A Meeting with Medusa by Clarke, Arthur C., 1971

A Meeting with Medusa by Clarke, Arthur C.

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Lots of people out there feel that Arthur C. Clarke can do no wrong. I do not happen to be one of those, but I do greatly respect the man, and I will read anything he wrote at least once. Fortunately much of what he wrote during his very long career was excellent. Along with Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke is probably one of the most recognized names in our genre, and that recognition is deserved. I do not have to tell you how glum I was the day he passed, even if it was expected and natural. Even if he had not written in years and probably would not have again, there was a finality about it all that moved me. Today's review is of Clarke's 1972 novella A Meeting with Medusa, and its a page turner. Four out of five stars.

A Meeting with Medusa is a first contact/inner system exploration story with a huge hook, and even an additional theme that shows up at the end of the story. It is about a very competent lighter-than-air pilot named Falcon who has learned to be the best pilot in the world the hard way. A number of years before the expedition the pilot, Falcon was the captain of the QE IV, an enormous dirigible airliner that crashed and caused him great bodily injury and killed hundreds. Fifteen years after the crash when a mission to Jupiter is planned Falcon gets himself appointed as the mission commander and pilot by demonstrating to the planners that because of time lag remote craft will not work. The mission is changed, and Falcon is made the pilot. After reaching Jupiter, Falcon descends in his craft and levels out at a predetermined elevation in the Jovian atmosphere, and there encounters first the building blocks of life, then complex life. After navigating through a beautifully described pyrotechnic atmosphere Falcon comes across giant man-o-war like gasbags that are so huge that they mass over 100 million tons each. He watches them as they are hunted and preyed upon by smaller giant manta ray like pack creatures, and and observes them defend themselves and kill their hunters with powerful bio-electricity bolts. He tracks them until they become aware of his presence and reach out to him, then he narrowly escapes physical contact by using a nuclear ramjet to get back into the upper atmosphere for retrieval.

One of the things that I most love about Clarke is his ability to reduce complex scientific principles and complicated plot twists to simple and understandable language. I think that was Clarke's special gift. Just compare Kubrick's film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the book version by Clarke and you will see exactly what I mean. But Clarke also had a great ability to give flash-bang, and by that I mean that the fireworks jump in the mind's eye that much easier because his descriptions are so colorful and well drawn.

There was a sharp explosion and an instant loss of weight. Kon-Tiki was falling freely, nose down. Overhead, the discarded balloon was racing upward, dragging the inquisitive tentacle with it. Falcon had no time to see if the gasbag actually hit the medusa, because at that moment the ramjet fired and he had other matters to think about.

A roaring column of hot hydrohelium was pouring out of the reactor nozzles, swiftly building up thrust - but toward Jupiter, not away from it. He could not pull out yet, for vector control was too sluggish. Unless he could gain complete control and achieve horizontal flight within the next five seconds, the vehicle would dive too deeply into the atmosphere and would be destroyed.

With agonizing slowness - those five seconds seemed like fifty - he managed to flatten out, then pull the nose upward. He glanced back only once and caught a final glimpse of the medusa, many miles away. Kon-Tiki's discarded gasbag had apparently escaped from its grasp, for he could see no sign of it.

But Clarke also brings a human feeling to his books, and was especially fond of irony. When discussing the prime directive with his managers before launch, and after being told that the discovery of life would completely change the focus of any mission:

Falcon was getting rather tired of this advice and recalled a TV discussion he had once seen between a space lawyer and an astronaut. After the full implications of the Prime directive has been carefully spelled out, the incredulous spacer had exclaimed: 'Then if there was no alternative, I must sit still and let myself be eaten?' The lawyer had not even cracked a smile when he answered: 'That is an excellent summing up."

There's still a lot more to this book. Falcon was a cyborg who because of the injuries he suffered while on the QE IV was almost completely artificial. Clarke hides this fact from you until the very end of the book, and I feel guilty letting this fact go, but it is critical to understanding the impact of the story. In addition to his experience with lighter air craft Falcon was sent because his body alone would be able to withstand the rigors of the lower Jovian atmosphere's gravity, and the g-forces that were generated upon escape. Though Clarke does not describe the aftermath, Falcon's wild success on the mission obviously is the last great push that the race needs to start going post-human, and to begin replacing the frail bodies that evolution adapted for the pleasant Earth environment. I think that this is what Clarke may have had in mind when he was describing the race that evolved us in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Give it a read and see what you think.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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