Fiction Reviews

Tales From The White Hart

(1957/2007) Arthur C. Clarke, PS Publishing, slipcased hrdbk,
£50 (US$100) / normal hardback £25 (US$50), xi + 210pp, ISBN 978-1-905-8-3478-5 / 978-1-905-8-3477-8


Tales From The White Hart is a veritable classic of British SF from one of its grandmasters whom we have only recently lost, and coincidentally nearly at the same rime as one of the real-life characters who appear in this new edition, Ken Slater. Clarke himself is, of course extremely well known as an SF writer but then most of you visiting this website undoubtedly are aware of this and the fact that he came up with the idea of geostationary-orbit satellite radio and TV relays but never bother to patent it because he did not think it would be a reality in his lifetime. So if perchance you have never come across this, his third, collection of short stories then you are in for a definite treat. Conversely if you are familiar with the original then this review will detail the extras you get in the PS Publishing commemorative 50th anniversary edition. More of this last later.

The tales in question are a series of thematically linked short stories that Arthur C. Clarke wrote between 1954 and 1957. The premise is this. There is a pub somewhere in London in which scientists, SF writers and editors regularly meet to discuss SF matters, science exotica and generally shoot the breeze. Among the regulars gathering is one Harry Purvis BSc (at least) PhD (probably) and FRS (personally I don't think so, though it has been rumoured). He is the protagonist and Clarke himself is the narrator. Harry's great contribution to these pub assemblies is that he is the teller of tall technical tales. They are all almost unbelievable or are they in fact true reminiscences? The thing is even the regulars are not quite sure. Though one thing is certain, they are all hugely entertaining and ensure that Harry is never without a pint of British beer.

This anthology is not one of the sense of wonder for which A. C. Clarke is most famous. This is Clarke writing full of charm and being very British. The stories are simply a delight.

If a collection of SFnal tall tales were not enough, a number of the other regulars are mentioned and these names many SF aficionados will recognise. There are writers John Wyndham, John Christopher, (Charles) Eric Maine, George Whitely (one of Bertram Chandler's pseudonyms), and Charles Willis (one of Clarke's own pseudonyms). Clarke himself is referred to in one as simply 'Arthur'. There are others too. Could Art Clarke's use of Art Vincent be a reference to VinĘ Clarke (VinĘ being a real-life SF fan active in the 1950s and indeed was through to the end of the century including being Fan Guest of Honour at the 1995 Worldcon (and who kindly penned the introduction to Essential SF).) I think it could, and Pete Weston, Brian Ameringen and Roger Robinson affirm this view.

As for the stories themselves, here are the quick teasers:-

'Silence Please' concerns the invention of an anti noise machine. This works by emitting a counter sound exactly out of phase to that around it and so nullifying noise. The problem is all that sonic energy has to go somewhere. Now the tragedy behind this tale is that in the 21st century we now have these devices used in passenger aircraft entertainment headphone systems. Clarke never patented it presumably because he never thought the idea would really work.

'Big Game Hunt' features electronic mind control by stimulating brain centres. of course it would be advisable to use some manageable creature and not a giant ship-dwarfing octopus.

''Patent Pending' gives the afore story's idea a different spin. What if you could record brain signals and record the brain's experience? You should then be able to playback to an average person the experience a gourmet has during fine dining. Of course you need to be careful as to what experiences you choose to record. You might upset someone.

'Armaments Race' takes a look at SF films' special effects. Each successive film needs bigger and better effect. Bigger and better rockets. Bigger and better ray guns. Of course there is only one logical conclusion to all of this but who would believe it? Not the authorities.

'Critical Mass' concerns a lorry crash that bemuses the regulars of one of Harry's previous pub haunts. The pub itself was near a top secret military research establishment and the lorry accident, though distant, was in line of sight of the pub. What puzzled the regulars was that people approaching the crash seemed to take one look at the lorry's spilled contents and run. Could something fearful have been unleashed? You bet.

'The Ultimate Melody' is a tune that you really do not want in your head.

'The Pacifist'. So you are responsible for the most sophisticated military computer in the World. Bit of a problem if this rubs up against your morals. This tale has sort of come to pass in real life.

'The Next Tenants' is a tale of species uplift. (NB. Way before Brin.)

'Moving Spirit' in which Harry recalls his being an expert witness in the trial of a relative.

'The Man Who Ploughed The Sea'. What if you could mine the sea. Could you and make money?

'The Reluctant Orchid' is a sort of 'little shop of horrors' but with a twist. However note that this story was written well over a decade before the Corman film. (Though this tale was inspired by a quite different story from H. G. Wells.

'Cold War' how rivalry between two US holiday regions -- and a huge artificial iceberg -- ends up foiling a cold war military operation.

'What Goes Up'. When a UFOologst visits the White Hart only a Purvis tall tale of pseudoscience and antigravity can prevent a flying saucer domination of the evening.

'Sleeping Beauty' demonstrates that there is no easy cure for snoring.

'The Defestration of Ermintrude Inch' reveals whether it is men or women who talk the most... and Harry's other half makes an appearance.

These then are the stories as they appeared in the earlier editions of Tale From The White Hart. In addition, editions since the 1970 printing have a preface explaining that 'The White Hart' did exist. In fact the monthly meetings continue to this day, for those whose diet of SF largely (but not entirely exclusively) focussed on books, not too far from the original location. Dedicated and reasonably intelligent souls can find out where and when with a little bit of investigation. (View my not being open a kind of Darwinian filter.) Indeed in Tales From The White Hart Clarke himself is coy as to when meetings occur: the dedication cites Thursday, the introduction Tuesday and 'Silence Please' Wednesday.

Tales From The White Hart currently seems to have had a new printing in English at least once a decade. If you are a serious SF person then you simply have to get a copy. Having said that if you are a die-hard genre aficionado, with SF coursing through your blood, then I am afraid you may very well want to stump up the extra cost for this new PS Publishing (2008) edition half a century on from the original. Apart from the rather nice cover, there is a new introduction from Stephen Baxter. More importantly there is a new story to round the collection off jointly written by Arthur Clarke and Stephen Baxter 'Time Gentleman Please'.

I have to say that I read this with just a twinge of emotion: for to me it was clear that Clarke was in print tipping his hat to a few old friends possibly (indeed it was) for the last time. Naturally many of the names from the original tales reappeared but in addition there were also Ken Slater, Benjamin Greford (writer Gregory Benford) and David Kyle (ex-pat Brit SF aficionado). As for the story itself, it is set many years after those from the original Tales From The White Hart edition. In it Harry Purvis makes reappearance at a reunion of the old stalwarts and regales the assembly with a story of a time machine with a difference.

It has to be said about PS Publishing, in bringing out this new expanded edition of Tales From The White Hart they have not just honoured an SF grandmaster and his relationship with the SF community in his final year, but committed the closest thing in SF terms to a Holy act. So all that remains is for me to give the traditional Brit SF benedicite...


Jonathan Cowie

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