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Clarke at 100: The Hammer of God

By / November 28, 2017 / no comments

The Hammer of God was not quite the last solo novel that Arthur C. Clarke wrote (that honour goes to 3001, The Final Odyssey), but it could lay claim to being the worst solo novel he wrote.

It’s an expansion of a short story, also called “The Hammer of God”, that came out the year before, in 1992. The trouble is, it reads like he didn’t have enough material, so he kept stuffing extra things in, even if they didn’t really contribute to, or even relate to, the rest of the story.

I say story, because there is a plot, even if it takes up probably a quarter of the novel. But Clarke doesn’t seem to be that interested in the plot, just in the number of lessons he can hang from it. His novels, good and bad, have always had a tendency to infodump. His most successful novels, 2001, A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, are not, I think, among his best books precisely because he pays more attention to the infodumps than he does to the characterisation, scene setting and other elements of a good novel. But in The Hammer of God he takes that tendency to an extreme: the book is really a collection of mini-lectures (on science, technology, space suits, asteroids, comets, orbital mathematics, futuristic domestic technology, the geography of Mars, the characteristics of life on the Moon, etc, etc, etc) with the bare bones of a novel somehow crammed in wherever he has a little gap between lectures.

The central character is Robert Singh. One of the rather impressive features of Clarke’s work over the years, at least in comparison to his science fiction contemporaries, has been a willingness to use characters from a variety of different cultures. Whether these be an Australian Aboriginal in A Fall of Moondust, Russians in 2010, Odyssey Two, or Sri Lankans in The Fountains of Paradise, their racial background shapes the way they think and behave. But if we think the name Singh signals something similar here, we are disappointed. Other than the name, there is absolutely nothing in his speech, thought patterns or actions that would distinguish him from a middle class, white, Anglo-American. Indeed, other than one almost cliched Englishman (he even has a knighthood and speaks in clipped tones), this is a remarkably American novel. There are hints that this Earth of 2109 is under a form of World Government; except that the World Council still uses Air Force One, and laws are talked of as Amendments to the Constitution. In other words, this is the narrowest social and cultural view of the future that we find anywhere in Clarke’s work.

Back to Singh, our hero even if Clarke forgets him for chapters at a time. There are persistent efforts to give Singh a back story, to make him into a character, but there’s no conviction to any of this. We learn of his failed first marriage on Earth, and a more successful second marriage on Mars, but we don’t see enough to believe in either of them, and in the end he seems rather blandly unaffected by any of this. There’s also a long section in which Singh, in his youth, took part in an Olympic race on the Moon. Read back through The Collected Stories and you’ll see there was a period early in his career when Clarke was interested in marrying space technology with sport, and this section feels like a long-abandoned unfinished story grafted on to the novel. It almost works as a short story, it doesn’t work as part of a novel, because it has absolutely nothing to do with anything else going on around it. It shines no particular light on Singh, and it feeds into no later thoughts or actions or character developments. Certainly, if the figure running the Moon race had been given a different name, you would have absolutely no reason to associate him with the person who takes centre stage in the rest of the novel.

But at least this interpolation could be argued to have some connection to the novel going on around it. The other big interruption in the story, a separate section of some six chapters, doesn’t even have that excuse. The whole piece is a lecture about how Christianity and Islam merge into something called “Chrislam”. Now if you look back over Clarke’s entire career, from early stories like “The Star” up to later novels like The Fountains of Paradise, it is obvious that he has an issue with religion. Organised religion troubles him, he often paints the institutions of religion as an obstruction to the pure benefits of science, and the practitioners of religion are frequently duplicitous or antagonistic. Yet at the same time he is drawn irresistibly to some form of spirituality, which crops up again and again in the majesty of space or the mystery of the Star Child. That ambivalence comes across here when he describes a charismatic woman preacher emerging to unite the two religions. To say it is all too easy is an understatement; it’s an occurrence that doesn’t make sense on political, theological or cultural grounds. And I think Clarke knows that, because this whole long interlude is there only to provide a fanatical villain who will throw a spanner into the workings of the plot at the last minute.

Ah yes, the plot; there is one, though you’d be forgiven at times for wondering whether Clarke himself remembered it. It is prefigured right at the start of the novel, then forgotten as attention shifts to laying out the often unnecessary background. Then, roughly half way through the book, we come back to it again when an amateur astronomer on Mars spots something that shouldn’t be there. Then, a little later, we discover that this something is an asteroid, a common enough object in the solar system, but this one, it turns out, is heading straight for Earth. Of course we get the story of Tunguska, and the story of how the dinosaurs were wiped out, and we presume that as humanity faces a similar fate there are people running around screaming and tearing their hair out. Actually we are told something to this effect, in a rather dispassionate way, but we don’t see or feel any of it because there are no scenes actually set on Earth. The closest we get is when officials of the World Council meet aboard Air Force One, and they seem to display no particular worry about being obliterated; they’re more concerned with the legal niceties of holding a referendum before they deploy a nuclear bomb.

What we get is an organisation called Spaceguard, established long before to deal with just such emergencies. And the ship Goliath, under the command of Captain Robert Singh, is the vessel dispatched to deal with the intruder. They strap an engine to the asteroid, inevitably called Kali, in order to gently nudge it onto a new course that will miss Earth. But religious fanatics have sabotaged the engine, for no reason other than the fact that they are religious fanatics, so Singh has to find a new way to save Earth.

And that’s it. We’ve seen the shape of this story many times before in Clarke’s work. Being in space is boring and routine unless there’s an emergency; so there has to be an emergency. Quietly competent men have to use slightly futuristic technology to solve the emergency. That, in essence, is what we get in A Fall of Moondust and 2010 and The Fountains of Paradise. And any one of them tells the same story much better than this. By this time, Clarke was coming to the end of his career; there are far better works to remember him for.

Buy The Hammer of God from Amazon.

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Paul

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