- A Standalone Novel
- First Published in 1954
- Puffin Edition Published in 1976
- A classic piece of Tomorrow Fiction
- 208 pages
Roy Malcolm knows everything there is to know about aviation, so its no surprise when he wins the coveted prize of a free trip to anywhere. What is a surprise is that he chooses to go to space, where he embarks on the greatest adventure of his life . . .
When people talk about the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction, they sometimes refer to The Big Three – three authors whose works define what made the age so golden. The first is Asimov, whom I admire greatly, with almost every one of his books being a winner for me. The third is Heinlein, who is more of a mixed bag. Starship Troopers is phenomenal, while Stanger in a Strange Land is decidedly not. Wedged between these two names is Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve only read bits and pieces of his work before, and not his most famous ones. My experience with him is that Clarke’s writing is a little on the lifeless side. Granted, I haven’t tackled 2001: A Space Oddysesy or Rendezvous with Rama yet, but his work seems more focused on individual people going about their lives. There’s a certain charm to that, but it doesn’t exactly thrill me. Islands in the Sky, my fourth Clarke read, fits neatly into that category.
Written in the fifties but set in the twenty-first century, Islands in the Sky is one of those books that manages to be incredibly dated in some regards, but also prescient in others. Considering the fact that Sputnik hadn’t been launched at the time of publication, Clarke gets right quite a lot about live on a space station. Or so it seems to my non-astronaut self. The rigorous testing that Roy goes through prior to launch strikes close to reality, as does the use of basic rocketry rather than the super-advanced spaceships other authors might have used. Clarke’s vision of space tourism is also fairly accurate when you look at Blue Horizon and SpaceX taking the wealthy into space for the thrill of it. At the same time, the idea of cruise liners in space and colonies on other planets was a tad optimistic. Maybe some day, but we’re not there yet. And as for the life on other planets, the less said about that the better.
Back in the days before Young Adult became a thing, science fiction had Juveniles. Heinlein in particular was famous for these, and I think Islands in the Sky fits into that category rather well too. These days it would probably be classified as a children’s book, but the adherence to science (as it was understood seventy years ago) sets it out a bit. Roy is the perfect reader-insert protagonist. Smart, precocious, but ultimately wowed by every little thing he encounters. The plot is loose, little more than a series of unconnected vignettes about events that could happen on a spaceship. Even when some of these situations are unfortunate, the sense of peril barely registers above a whisper.
At only two hundred pages, Islands in the Sky is a day’s reading, and perfectly pleasant. It hasn’t inspired me to rush out and buy more Clarke, but nor has it deterred me from reading him again.