Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Fires Within by Arthur C Clarke

This story was originally credited to O G O'Brien
First published in Fantasy, August 1947

This story casts the mad scientist and the pulp prodigy aside in favour of a more realistic version of science. In this story we get scientists affiliated with a university, financed by government grants and working on a specific technology rather than just plundering the secrets of the universe on their own more at less at random.

The bulk of the story is written in the form of a report from a certain Doctor Matthews to the Minister of Science concerning the work of Professor Hancock and Dr Clayton. They’ve been investigating ways of using sonar as a geological probe, but when Dr Clayton is killed in a motor accident Professor Hancok goes a little bit unhinged and discovers what looks like artificial structures miles underground.

Okay, I take it back. Maybe we are back into the pulp world of mad scientists and mysterious subterranean civilizations.

It’s a testament to Clarke’s skill that the these generic elements don’t become apparent until after the story’s done. He gives Professor Hancock’s mania a strong scientific backbone and a hint of genuine scientific wonder that sweeps you away.

Have you ever wondered what the Earth really is like inside? We’ve only scratched the surface with our mines and wells. What lies beneath is as unknown as the other side of the moon.

We know that the Earth is unnaturally dense – far denser than the rocks and soil of its crust would indicate. The core may be solid metal, but until now there’s been no way of telling. Even ten miles down the pressure must be thirty tons or more to the square inch and the temperature several hundred degrees. What it’s like at the center staggers the imagination: the pressure must be thousands of tons to the square inch. It’s strange to think that in two or three years we may have reached the moon, but when we’ve got to the stars we’ll still be no nearer that inferno four thousand miles beneath our feet.

The incidental detail also supports the illusion brilliantly. Clarke gives a pretty precise description of the theory and technology at work, and glosses over the challenges effortlessly. The bureaucracy of government inspections and applications for extensions to funding grounds it all in a mundane environment that nicely off sets the weirdness that’s to come. Even the sonar probe technology sounds similar to the sort of thing I’ve seen on archaeology shows on TV, which makes the story feel plausible even seventy years later.

What really makes this story, though is the brilliantly executed paradigm shift. I really don’t want to give it away – you need to read it yourself to truly appreciate the subtlety of it. But it turns on just a small phrase and suddenly we step outside of ourselves and our everyday perceptions to see humanity in a new light.

It feels like a fable, but it’s not: it’s not a moral nostrum or philosophical truism. By taking empirical observation of the real world one step into fiction, Clarke reveals something penetrating about the nature of human life. It is of course the now familiar idea of cosmic horror, reworked with a strong scientific gloss – in fact it’s not a million miles away from At the Mountains of Madness. Clarke takes the idea one-step further than Lovecraft however, with a conclusion that HPL often threatened but never quite delivered.

Like Lovecraft at his best, Clarke gives these ideas fresh life and causes a tingle down your spine through sheer craft. I’ve never been a big Arthur C Clarke fan myself but this kind of thing is, I suppose, why he’s considered such a champion in the genre.

Themes: Vastness (depths of the Earth), aliens, exploration, paradigm shift twist ending.


  1. I always thought that this was one of Clarke's most Lovecraftian tales, because its point is that nobody is safe in an uncaring Universe -- not even the "monsters" (who indeed, though they had little sympathy for us after the fact, never actually intended to ... well, I'll respect your spoilers). Two other Clarke stories that make similar points with respect to individuals rather than humanity as a whole are "A Walk in the Dark" (1950) (which I review here) and "The Other Tiger" (1953).

  2. Hi Jordan179,

    From your review, I think I've read 'A Walk in the Dark Before' but lilely long ago. That one sounds a little like The Halls of Eryx, bearing in mind the HPL connection. It seems likely that ACC had read HPL stories, but I din't know enough about him to say.

    I think there's a hopefulness about ACC that's missing in HPL's work. ACC sees value in living in and of itself, whereas HPL just thinks it's all a waste of time.

    Trying to find a purpose in the vast godless universe of scientific materialism is one of great themes of SF. Some writers fall back on mysticism - Philip K Dick, eg, and Frank Herbert - and others into Lovecraftian fatalism.

    I think the greatest SF writers were able to accept the essential randomness of the universe while maintaining that life was a project worth pursuing. There's Clarke, Bradbury who emphasises the value in shared relationships and shared and cultural traditions, Asimov who sees it as a constant battle against decay and stagnation, and Heinlein who perhaps doesn't accept that we can't just go on improving forever.

    I was chatting about this with some friends the other night and it's a point I'll hopefully address when I write a wrap of this whole Golden Age reading project. Which won't be that long now, maybe a matter of mere weeks!


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