprises some billion planets, presumably thus having a population in the quintillions of sapient beings.

(4) All its races are very conservative by Human standards, especially where technological development is concerned.

There are very clear parallels between Clarke's Galactic Federation and David Brin's Five Galaxies from the Uplift Universe, to the point that I think Brin may have been explicitly inspired by "Rescue Party." One major difference is that the Five Galaxies have no analogue to Alveron's people to maintain justice among their peoples, with the result that interstellar politics in the Uplift Universe can be quite vicious and frequently genocidal. Carl Sagan may also have been inspired by Clarke's concept.

Obvious inspirations for Clarke would have been Edmond Hamilton's "Federation of Suns" (from the late 1920's - early 1930's), Olaf Stapledon's interstellar community from Star Maker (1930's) and E. E. "Doc" Smith's "Civilization" (the main three Lensman novels had all been published in the magazines before Clarke wrote this tale). The notion of a peaceful interstellar federation had become popular by the late 1930's and early 1940's -- some of Asimov's early stories were set in a similar milieu.


The exact Earth year of the nova is not mentioned, but evidence from the story places it as happening sometime in the 22nd century. We learn a few things about the future history (from a 1945 POV) of Clarke's Earth:

(1) The development of air travel, particularly helicopters, led to the gradual abandonment of most cities, presumably for the suburbs and exurbs.

(2) There was little progress in electronics: radio and TV transmitters still used vacuum tubes and governments kept track of their citizens by means of Hollerith punch-card analyzers (a real technology of the early 20th century).

(3) At some point the Earth obviously developed atomic, probably fusion-powered space rocketry (evident from the description of the ark fleet).

(4) Another interesting technology was the vacuum-tube intercontinental tubeway, though we don't know if this was put into general use (the one that T'sindaree, Alarkane and the Paladorian get trapped in was the World President's private system).

(5) We do know that a world government was achieved, this being implicit in the existence of a "World President" in the first place.

(6) Earth scientists predicted the nova in enough time to build a fleet of thousands of miles-long starships (hence, probably sometime in the 21st century). We know that the ark fleet contained the whole human race because there are neither swarms of desperate humans nor piles of corpses on Earth when the S9000 arrives.

(7) Something about the Earth culture is going to cause the Federation great trouble a mere twenty years in the future of the story (evident from the concluding paragraphs). We don't know whether this is simply going to be human innovativeness, or something far more sinister (such as armed aggression).


This is a classic -- perhaps one of the better known, since often anthologized -- "Terra uber alles" story, so beloved of John W. Campbell (and "Rescue Party" was first published in Astounding Science Fiction). Plucky humanity has not merely survived a nova, but by doing so impressed the representatives of a billions-year-old Galactic Federation. And there is the strong hint at the end that the advent of the humans will utterly upset that ancient culture.

This is one reason why readers love the story. It may also be a reason why Clarke later came to dislike the story's popularity. Certainly, it represented an optimism and energy that would, by the time of Clarke's old age, become utterly alien to the land of his birth. It also exemplifies the optimism and energy of Golden Age science fiction, which is why the story is still read. It is really a shame that Clarke lost so much of his energy and optimism as time went on -- perhaps it is the hazard of old age, perhaps more specifically a consequence of our turn away from space travel in the 1970's.

I, for one, am unabashedly on the side of the Golden Age science-fiction writers, and opposed to the pessimistic lethargy and despair that constitutes far too much modern science fiction, especially the heap of litcritter-dung called the "Mundane SF" movement. The human race of "Rescue Party" aren't stopped even by the destruction of their Solar System, while the humans of many modern science fiction works would be stymied by hangnails. Better hubris than utter despair.

Stray Comments

Clarke, like most Golden Age SF writers, utterly missed the coming advances in electronics. He has an excuse in "Rescue Party" -- it was written earlier in the same year that Shockley invented the transistor, and thus Clarke had no way of knowing what was about to happen. Still, it's remarkable that Clarke didn't foresee some general advance in electronics, given that he was a radio engineer by profession.

Considering what Clarke is most famous for first proposing, it is interesting that the story doesn't show the Earth as having any communications satellites. This is especially true because he proposed such satellites as early as 1945. On the other hand, given the limited electronics in the story, such stations would have been manned -- and abandoned, as a matter of course, for the ark fleet.

We now know that the Sun can't go nova: the Chandrasekhar Limit was discovered in 1930. Clarke should have known this, but Eddington among others opposed the theory, and I do not know to what degree it had still failed of acceptance by 1946. The story's good enough that I don't give a damn about its astrophysical improbability.

Though Clarke is mostly remembered today for his technological optimism, he had a deeply pessimistic side which positively reveled in cataclysm. Many of his early stories, and IMHO his most powerful ones, are about some hideous disaster, whether general or personl. Clarke also came out of not merely a science-fiction but a SF horror background (one of his early favorites was H. P. Lovecraft), and it shows in many of these early works.

Clarke loved the idea of catastrophic novae: he used them in several later stories, most notably "The Star." What better doom than the destruction of a whole solar system? And Clarke used novae well -- the apparently-inexorable doom of the landing-party in the subway, and the escape of the S9000 from the Solar System as the nova actually flares are tense and exciting moments, the more notable because this is a story in which all the peril is of purely natural origin.


"Rescue Party" is one of Clarke's most famous stories, and despite the fact that it was only his second professionally-published work, it is one of his best. Despite the dubious astrophysics and clunky electronics, it is a powerful and exciting tale, and well worth rereading today.


1 comment:

  1. If you look at Heinlein's collected history timelines he pretty much forecast this time as the 'crazy years'.