A Meeting with Medusa
by Arthur C. Clarke
“I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promotor and science popularizer,” Arthur C. Clarke said. “Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer – one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.”
Typically, he didn’t mention, “as a disabled person,” but in reading his 1971 Nebula Award-winning novella, A Meeting with Medusa, the repercussions of his bout with polio in the previous decade, a disease whose complications would progressively reduce his mobility, seem as plain as the twinkle in his eye. Maybe it would be fairer to say, as plain as his love affair with the wonders of the universe when he launches protagonist Howard Falcon as the first human adventurer – more specifically, quasi-human – to enter the atmosphere of Jupiter on a balloon-driven raft named for an ancient god, and to make contact with the planet’s strange inhabitants.
Nearly the first quarter concentrates on Falcon as captain of the gigantic dirigible Queen Elizabeth IV, “the first man in history to navigate a ship three-tenths of a mile long. . . ” Readers of last Friday’s post may giggle at Clarke’s continued use of the word “man” without reference to the other half of the human race. There’s an odd sense of appropriateness in knowing that Medusa was first published in Playboy magazine. Possibly the erotic magazine’s readers were intrigued by the bosomy gas cells giving the Queen her buoyancy.
That promising opening ends in the disastrous crash that to Falcon “seemed to last forever. It was not violent – merely prolonged, and irresistible. It seemed that the whole universe was falling about them.”
Clarke doesn’t immediately reveal the full extent of the crash on Falcon, although in the next chapter he teases us with a glimpse of the adventurer’s artificially-enhanced reflexes, reflexes Clarke must have envied.
Then we’re off to “The World of the Gods,” with Falcon in his hydrogen balloon-powered raft, Kon-Tiki, named both for an Inca god and the raft on which 20th century explored Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific Ocean. From the point where Falcon can look around at “the crystalline clarity of the hydrohelium atmosphere and the enormous curvature of the planet (which made it) even harder to judge distances. . . (and where) everything he saw must be multiplied by at least ten,” we’re on a voyage in wonderland.
But what are those strange noises in the Jovian night, noises surely too deep to come from the small creatures he has already encountered – bioluminescent microorganisms? Or the echoes he hears on his horizontal radar, like “clouds stuffed with rocks”? He has to remind himself that “nothing really solid could possibly hover in this atmosphere.” But it isn’t a creature made, like those on Earth, of solid substance that will challenge or toy with what it must see as an alien invader, a creature whose appearance will trigger the first ever use of humanity’s Prime directive when meeting sentient aliens: “Make no attempt to approach, or even to community, until ‘they’ have had plenty of time to study you. Exactly what was meant by ‘plenty of time’ . . . was left to the discretion of the man on the spot.”
Except that once the tentacles of the strange floating being Falcon calls a medusa are reaching toward the Kon-Tiki, “plenty of time” shrinks to nothing.
The website of The ArthurC. Clarke Foundation makes only the tiniest mention of Clarke’s 1962 diagnosis of polio and its limitation of his ability to pursue his passion for underwater exploration, the passion that brought him to Sri Lanka in the late 1950’s. In 1988, he was further diagnosed with post-polio syndrome and almost entirely confined to a wheelchair. From then until his death in 2008, his explorations would be those of the mind only.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a July of science fiction adventures)