‘A Meeting With Medusa’: a Sci-Fi Masterpiece by Arthur C. Clarke
A beautiful story from the great master
I’m sure there is no fiction lover who hasn’t heard of Arthur C. Clarke. He is the giant on whose shoulders we modern readers and even science fiction writers stand as humble dwarfs. So I feel obliged to write about his work. But, strange as it may seem, I chose a not that popular story, ‘A Meeting With Medusa,’ for the first article. A “not that popular” may sound like a slight misconception on the second thought. The story won a Nebula Award and was nominated for a Hugo upon its publication.
Why didn’t I pick up, for example, something more famous like ‘A Space Odyssey 2001’ or ‘Rendezvous with Rama’? Very simple. First, they got their glory without me. Second, I simply want to remind you about the work as ingenious but unfortunately less remembered.
The story’s plot introduces us to the main character, Howard Falcon, captain of the enormous airship Queen Elizabeth. Falcon almost dies trying to save the airship from crashing. He barely survives the crash, after which he, resurrected by surgeons, is involved in planning an expedition to Jupiter. Why him? Because he is the most experienced specialist in aeronautics (and the travel to the atmosphere of Jupiter is planned exactly using a giant airship), of course. Not to mention that after his surgical reconstruction, Falcon is much better adapted to the increased gravity and any other surprises that a gas giant can throw at him. I’m not going into the details of the Falcon’s reconstruction here — let us save some spoilers.
From the scientific point of view, some story moments now seem naive, as it was written 50 years ago. But it is impressive how easily Clark could squeeze into a short story several events and plot moves of cosmic — literally and metaphorically — scale! A human-crewed mission into the supposedly inaccessible atmosphere of a gas giant. Visionary technical ideas and solutions. And finally, contact with alien life (perhaps even intelligent).
Just think about the greatness of the old-time masters! It is that simple: good writers do not save ideas. They do not keep every original thought or twist that came to mind for future use to produce 5–6 sequels, exploiting everything at maximum. Instead, they just write, using everything that can make their story interesting. As a result, a short story can be way more fascinating and exciting than epic series.
One more thing. As I was working on this article, I found that Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter wrote a sequel, ‘The Medusa Chronicles’. I will definitely read it, although my expectations are contradictory: on the one hand, I just finished ranting about the overuse of ideas. On the other — it’s Reynolds and Baxter! How two good writers can possibly make something not exceptional from an excellent story?