Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, BCE, was one of the best-known scientific minds of the second half of the 20th Century. One of the “big three” of science fiction along with Heinlein and Asimov, his works helped bring respectability to the genre — particularly the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also contributed much to humankind’s knowledge of space and its concepts of space travel. Though he didn’t invent the concept of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, he did come up with the idea of using them as telecommunications relays.
But Clarke also had a lighter side, and he showed it in works such as Tales From The White Hart, which was first published in 1957 as his third collection of short stories. The 15 stories were written between 1954 and 1957. What I have at hand is a lovely little hardbound edition Ballantine put out in the States in 1970. I’m pretty sure the publishers also put out a separate paper edition of the book about the same time, because that’s when I first read it, and mine was a new copy, not a leftover from ’57.
Tales is a series of superficially linked stories told by the fictional patrons of a fictional pub somewhere in London. The narrator is a fictionalized version of Clarke (the other patrons rib him for being a teetotaler), and I’ve no doubt some of the other patrons mentioned are probably based on others in his scientific and writing circles. These patrons are all either scientists or writers, and they tell each other science-based shaggy dog stories. Most of the stories are told by one fellow in particular, a Harry Purvis, who seems to have led several mortal lifetimes.
The stories are all unlikely to one degree or another, and often revolve around some recent invention or other that went horribly wrong. There’s the fellow who invents a “sound-wave cancelling” machine which explodes and kills its inventor because it stored up too much cancelled sound. Or the guy who programs a computer to compose the perfect melody and who becomes catatonic from listening to it. Or the poor guy who snored so loudly he sought help from his eccentric inventor uncle, who cured him by rendering him sleepless.
(The White Hart tales are an obvious inspiration for Larry Niven’s Draco Tavern stories, which in 2010 were collected into an eponymous book.)
Tales really caught my imagination when I was about 15 or 16. It presented me with a supremely romantic picture of what went on inside taverns, which was dashed when I finally was old enough to visit one and found most of them — those in the U.S., anyway — to be tawdry, dark and lonely places, not frequented at all by educated bon vivants cracking wise. I suppose the TV sitcom Cheers had much the same effect on a slightly younger generation.
At this remove, I found the stories in Tales From The White Hart to be lightweight and repetitive, the humor pale. (Vonnegut was better at humorous sci-fi.) It’s a valuable artifact for the anthropologists, though. The book reveals what an insular men’s club science and science fiction were in the 1950s. Fans of the cable series Mad Men might like this one, as it’s an authentic period piece from when science was a men’s world and women were floozies, secretaries or housewives. What was once an endearingly quirky set of tales has become a museum piece.