Birthday Reviews: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Let There Be Light”

Birthday Reviews: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Let There Be Light”

Playboy, February 1958
Playboy, February 1958

Arthur C. Clarke was born on December 16, 1917 in Minehead, England and died on March 19, 2008 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Clarke won the Hugo and Nebula Awards three times each. Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise both won for best novel (and also both won the British SF Association Award). His novella “A Meeting with Medusa” won the Nebula in 1973 and the short story “The Star” won the Hugo in 1956. He also won the Retro Hugo for his short stories “The Nine Billion Names of God” and “How We Went to Mars.” Both “A Meeting with Medusa” and Rendezvous with Rama won the Seiun Award and Rama also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and Jupiter Award. Clarke won the Geffen Award for Childhood’s End. His novel Imperial Earth was inducted into the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame in 2001. He received the International Fantasy Award for his non-fiction book The Exploration of Space.

Clarke was the guest of honor at NYCon II, the 14th Worldcon, held in New York in 1956. He received a Forry Award from LASFS in 1982 and was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1986. In 1997 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He won a Gallun Award in 2001, was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame in 2002 and in 2004 received the Robert A. Heinlein Award. The Arthur C. Clarke Award, sponsored by the BSFA, the Science Fiction Foundation, and the SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival, was established in 1987 to honor science fiction published in the UK.

Clarke collaborated on fiction with Gregory Benford, Gentry Lee, Stephen Baxter, Mike McQuay, Michael P. Kube-McDowell, and Frederik Pohl. His story “The Sentinel” formed the basis for his novel and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sequel of which, 2010, was also turned into a film. His novel Childhood’s End was adapted into a television mini-series.

“Let There Be Light” was initially published on September 5, 1957 in the Dundee Sunday Telegraph. It was first reprinted in February 1958 in Playboy magazine. It would eventually be reprinted in the Playboy Press science fiction anthology Transit of Earth in 1971. Clarke included it in his collection Tales of Ten Worlds in 1962 and it also appeared in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke in 2000. The story appeared in German in the 1963 collection Unter den Wolken der Venus. In 1980 it was translated into Croatian for the March issue of Sirius #45. A French translation of the story appeared in the Arthur C. Clarke collection Le Livre d’or de la science-fiction: Arthur C. Clarke (a.k.a. Et la lumière), in 1981. Guido Zurlino and Beata Della Frattina translated the story into Italian for inclusion in the January 1987 issue of Urania #1039. It appeared in French again in 2013 as part of the collection Odyssées: l’integrale des nouvelles. Although the story fits into Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart series, it was not included in that collection, which was first published eight months before the story first appeared.

Clarke’s standard model for his White Hart stories is to relate a story that was told by Harry Purvis in the eponymous tavern, always based on the conversation which preceded Purvis’s story. In “Let There Be Light,” the conversation is based on the argument that science fiction gets lasers and death rays wrong since they are all in visible light, ignoring the possibility that the rays may emit in a variety of wavelengths. In any event, the narrator claims that Purvis has a story in which a visible light beam actually did kill someone.

The story is only science fiction in that it uses scientific principles to provide the solution to the issue that Clarke sets up in his story about the loveless marriage between Edgar and Mary Burton. Having made his fortune, Edgar is very happy to let Mary do her own thing while he pursues his interest in astronomy. Living in the Yorkshire moors, Mary has found herself bored and her only outlet is to take a lover, Rupert de Vere Courtenay. Edgar is less concerned with Mary taking a lover, but is more concerned with the fact that he is being embarrassed in the nearby town. Eventually, he decides that killing his wife, whose dalliances wind up interfering with Edgar’s astronomical interests, is the way to go, although things don’t go entirely as planned.

With events in the story capable of occurring in our own world, Clarke’s story is more a tall tale than a science fiction story, but it does raise the question of the definition of science fiction. If science fiction is fiction in which science and its impact on society is important, it expands the number of stories which can be considered science fictional, or at least science fiction adjacent.

Reprint reviewed in the collection The Collected Arthur C. Clarke, by Arthur C. Clarke, Tor Books, 2001.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rich Horton

All I can say is I’m going to be busy today!

Look at this list of birthdays:

Randall Garrett
Philip K. Dick
Peter Dickinson

And two much more recent writers who’ve done some great shorter work (and some novels in one case):

Ted Kosmatka
Jeremiah Tolbert

John ONeill


I’m a huge fan of Garrett and PKD (I’m all done writing “I’m a fan of Dick,” on the internet, thank you), but I think Clarke was the right choice.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x