Islands in the Sky

Islands in the Sky

by Arthur C. Clarke

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The technologically groundbreaking novel of space exploration from the only science fiction author nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Roy Malcolm has always been fascinated by space travel. And when he wins a voyage to the Inner Space Station as a game show prize, he’s sure it’s the trip of a lifetime. Before long, Roy is taken in by the young crew—and shares their adventures and lives.
One of Arthur C. Clarke’s earliest novels, Islands in the Sky is particularly noteworthy for its description of geostationary communications satellites. While this technology was nonexistent during the writing of this book, it later became commonplace—and Clarke is credited with the first practical descriptions of such technology. This book is compelling not just as a fictional tale, but as an example of the prescient power of Clarke’s vision.
“[Clarke is] one of the truly prophetic figures of the space age.” —The New Yorker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780795325601
Publisher: RosettaBooks
Publication date: 11/30/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 157
Sales rank: 195,084
File size: 906 KB

About the Author

One of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, Arthur C. Clarke is the author of over one hundred novels, novellas, and short story collections that laid the groundwork for the science fiction genre. Combining scientific knowledge and visionary literary aptitude, Clarke's work explored the implications of major scientific discoveries in astonishingly inventive and mystical settings. Clarke's short stories and novels have won numerous Hugo and Nebula Awards, have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Several of his books, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey II, have been adapted into films that still stand as classic examples of the genre. Without a doubt, Arthur C. Clarke's is one of the most important voices in contemporary science fiction literature.

Date of Birth:

December 16, 1917

Date of Death:

March 19, 2008

Place of Birth:

Minehead, Somerset, England

Place of Death:

Sri Lanka


1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics

Read an Excerpt



It was Uncle Jim who'd said, "Whatever happens, Roy, don't worry about it. Just relax and enjoy yourself." I remembered those words as I followed the other competitors into the big studio, and I don't think I felt particularly nervous. After all, however badly I wanted the prize, it was only a game.

The audience was already in its place, talking and fidgeting and waiting for the program to begin. It gave a little cheer as we walked up on to the stage and took our seats. I had a quick look at the five other competitors, and was a bit disappointed. Each of them looked quite sure that he was going to win.

There was another cheer from the audience as Elmer Schmitz, the Quiz Master, came into the studio. I'd met him before, of course, in the semifinals, and I expect you've seen him often enough on TV. He gave us some last minute instructions, moved to his place under the spotlights, and signaled to the cameras. There was a sudden hush as the red light came on. From where I was sitting I could see Elmer adjusting his smile.

"Good evening, folks! This is Elmer Schmitz, presenting to you the finalists in our Aviation Quiz Program, brought to you by arrangement with World Airways, Incorporated. The six young men we have here tonight ..."

But I guess it wouldn't be very modest to repeat the things he said about us. It all added up to the fact that we knew a lot about everything that flew — in the air and outside it — and had beaten about five thousand other members of the Junior Rocket Club in a series of nationwide contests. Tonight would be the final elimination tests to select the winner.

It started easily enough, on the lines of earlier rounds. Elmer fired off a question at each of us in turn, and we had twenty seconds in which to answer. Mine was pretty easy; he wanted to know the altitude record for a pure jet. Everyone else got his answer right too. I think those first questions were just to give us confidence.

Then it got tougher. We couldn't see our scores, which were being flashed up on a screen facing the audience, but you could tell when you'd given the right answer by the noise they made. I forgot to say that you lost a point when you gave the wrong reply. That was to prevent guessing. If you didn't know, it was best to say nothing at all.

As far as I could tell, I'd made only one mistake, but there was a kid from New Washington who I thought hadn't made any — though I couldn't be sure of this, because it was difficult to keep track of the others while you were wondering what Elmer had coming up for you. I was feeling rather gloomy, when suddenly the lights dimmed and a hidden movie projector went into action.

"Now," said Elmer, "the last round! You'll each see some kind of aircraft or rocket for one second and in that time you must identify it. Ready?"

A second sounds awfully short, but it isn't really. You can grasp a great deal in that time, enough to recognize anything you know really well. But some of the machines they showed us went back over a hundred years. One or two even had propellers! This was lucky for me: I'd always been interested in the history of flying and could spot some of those antiques. That was where the boy from New Washington fell down badly. They gave him a picture of the original Wright biplane, which you can see in the Smithsonian any day, and he didn't know it. Afterward he said he was interested only in rockets, and that the test wasn't fair. But I thought it served him right.

They gave me the Dornier DO-X and a B-52, and I knew them both. So I wasn't really surprised when Elmer called out my name as soon as the lights went up. Still, it was a proud moment as I walked over to him, with the cameras following me and the audience clapping in the background.

"Congratulations, Roy!" said Elmer heartily, shaking my hand. "Almost a perfect score. You missed only one question. I have great pleasure in announcing you as the winner of this World Airways Contest. As you know, the prize is a trip, all expenses paid, to any place in the world. We're all interested to hear your choice. What is it going to be? You can go anywhere you like between the North and South Poles!"

My lips went kind of dry. Though I'd made all my plans weeks ago, it was different now that the time had actually come. I felt awfully lonely in that huge studio, with everyone around me so quiet and waiting for what I was going to say. My voice sounded a long way off when I answered.

"I want to go to the Inner Station."

Elmer looked puzzled, surprised and annoyed all at once. There was a sort of rustle from the audience, and I heard someone give a little laugh. Perhaps that made Elmer decide to be funny too.

"Ha, ha, very amusing, Roy! But the prize is anywhere on earth. You must stick to the rules, you know!"

I could tell he was laughing at me, and that made me mad. So I came back with: "I've read the rules very carefully. And they don't say 'on earth.' They say, 'To any part of the earth.' There's a big difference."

Elmer was smart. He knew there was trouble brewing, for his grin faded out at once, and he looked anxiously at the TV cameras.

"Go on," he said.

I cleared my throat.

"In 2054," I continued, "the United States, like all the other members of the Atlantic Federation, signed the Tycho Convention, which decided how far into space any planet's legal rights extended. Under that Convention, the Inner Station is part of earth, because it's inside the thousand kilometer limit."

Elmer gave me a most peculiar look. Then he relaxed a little and said, "Tell me, Roy, is your dad an attorney?"

I shook my head. "No, he isn't."

Of course I might have added, "But my Uncle Jim is." I decided not to; there was going to be enough trouble anyway.

Elmer made a few attempts to make me change my mind, but there was nothing doing. Time was running out, and the audience was on my side. Finally he gave up and said with a laugh:

"Well, you're a very determined young man. You've won the prize, anyway, and it looks as if the legal eagles take over from here. I hope there's something left for you when they've finished wrangling!"

I rather hoped so too!

Of course, Elmer was right in thinking I'd not worked all this out by myself. Uncle Jim, who's counselor for a big atomic energy combine, had spotted the opportunity soon after I'd entered the contest. He'd told me what to say and had promised that World Airways couldn't wriggle out of it. Even if they could, so many people had seen me on the air that it would be very bad publicity for them if they tried. "Just stick to your guns, Roy," he'd said, "and don't agree to anything until you've talked it over with me."

Mom and Pop were pretty mad about the whole business. They'd been watching, and as soon as I started bargaining they knew what had happened. Pop rang up Uncle Jim at once and gave him a piece of his mind (I heard about it afterward), but it was too late for them to stop me.

You see, I'd been crazy to go out into space for as long as I can remember. I was sixteen when all this happened, and rather big for my age. I'd read everything I could get hold of about aviation and astronautics, seen all the movies and telecasts from space, and made up my mind that someday I was going to look back and watch the earth shrinking behind me. I'd made models of famous spaceships, and put rocket units in some of them until the neighbors raised a fuss. In my room I have hundreds of photographs, not only of most of the ships you care to name, but all the important places on the planets as well.

Mom and Pop had not minded this interest, but they thought it was something I'd grow out of. "Look at Joe Donovan," they'd say. (Joe's the chap who runs the 'copter repair depot in our district.) "He was going to be a Martian colonist when he was your age. Earth wasn't good enough for him! Well, he's never been as far as the moon, and I don't suppose he ever will. He's quite happy here." But I wasn't so sure. I've seen Joe looking up at the sky as the outgoing rockets draw their white vapor trails through the stratosphere, and sometimes I think he'd give everything he owns to go with them.

Uncle Jim (that's Pop's brother) was the one who really understood how I felt about things. He'd been to Mars two or three times, to Venus once, and to the moon so often he couldn't count the times. He had the kind of job where people actually paid him to do these things. I'm afraid he was considered a very disturbing influence around our house.

It was about a week after I won the contest that I heard from World Airways. They were very polite, in an icy sort of way, and said that they'd agreed that the terms of the competition allowed me to go to the Inner Station. (They couldn't help adding their disappointment that I hadn't chosen to go on one of their luxury flights inside the atmosphere. Uncle Jim said what really upset them was the fact that my choice would cost at least ten times as much as they'd bargained for.) There were, however, two conditions. First, I had to get my parents' consent. Second, I would have to pass the standard medical tests for space crew.

I'll say this about Mom and Pop — though they were still pretty mad, they wouldn't stand in my way. After all, space travel was safe enough, and I was only going a few hundred miles up — scarcely any distance! So after a little argument they signed the forms and sent them off. I'm pretty sure that World Airways had hoped they'd refuse to let me go.

That left the second obstacle, the medical exam. I didn't think it was fair having to take that: from all accounts it was pretty tough, and if I failed, no one would be more pleased than World Airways.

The nearest place where I could take the tests was the Department of Space Medicine at Johns Hopkins, which meant an hour's flying in the Kansas-Washington jet and a couple of short 'copter trips at either end. Though I'd made dozens of longer journeys, I was so excited that it seemed like a new experience. In a way, of course, it was, because if everything went properly it would open up a new chapter in my life.

I'd got everything ready the night before, even though I was going to be away from home for only a few hours. It was a fine evening, so I carried my little telescope out of doors to have a look at the stars. It's not much of an instrument — just a couple of lenses in a wooden tube — but I'd made it myself and was quite proud of it. When the moon was half-full, it would show all the bigger lunar mountains, as well as Saturn's rings and the moons of Jupiter.

But tonight I was after something else, something not so easy to find. I knew its approximate orbit, because our local astronomer's club had worked out the figures for me. So I set up the telescope as carefully as I could and slowly began to sweep across the stars to the southwest, checking against the map I'd already prepared.

The search took about fifteen minutes. In the field of the telescope was a handful of stars — and something that was not a star. I could just make out a tiny oval shape, far too small to show any details. It shone brilliantly up there in the blazing sunlight outside the shadow of the earth, and it was moving even as I watched. An astronomer of a century before would have been sorely puzzled by it, for it was something new in the sky. It was Met Station Two, six thousand miles up and circling the earth four times a day. The Inner Station was too far to the south to be visible from my latitude: you had to live near the Equator to see it shining in the sky, the brightest and most swiftly moving of all the "stars."

I tried to imagine what it was like up there in that floating bubble, with the emptiness of space all around. At this very moment, the scientists aboard must be looking down at me just as I was looking up at them. I wondered what kind of life they led — and remembered that with any luck I'd soon know for myself.

The bright, tiny disk I had been watching suddenly turned orange, then red, and began to fade from sight like a dying ember. In a few seconds it had vanished completely, though the stars were still shining as brightly as ever in the field of the telescope. Met Station Two had raced into the shadow of the earth and would remain eclipsed until it emerged again, about an hour later, in the southeast. It was "night" aboard the Space Station, just as it was down here on earth. I packed up the telescope and went to bed.

* * *

East of Kansas City, where I went aboard the Washington jet, the land is flat for five hundred miles until you reach the Appalachians. A century earlier I should have been flying over millions of acres of farm land, but that had all vanished when agriculture moved out to sea at the end of the twentieth century. Now the ancient prairies were coming back, and with them the great buffalo herds that had roamed this land when the Indians were its only masters. The main industrial cities and mining centers hadn't changed much, but the smaller towns had vanished and in a few more years there would be no sign that they had ever existed.

I think I was a lot more nervous when I went up the wide marble steps of the Department of Space Medicine than when I entered the final round of the World Airways Contest. If I'd failed that, I might have had another chance later — but if the doctors said "no," then I'd never be able to go out into space.

There were two kinds of tests, the physical and the psychological. I had to do all sorts of silly things, like running on a treadmill while holding my breath, trying to hear very faint sounds in a noiseproof room, and identifying dim, colored lights. At one point they amplified my heartbeat thousands of times: it was an eerie sound and gave me the creeps, but the doctors said it was O.K.

They seemed a very friendly crowd, and after a while I got the definite impression that they were on my side and doing their best to get me through. Of course, that helped a lot and I began to think it was all good fun — almost a game, in fact.

I changed my mind after a test in which they sat me inside a box and spun it round in every possible direction. When I came out I was horribly sick and couldn't stand upright. That was the worst moment I had, because I was sure I'd failed. But it was really all right: if I hadn't been sick there would have been something wrong with me!

After all this they let me rest for an hour before the psychological tests. I wasn't worried much about those, as I'd met them before. There were some simple jigsaw puzzles, a few sheets of questions to be answered ("Four of the following five words have something in common. Underline them.") and some tests for quickness of eye and hand. Finally they attached a lot of wires to my head and took me into a narrow, darkened corridor with a closed door ahead of me.

"Now listen carefully, Roy," said the psychologist who'd been doing the tests. "I'm going to leave you now, and the lights will go out. Stand here until you receive further instructions, and then do exactly what you're told. Don't worry about these wires. They will follow you when you move. O.K.?"

"Yes," I said, wondering what was going to happen next.

The lights dimmed, and for a minute I was in complete darkness. Then a very faint rectangle of red light appeared, and I knew that the door ahead of me was opening, though I couldn't hear a sound. I tried to see what was beyond the door, but the light was too dim.

I knew the wires that had been attached to my head were recording my brain impulses. So whatever happened, I would try to keep calm and collected.

A voice came out of the darkness from a hidden loudspeaker.

"Walk through the door you see ahead of you, and stop as soon as you have passed it."

I obeyed the order, though it wasn't easy to walk straight in that faint light, with a tangle of wires trailing behind me.

I never heard the door shutting, but I knew somehow that it had closed, and when I reached back with my hand I found I was standing in front of a smooth sheet of plastic. It was completely dark now; even the dim red light had gone.

It seemed a long time before anything happened. I must have been standing there in the darkness for almost ten minutes, waiting for the next order. Once or twice I whistled softly, to see if there was any echo by which I could judge the size of the room. Though I couldn't be sure, I got the impression that it was quite a large place.

Then, without any warning, the lights came on, not in a sudden flash, which would have blinded me, but in a very quick build-up that took only two or three seconds. I was able to see my surroundings perfectly, and I'm not ashamed to say that I yelled.

It was a perfectly normal room, except for one thing. There was a table with some papers lying on it, three armchairs, bookcases against one wall, a small desk, an ordinary TV set. The sun seemed to be shining through the window, and some curtains were waving slightly in the breeze. At the moment the lights came on, the door opened and a man walked in. He picked up a paper from the table, and flopped down in one of the chairs. He was just beginning to read when he looked up and saw me. And when I say "up," I mean it. For that's what was wrong with the room. I wasn't standing on the floor, down there with the chairs and bookcases. I was fifteen feet up in the air, scared out of my wits and flattened against the "ceiling," with no means of support and nothing within reach to catch hold of! I clawed at the smooth surface behind me, but it was as flat as glass. There was no way to stop myself from falling, and the floor looked very hard and a long way down.


Excerpted from "Islands in the Sky"
by .
Copyright © 1952 Arthur C. Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Jackpot to Space,
2. Good-by to Gravity,
3. The Morning Star,
4. A Plague of Pirates,
5. Star Turn,
6. Hospital in Space,
7. World of Monsters,
8. Into the Abyss,
9. The Shot from the Moon,
10. Radio Satellite,
11. Starlight Hotel,
12. The Long Fall Home,

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