Part II: Arthur C. Clarke
"Arthur C. Clarke, eh, Viktor? How do you rate him in comparison with Asimov?", Mikhail, a subscriber to Analog, asks his security chief.
"Well, as an SF writer, I think Clarke's got the edge. He brings a real quality of transcendence to his best work, so that it attains a numinous quality which belies his claim to be a writer of hard SF. Expedition to Earth showcases this well, I feel - stories like 'Second Dawn', 'Encounter in the Dawn', and, particularly, the title story have a haunting, evocative quality which derives in large part from the revelation of powerful contemporary motifs in unfamiliar and often ironic settings. 'The Sentinel' is of course of special interest as the progenitor of 2001: A Space Odyssey - have you seen the film, Mikhail?"
"I have. Almost as good as Solaris."
"If you make allowances for its crypto-bourgeois philosophy," Viktor said severely.
"But as for comparing Clarke with Asimov - Clarke's a fine writer, but I can't go past the fact that Asimov was born here."
"True, Viktor, although I don't think we should let national chauvinism influence our literary judgements."
"If you say so, boss. Anyway, getting back to Expedition to Earth, there's one story in it which appears particularly relevant in the light of Academician Ivanenko's recent investigations. Called 'Loophole', it's cast in the epistolary form - "
"Letters, yes. It starts with an exchange of missives between the ruler of Mars and his chief scientist. The Martians have just noticed the first atomic bomb test here on Earth, and - well, perhaps you'd like to read it for yourself, Mick?"
As Mikhail Gorbachev reads of the Martians' plans to dominate and eliminate the humans through their control of interplanetary space, and of the loophole through which the humans strike first, Viktor Chebrikov's gaze strays to the window at the other end of the room. On the other side of that window, the Lubyanka waits to receive its unwilling guests, three faceless bodies lie just beneath the melting snows of Gorky Park, and Arkady Renko and a small group of friends sit watching a smuggled videotape of Hill St. Blues.
In the snows east of Irkutsk, workers on the Baikal-Amur Mainline take care to prevent their skin freezing to the track, and in the Tunguska the trees are again laid flat. Nude bathers are causing a stir in certain Black Sea resorts, whilst in a dacha just outside Moscow Nikolai Tikhonov gives his all in the arms of his beloved as KGB cameras record the scene for posterity.
And more coffins return through the mountain passes from Afghanistan, and Vladimir Arsenyev roams through the taiga with his friend Dersu Uzala, and Stalin's daughter leaves and returns in pain, over and over, as the birches nod their heads in the breeze above the rich black Russian soil.
Mikhail Gorbachev finishes reading. "Hmmm, matter transmitters, eh? What a bright spark that Arthur C. Clarke is. Well, Viktor, any other news? Can my doctors be trusted?"
"Not a disloyal thought in their heads, Mick. I think you're safe there. But I must be going. I have an ethnic minority to oppress."
"Why, the Russians, of course!"
"One of these days we'll have to stop laughing at that joke. Well, Viktor, show that story to our good friend the Marshal. Our team at Tyuratam may be able to make something of it."
"O.K., boss, I'm away. See you at the Politburo meeting."
Mikhail spends the rest of the morning going through his paperwork and reading his mail; there are five circulars, two chain letters, one misdirected subscription to Krokodil and no invitations to the Vatican. At lunchtime, there's time for a brisk game of squash with Vitaly Vorotnikov before the 2pm Politburo meeting.
"Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev" was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported.
You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported