Arthur C. Clarke’s Tall Tales
Or: A Splash of Science With a Shot of Whimsy on the Rocks
by Jeff Baker
You come upon the “White Hart” quite unexpectedly in one of those anonymous little lanes leading down from Fleet Street to the Embankment. —Arthur C. Clarke “Tales From The White Hart.”
It is among my favorite themes in fiction; the tall tale told in a bar, the “Club Story.” Tales told with tongue in cheek and a soupcon of humor. Lord Dunsany wrote several books full of them (told by “Jorkins,”) L. Sprague DeCamp and Fletcher Pratt wrote the “Tales From Gavagan’s Bar.” And British writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote his own series of stories, these science-fictional, set at a fictional London pub; The White Hart (a hart being a stag) starting in 1949. Clarke based the setting on “The White Horse,” a bar off Fleet Street which was a hangout of journalists and writers in the years after the war, and based some of the regulars on some of his fellow pub-goers including John Wyndham and John Christopher as well as Clarke himself who introduces the stories before turning the tale-telling duties over to Harry Purvis.
Ah, yes! Harry Purvis, the resident raconteur of the fictional watering hole who ties whatever topic is being discussed into an outrageous tall tale the regulars can neither believe nor disprove. For example: The Next Tenants,” about the inevitable conquest of Earth by termites after the Human species wipes itself out; “Big Game Hunt,” about a scientist and his “neural inductor” which can control the behavior of lesser life-forms (but certainly not humans!) “The Reluctant Orchid,” which plays like an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” right down to the funny, creepy twist. The stories are a blend of wonky, black humor with the inventors (usually described by Purvis as “mad scientists”) often meeting dire ends when the various inventions go wrong.
The collection, “Tales From The White Hart” has never been out of print, there was even a special edition in 2007 with an additional story co-written with Stephen Baxter, Clarke’s regular collaborator in his later years. And while the stories reflect the time of their origin, the Cold War 1950s, they retain their power to entertain and charm.*
And Clarke was, of course, gay. He didn’t promote it, it was a punishable offense in his native Britain until the mid-60s and possibly the reason he relocated to more liberal Siri Lanka, but he didn’t make a secret of it either. He was open about it to his friends and fellow writers, but didn’t seem to feel a need to make it a big deal. Clarke died in 2008. He might have gotten a kick out of the fact that a tribute anthology, published in 2011 “Fables From the Fountain” (edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press) featured tall tales told in an English pub with a science-fictional “White Hart” slant by authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen Baxter and Liz Williams.
As they say at that very special Fleet Street Pub: “Time, gentlemen, please!”
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: There are three other stories, including one included in the 2007 collection, and two others that were never collected in the later editions: “ Tales From the White Hart, The Jet-Propelled Time Machine,” which was written in the 1990s for a book of Drabbles, and “Let There Be Light,” which came along in the late 1950s too late for the original edition, but has been anthologized several times including in “The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke.”
SPEAKING OF THE AUTHOR: Jeff Baker posts about writing and reading science fiction, fantasy and horror and other sundry matters around the thirteenth of every month. His story “Shine On Harvest Moon” was recently read on Angel Martinez’ Friday Reading podcast series. He posts short fiction on his blog; http://authorjeffbake.com and at his Facebook page; Jeff Baker, Author. He lives with his husband Darryl Thompson.