It’s hard to see who would really want to read Islands in the Sky today. It was first published in 1954, and republished in 1972 in the spiffy Puffin edition that I still own. It has a new (for 1972) introduction by Patrick Moore, saying in so many words that when Clarke wrote this book it was all far away but now (1972) space stations where kids can vacation and meet emigrants on their way to and from Mars is just around the corner. Well, we’re sending robots out to do it for us, Clarke never imagined that, and we do have a space station and we have astronauts tweeting from it. Which is really pretty cool, even if the station isn’t quite as Clarke pictured it. What’s wrong with Islands in the Sky isn’t that the tech and the history is out of date so much as that it’s a juvenile in which everyone is nice and nothing really happens.
Mostly when SF has become technologically obsolete it doesn’t matter, because the story is still there. A lot of the problem with Islands in the Sky I could see when I first read it when I was ten—it’s a boy’s adventure story that doesn’t really have a story. It’s a nuts and bolts tour of a near Earth space station and associated space hospital and space hotel, and once it loses the allure of being The Real Hands-On Future it has lost a lot. Ten year olds today don’t need current tech in their SF any more than I did, but they have much higher standards when it comes to story.
The plot of Islands in the Sky is supposed to be “everyboy wins a trip to a space station and has adventures,” but somehow the “having adventures” part never really happened. Everyboy, here named Roy, addresses the reader in first person. People sometimes complain that books in first person have no tension, and I always point them at Jhereg and The Collector and To Kill a Mockingbird and they never come back to the argument. But books with no tension do exist, and they’re difficult to do well, and when they don’t work you get something like Islands in the Sky. I’m not even going to bother noticing the lack of girls. It was 1954. Boys only had mothers in 1954, and things were only just starting to get better in 1972.
Even when I was a teenager I never liked Islands in the Sky as much as the Clarke I really liked—Childhood’s End, Against the Fall of Night, Imperial Earth, A Fall of Moondust. In my review of Imperial Earth I said the plot was “what I did on my summer holidays” and that goes double for Islands in the Sky. Clarke always has a tendency to descend into this—nice people with no conflict in an interesting place. It’s what’s wrong with Rendezvous With Rama too.
What makes Clarke worth reading is his scientific imagery—what I have called the poetry of science. There isn’t much of that here, almost any of his other books have more, but there’s some—most of it technologically obsolete to be sure, but it has its moments. I was interested to notice the descriptions of Earth from space reading the time from the continents—it was before the iconic space images of Earth, before we knew that Earth was blue. However, Clarke predicted perfectly that the first pictures would be iconic, even if he didn’t know what they’d be like.
There’s one memorable thing, which had stuck with me for decades since I first read the book—the commander of the space station is a man without legs, who lives in zero gravity where he’s as able to get around as well as anyone else. He lost his legs on the first trip to Mercury. He’s a very minor part of the book, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve told people about him in waiting rooms of orthopaedic hospitals. There are amputees who haven’t even read the book who have him as a role model. I picked this book up to re-read now because I’ve been having mobility issues recently.
If you read Islands in the Sky when you were a kid and you have fond memories of it, I’d leave them as memories. If you have kids who want to read old juveniles, give them the Heinlein juveniles. One thing reading this has shown me is how comparatively well the Heinlein juveniles have aged. If you want to read some Clarke, don’t start here.
And if anyone wants a purple-and-blue Puffin 1972 edition of Islands in the Sky, price 45p, and is going to be somewhere I’m going to be, let me know. I try not to keep books just for nostalgia if I don’t plan to read them again.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.