Wed
Jan 9 2013 2:00pm

Boy Visits Space Station: Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands In The Sky

Boy Visits Space Station: Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the SkyIt’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 What’s wrong with Islands in the Sky isn’t that the tech and the history is out of date so much as that it’s a juvenile in which everyone is nice and nothing really happens.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.

24 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
My edition of Islands in the Sky suffers from being bound with The Sands of Mars and Earthlight, two more interesting books.
Emmet O'Brien
2. EmmetAOBrien
Boys only had mothers in 1954.

Not just alternate history, but alternate biology.
OtterB
3. OtterB
I still think about this book occasionally but haven't read it in more than 40 years. I will take your advice and leave it that way. I remember checking it out of my junior high library along with Heinlein juveniles, the Lucky Starr books, Andre Norton books with spaceships, Alan E. Nourse books like Star Surgeon, and others. It stands out in my memory against those companions for being so near-term and plausible. Unlike things with aliens and galaxy-spanning civilizations, this was something I could picture coming true in my lifetime. In that sense, the story is "We could really do this, and it would be so cool!" and it's outmoded in ways that Heinlein, for example, isn't, because it's old news that we can do that.

What's depressing is that pretty much every recent plausible-science near-term book I can think of is a dystopia of one flavor or another. It's now "We could really do this, and there might be a grain of hope after the apocalypse!" All the "That would be so cool!" stories seem to be fantasy.

Sigh. And you kids get off my lawn.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
(Tangent: I just re-read _To Kill a Mockingbird_ for the first time in years and oh my *goodness* the tension, I nearly made myself physically ill with it.

(I haven't read this book but there is something comforting about Clarke in optimistic technobabble mode; now I have the urge to re-read _A Fall of Moondust_.)
OtterB
5. James Davis Nicoll
Doesn't this start off with pretty much the exact same situation as Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel? But Kip has to settle for a space suit instead of a trip into space.

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.

You could change that to

What’s wrong with T isn’t that the tech and the history is out of date so much as that it’s a in which everyone is nice and nothing really happens.

And have pretty good odds of it being accurate. Especially the later the book in Clarke's career.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@5: It's an old model space suit but still almost functional. Do be fair on late-period Clarke though, I always understood that The Songs of Distant Earth was the last one he wrote completely unaided and that his contribution to the collaborations consisted of approximately three pages of "things he would like to see included". It's no surprise, given that the Brain Eater was biting from at least 1972.
Ethan Robinson
7. ethanmr
"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."

I haven't read Islands in the Sky, so I can't say anything about it (though having read Prelude to Space I'd likely agree with you there), but I can't agree about Rendezvous with Rama--"nice people with no conflict in an interesting place" is for me exactly what's right about that novel. It has a serenity unlike almost anything written in the past handful of centuries--except for some other sf. As PtS (and probably IitS) show, it can fail miserably, but when it works it's enormously powerful.
Colin Bell
8. SchuylerH
@7: RwR was the last "classic Clarke". It had its flaws, like all of Clarke's novels but it could be very good at certain things.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
James: But Heinlein makes "boy enters contest: will he win?" fascinating, whereas Clarke... doesn't. Reading this now really did make me realise how gripping the Heinlein juveniles really are.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Pretty sure I read this one, but can't remember much about it. Where, on the other hand, I remember a lot about Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Clarke wrote interesting books, but Heinlein was the one who kept me up late into the night, reading with a flashlight under my covers.
George Barbaz
11. zabrab
Like the other here in this thread ... it has been YEARS since I have read this. I do agree with you that Clarke seemed to have a tendency for delving into novels with little real conflict ... and what is there is mostly philosophical ... but I do find most of them enjoyable. Heinlein MUCH more action and much more of an "edge" to them. However, if you want to entend this to juvenile fantasy ... then Andre Norton excels at novels for depth, conflict, and long lasting enjoyability (is this even a word?) for their intended audience
Colin Bell
12. SchuylerH
I've been thinking about this and I've been wondering: why do people think that YA books are a new phenomenon and will surely bring about the death of SF itself (through some kind of unspecified "exhaustion", no doubt...). It seems to me that all that's changed is the introduction of an acronym and a drive for profit.
OtterB
13. Narmitaj
I think Islands is probably the first sf book I read, or started to read, and I can even remember where (and just about when) - I was probably 7, it was 1965, I was with my parents visiting a friend & colleague of my father, "Jeppy" Jepps (can't remember his first name), for drinks, in the hills outside Beirut (my father and Jeppy were both airline pilots based in Lebanon). I found the book in his bookshelf and knelt on the floor, absorbed and excited. But we had to go home. I can't remember if we borrowed it, or I read some other copy later.

I always liked Clarke and re-read several of his books over the years, including, I am sure, Islands. But perhaps I should give it a miss in future! I liked other writers when I was younger - Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Zelazny, and later Aldiss and Ballard. But Clarke seemed sort of "my" writer, in the way you feel an affinity for some band or artist even if you appreciate that others are possibly in some way objectively "better". I suppose it helped that he felt kind of local - he and my father had been born in the same week, in December 1917, and in the same county, Somerset, which is where I am now. I also liked the exploratory, non-conflict nature of things like Rama.
alastair chadwin
14. a-j
I loved this book as a child and must have read it around the time the '72 puffin edition came out, or shortly afterwards. Certainly I was at most 10 at the time.
One of the things I liked was the cosiness of the story and I disagree that there isn't tension, it's just not of the standard sort. This is a story about ordinary decent people doing their job and doing it well and I liked the way he made gentle fun of most juvenile SF with the space pirates storyline. I also rather liked the melancholy of the story as even at that age I knew it was unlikely that the future he was describing was going to happen. I still read it now and again, for nostalgia's sake, and pretend it's an alternate world improving tale for boys who want to be astronauts.
Of course it has dated badly (no women astronauts for this man's solar system!) and even as a child I found the narrator's voice unconvincing. But yet I adored it, and have a great soft spot for it to this day. Can't say I'd particularly recommend it to anyone though, but I would suggest a re-read. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Ah, Rendezvous with Rama. With respect I cannot disagree more. We have a group of humans investigating a mysterious alien artefact. The last thing needed is distracting interpersonal conflict. The situation drives the tension along enough. Though I do agree that the characterisation is awful and it's convenient that the random spaceship that can make the rendezvous just happens to be filled with exactly the right crew. But that's good old Arthur C for you.
OtterB
15. James Davis Nicoll
9: James: But Heinlein makes "boy enters contest: will he win?" fascinating, whereas Clarke... doesn't.

I use frequently covered songs as standard candles to compare musicians with. I wonder if "young adult enters contest to go into space" could be used in a similar way for SF authors?
OtterB
16. James Davis Nicoll
14: Though I do agree that the characterisation is awful and it's convenient that the random spaceship that can make the rendezvous just happens to be filled with exactly the right crew.

It's a much shorter book if all the space craft are in the wrong place. I am a bit intrigued by the idea of a woefully maladapted crew being the only ones in the spot (although I think it could turn into something like Barton and Capobianco's where tossing darts into a crowd would have produced a less dysfunctional crew).
OtterB
17. Elaine Gallagher
I loved this book as a kid and I have to say that when I was that age I wasn't reading SF for conflict or plot. In fact, conflict-heavy novelists like Andre Norton actively put me off. I was reading for the ideas and the scenery. Nice people in an interesting place suited me just fine, because it was the place that I was interested in.

I also read the Willard Price 'Adventure' safari stories and found the bolted-on conflicts extraneous and annoying compared to the wildlife, so it's not just SF. Similarly with Clarke's Dolphin Island, with the 'adventure' after the typhoon.

I'm not saying there weren't strongly plotted books that I liked, like about half the Heinlein juveniles and Monica Hughes's books, but that wasn't all of what I picked a book up for.
OtterB
18. James Davis Nicoll
Actually, I really like the idea of a ship full of not-especially pre-adapted to xeno-archaeology people being forced to rise to the occasion when it turns out they are the only people who will be able to take advantage of a unique opportunity.
Seth Ellis
19. seth_e
James @ 18: You just described Prometheus, although not the Prometheus Ridley Scott thought he was making.
OtterB
20. Woodsmith
I have just read Islands In The Sky, in (nearly) one sitting and really liked it. I like that simple style of the period and accept its failings as the nature of things. The only downside for me was that I didn't get to the end. I guess it is not surprising that a 58 year old paperback might have lost a few pages from the end!

"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."

I have no idea where you are going to be but would happily take up that offer just to see what happens at the end.

Rendezvous With Rama I don't read often, I jump straight into Rama 11, Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed, and read them often.
j p
21. sps49
Jo, I don't remember you mentioning this ever- but did you also read any Tom Swift, Jr. books?

And is there anyone who has read them all?
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
I read two or three of the Tom Swift Junior books, which were pretty enjoyable. But we had to pay for the new ones, which made the original Tom Swift books that were already sitting on a shelf in the basement much more preferrable. It took months of allowance to buy a new hardback book...
Andrew Love
23. Andy Love
This one was a favorite of mine when I was a kid - but I had a hard time finding it again because I conflated it with Del Rey's "Step to the Stars," which also has a kid going to a space station - but not as a contest.
OtterB
24. Tamara2
I read it in the late 90's, aged 10 or 12 or so, (and female), and reread and reread it and loved it. I have no idea why, but I know I did. Maybe the technological gap wasn't quite big enough yet for me not to be able to fit my imagination around it. I read some Heinlein juvies around the same time, and I think I liked this better, actually. Nice people being nice in space? Sign me up. I'm not planning on ever re-reading it though ;-).

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