If you’re like me, you hate digging into a story, investing time in the plot and emotional attachment with the characters, only to find out that you’ve been duped by the author. In the short story The Fires Within by Arthur C. Clarke, you will be outright hoodwinked. But the main difference between blatant deception and using a creative ruse lies in the classic SF question of “what if” presented by the author.
It’s difficult not to be just as cryptic in this review, but a little background and setup is vital to the reader’s appreciation for the trickery you will experience with this story.
The Fires Within can be found along with other previously reviewed works in the 1978 Puffin Publishing anthology “The Worlds of Arthur C. Clarke – Of Time and Stars.” The story first appeared in the 1947 issue of Fantasy #3: The Magazine of Science Fiction (from the Temple Bar Publishing Co., edited by Walter H. Gillings). Considering the time this story was written, the foresight of Clarke’s imagination to utilize every technological advancement of the time at his disposal, is simply awe-inspiring.
The foundation for radar started in the early part of the twentieth century while the ground penetrating concept wasn’t presented until nearly twenty-five years later when the depth of a glacier was viewed using the idea in Austria. Echo sensing devices for underwater detections were used about the same time to counter the impact of submarines in World War I. Regardless whether you use radio or sound waves, the end results re similar. As we’ve come to expect, Clarke pushed this knowledge to the next level, once again asking “what if” and then showed us one possibility.
As for the short story, the reader is first introduced to two characters (one named Karn) discussing the contents of an intercepted report from Dr. Matthews to the Minister of Science. The story within the story comes from the narrated text of that report. From this, we learn that Professor Hancock is the Chair of Electrical Engineering at Boston University developing a means to survey geological elements using sonar.
As the Professor’s research progressed, new improvements to the transmitting and receiving equipment resulted in deeper and deeper scans until the unnatural structures of a mysterious subterranean race is discovered. It is here that we discover that the narrators are in fact the alien species from the dense world Callastheon deep beneath the surface. The true point of view is from these creatures who are merely reviewing a report from the distant past that they discovered, and the reader will realize that the future of man may not be so bright.
This isn’t quite like the surprise endings we were hit with in The Sixth Sense or Soylent Green, but more on par with Planet of the Apes, because the reader is convinced that the story reflects man’s discovery of an alien race but in turn it is the alien’s interpretation of a report. It is the kind of trickery that shows the reader that all may not be as it seems, but it is not so deceitful that the reader feels duped. It’s kinda like the friendly horseplay appreciated between a group of old friends. You might be embarrassed at the time, but you can quickly appreciate the cleverness for what it is. Fun. Intelligent. Yeah, that was a good one Arthur. You won’t fool me next time.
Though Arthur C. Clarke is no longer with us, his timeless writing sure has the knack for contradicting that fact. The Fires Within is an enlightening short story of discovery, but the fine line between discoverer and the discovered is once again blurred by the master as he poses a question. No matter how ambitious we are to study the world and the universe around us, what if we are the ones being watched?