Clarke wrote about science and its future impact with a greater purity of intention than any of his contemporaries in the science fiction category. It would not be going too far to say that Clarke’s main purpose—especially in ‘‘Dog Star’’—is to instruct and inform. Clarke’s readers in the 1960s were living at the beginning of a revolutionary period, although many of them may have been slow to realize it. The revolution that has unfolded since then has been referred to as the information age and the space age, among various other names, but these phrases at best reflect part of a general expansion of both technology and basic science at an ever-accelerating rate of change. Clarke’s technique in ‘‘Dog Star’’ is to illustrate typical global events that technological and scientific change will produce within a few decades. Strictly speaking, very little happens in the story. There are indeed two seismic tremors that put the narrator’s life at risk, but these hardly seem to be the point of the story. Nor does the narrator provide a detailed explanation of any startling bit of technology, as a golden-age science fiction character might have done, as if to say: this is a rocket; see the wonderful way it works. The point of the story is in all the little details that the narrator seemingly mentions in passing without explaining, which his fictitious audience, the populace of the world of the future, understands perfectly well. Clarke subtly builds up an image of the world his narrator inhabits in much the same way a more conventional author might develop character. In this way, Clarke reveals that, for him, even in a short story the main character is the created fictional world of the future. Clarke’s purpose in ‘‘Dog Star’’ is to provide a tour of the world that will be created by the technological and scientific revolution that began after World War II and continues to this day. Clarke’s intention in ‘‘Dog Star’’ is simply to illustrate typical events in the world that technological and scientific change will produce within a few decades.
If science fiction is a genre of ideas, it is fair to question the ideas Clarke expounds in ‘‘Dog Star.’’ If one purpose of the story is prediction, then it is fair to test the accuracy of the predictions. To do that, some estimate of the story’s absolute chronology must be made, and Clarke—by no means accidentally—has provided ample means to do so. He wanted his readers to think to themselves, ‘‘This is what the world will be like when I am old,’’ or ‘‘This is the world that my children will live in.’’ Clarke allows the story’s absolute chronology to be established by providing a single absolute date, and a relative chronology to be derived from that by a few clues and assumptions. The only date that the narrator provides occurs in his description of a car he once owned as ‘‘my new ’92 Vik,’’ meaning it was a 1992 model. This means he probably found Laika as a puppy in 1992, or no more than a year off in either direction. After a few years passed, he moved to the moon and had to abandon Laika, at which time he estimated she might live another dozen years. That would mean roughly four years had passed, making it 1996. The quake that serves as the climax of the story occurs ‘‘five years later,’’ or roughly 2001— not coincidentally the date Clarke and Kubrick chose for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another work of literature written at about the same time as ‘‘Dog Star’’ is Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, which is also set at an indefinite time in the future and similarly provides the only clue to its date in the form of a car’s model year. The narrator, Alex, is the leader of a street gang. He steals a car for a joyride, ‘‘a newish Durango 95.’’ That novel plays out over the course of about four years, so it could also encompass a date close to 2001. Clarke and Burgess would, however, seem to present opposite views of the future. Whereas Clarke presents a world of unlimited progress and technological and scientific growth, including the colonization of the moon and outer space, Burgess depicts a violent, totalitarian dystopia marked by the failure of democracy, the family, art, and civilization itself. However, they are not quite opposites. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess presents exactly the same vision of space exploration as Clarke. When Alex and his gang beat up an old, homeless man for no reason except the pleasure of committing an act of violence, their victim asks, ‘‘What sort of a world is it at all? Men on the moon and men spinning round the earth like it might be midges round a lamp, and there’s not no attention paid to earthly law nor order no more.’’ While Burgess balances the possibilities of the development of human life in many different directions, Clarke has no interest in the future except for the exploration of space. Clarke’s one attempt to deal with the future of humanity rather than human technology occurs in his novel Childhood’s End, which sees humanity evolve into a single interconnected entity of pure energy able to merge with the galactic over mind (something similar, albeit less fully explained, occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey), which can be read as a way of avoiding the human condition in his work. Clarke seems to believe that the advance of technology and space travel will carry along human civilization. The point is addressed in ‘‘Dog Star’’ when Clarke’s narrator spends a few days with academic colleagues in Berkeley, California. They object to having the dog Laika in the house. When her owner tries to smooth it over by suggesting that having a German shepherd in the house would deter burglars, they tell him there are no burglaries in Berkeley. As in Childhood’s End, Clarke seems to imagine that as technology advances, crime and the human suffering it causes will diminish. In actual fact, statistics compiled by the State of California reveal that in 2001 over fourteen hundred burglaries were reported in Berkeley, or one for about every twenty-two households. Thus, as technology has advanced—in some ways even faster than Clarke imagined—social cohesion has moved in a very different direction than he envisioned.
By his own admission, Clarke’s stories about the exploration of the solar system are a sort of travelogue of the future. His original aim in working with film director Stanley Kubrick was to turn some of his stories about the exploration of space into ‘‘a kind of semidocumentary about the first pioneering days of the new frontier.’’ On September 10, 1962, the year ‘‘Dog Star’’ was published, Clarke gave an interview to the BBC in which he outlined an estimated future timetable for the exploration of the solar system, predicting a lunar orbit in 1967 and a moon landing in 1970 or shortly thereafter (in accord with the announced plans of the American space program). He went further out on a limb to predict a flight around Mars by 1980 and a landing there by 1990. He also predicted the future of technology in essays published in Profiles in the Future, also published in 1962 and updated several times.It therefore seems reasonable to compare the predictions Clarke makes in ‘‘Dog Star’’ with the history of space flight as it actually unfolded between 1962 and the present, well beyond the probable date in the story (2001).
At the climax of his travelogue of the future, Clarke cannot resist mounting his paradoxographical hobbyhorse. He introduces the wellworn cliche´ of dogs predicting earthquakes and makes it sound scientifically plausible, for all that it is deeply irrational. He even tacks on a rationalization for dreams as predictors of the future. Indeed, these elements form the climax of ‘‘Dog Star.’’ Clarke is responsible for promoting the belief in psychic powers in reality in Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and his other television series. Pioneering shows like Clarke’s and In Search Of in the 1970s spawned their own industry of paradoxographical television shows and, more recently, entire cable networks devoted to UFOs, ghosts, and psychics. This, in turn, supports the shockingly widespread belief in such pseudoscientific ideas. While scientific investigation of psychic phenomena has unequivocally shown that they have no basis in reality, exposing Clarke’s greatest failure in predicting the future of scientific progress, Clarke’s legacy has played a very important role in encouraging pseudoscientific belief.
Clarke imagined that the first moon landing would quickly lead to routine travel to the moon and the establishment of permanent bases there. His narrator expects to live on the moon for several years, describing his particular voyage there as one might a long plane flight, interesting for the unusual things that happened but unexciting in and of itself. In reality, after the initial reconnaissance of the Apollo program, mankind has not returned to the moon. Clarke missed this, perhaps because he did not realize the degree to which the Apollo program was part of political rivalry during the cold war rather than a natural outgrowth of technological advancement. Once the apparent victory was achieved by the United States in successfully completing the first landing, both powers lost interest in the moon. There is very little scientific reason to go to the moon.
Concerning the seismic tremor that occurs on the moon at the climax of ‘‘Dog Star,’’ in 1962 the science of plate tectonics and the causation of earthquakes on Earth was only beginning to be understood, so Clarke can be forgiven for transporting the familiar phenomenon of an earthquake to the moon. In fact, the moon does not exhibit any plate tectonic activity, ruling out seismic tremors.
The narrator of ‘‘Dog Star’’ becomes the deputy director of an astronomical observatory on the far side of the moon. Clarke is absolutely right that space travel is a tremendous boon to astronomy. He acknowledges that he is doing no more than reporting the conventional wisdom of the astronomical community at the time of writing (in fact, the first proposals for a space telescope date back to the 1920s) when he says: ‘‘As far back as the nineteen-sixties it was realized that Earth was no place for astronomical observatory. Even the small pilot instruments on the Moon had far outperformed all the telescopes peering though the murk and haze of the terrestrial atmosphere.’’ In the real history that unfolded after the 1960s, the solution was not to put a telescope on the moon but rather in low Earth orbit, a solution that was cheaper yet retained all the advantages of getting out from under the obscuring blanket of the atmosphere. This potential was realized by the launch between 1990 and 2003 of NASA’s Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope. While it is true that, as Clarke imagined, some additional benefit could be obtained by placing an instrument on the far side of the moon—a result of the shielding from the sun and reflected light from either Earth or the moon— the same effect could be achieved by placing a telescope in lunar orbit rather than on the surface of the moon. It is worth noting that none of these actual telescopes are manned instruments. Clarke always imagined that human beings would be needed to operate complex machinery in space. In his initial idea for communications satellites, he envisioned them as orbiting space stations with human crews. In 1962, no one could have imagined the rapid advances in computer technology that would make a human presence in space largely unnecessary. Regarding Clarke’s prediction of a landing on Mars by 1990, since he envisioned a manned mission that prediction still has not come true, but there have been many landings of unmanned missions on Mars even before that date.
On the whole, Clarke seems to have been overly enthusiastic in his predictions of a human rush into space, modeled on the exploration and colonization of the Americas by European civilization. He was certainly right that the ability to travel in space has vastly increased the sum of human scientific knowledge. Outer space has not been developed to anything like the degree Clarke imagined, or to the extent actually possible, because the political driver of the space race collapsed even before the Soviet Union. The majority of voters seem to have little interest in the advancement of science—or at least for paying for it through taxation. Popular, and therefore political, apathy about space is one thing Clarke did not envision.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Arthur C Clarke, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Bradley Skeen, Critical Essay on ‘‘Dog Star,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.