One of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth century, Arthur C. Clarke has consistently anticipated the actual achievements of science and technology. In Glide Path, he turns back the clock to tell a thrilling story about the groundbreaking exploration of radar during WWII. Clarke’s only non–science fiction novel shines with the same qualities that made his award-winning space adventures timeless classics: topnotch suspense, fascinating science, and memorable characters.
A hidden gem in Clarke’s impressive body of work, Glide Path is an enthralling read for both science fiction fans and history aficionados.
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 16, 1917
Date of Death:March 19, 2008
Place of Birth:Minehead, Somerset, England
Place of Death:Sri Lanka
Education:1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics
Read an Excerpt
Flying Officer Alan Bishop found it singularly peaceful on this tiny metal platform a hundred feet above the North Sea. The fact that Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly preparing some sort of mischief over there on the Continent, and that it was his duty to watch out for it, seemed quite irrelevant on such a warm autumn afternoon. Nothing moved in the whole expanse of sea and sky; even the big concave dish of the radar scanner had ceased its restless searching and was staring straight toward Holland. If it did start to spin, Alan would have to move smartly; it was not very practical to share the platform with a whirling ten-foot saucer standing on its rim.
Below him, the rest of the station appeared equally relaxed. But this, Alan knew, was an illusion. In the wooden hut at the base of the tower, Sergeant Campbell was attacking a defective wave monitor with liberal doses of solder and profanity. Over there inside that mysterious barbed-wire enclosure, Flight Lieutenant Hicks, Royal New Zealand Air Force, was assembling his Gee installation — whatever that might be. F/O Bishop resented the existence of any radar device that was secret to him, but all his attempts to winkle information out of Hicks had been wholly unsuccessful. At least, he consoled himself, by the look of the antenna arrays it was only old-fashioned meter-wave-length stuff, so it couldn't be very interesting.
There were probably fifty people hard at work within a hundred yards of him, but the only signs of life were the bored Service Policeman on duty at the main gate and a Woman's Auxiliary Air Force operator doing some voluntary gardening on the skimpy flower bed around the Orderly Room. At least, Alan assumed it was voluntary; the WAAF Commanding Officer had not, as far as he knew, started doling out horticultural exercises to criminous airwomen.
The parabolic bowl looming above him gave a premonitory creak and twisted toward the south, as if tired of staring for so long in one direction. There was no danger that it would start spinning at full speed — Sergeant Campbell knew that he was up here — but Alan thought he had better move.
The big dish was aimed straight at him, and he was sitting in a radio beam of a frequency and strength no one would have dreamed possible only a few years ago. It might be imagination, but he felt that he was already starting to cook.
Half a million watts were squirting silently, invisibly toward Holland, focused into a narrow beam by the big radio searchlight. Not a billionth of that energy was coming back, reflected from whatever obstacles it had encountered before it skimmed clear of the horizon and headed out into space. Yet that feeble echo was enough to betray the presence of any ships or low-flying aircraft within a hundred miles of the coast, and to pinpoint them accurately on the cathode-ray screen in the receiver hut.
There were times, however, when old-fashioned vision was better than radar, and this was such a moment. A mere half mile away was an approaching target of much more interest than Nazi torpedo boats or low-level bombers. As soon as Alan spotted the brown van weaving along the narrow lane, he started to descend the tower with reckless speed.
Despite his early warning, the news was all over the station before he reached ground level. By the time he sauntered through the main gate (it was, of course, undignified for officers to run) the queue for the NAAFI van was so long that it seemed incredible that the station could still be fully operational. If Hitler only knew, thought Alan, he could sabotage the entire radar chain by organizing a simultaneous onslaught of NAAFI vans loaded with off-ration chocolates and cigarettes.
The two charming but slightly distraught elderly ladies were doing their best to cope with the ravening horde that had boiled out of Orderly Room and Operations Blocks. Whenever he saw them, Alan was irresistibly reminded of a phrase he had once come across in some tattered Victorian romance — "distressed gentlewomen." There was no doubt that they were gentlewomen, and their distress was equally obvious as they tried to portion out their limited supply of Players, Mars Bars, and Cadbury's chocolate without favoritism. In the background, brisk bargaining was already in progress between smokers and nonsmokers as chocolates and cigarettes changed hands. It was hard to believe, Alan told himself, that once upon a time you could walk into a shop and buy as many sweets or fags as you could carry ...
He was retreating with his spoils when he saw the Commanding Officer heading purposefully toward him. He liked Flight Lieutenant Williams, but at the same time felt rather sorry for him; these Admin types must have such drab and tedious lives, dealing with their endless paperwork and quite unable to understand the electronic marvels all around them. But someone had to read and sign the bumph that emerged from Group Headquarters in a ceaseless stream; not everybody had enough brains to be a technical officer.
"I've news for you, Bish." Williams grinned amiably. "You've been posted."
Alan stared at him, disbelief and indignation striving for mastery. "But that's ridiculous!" he finally blurted out. "I've only been here a fortnight. That's not even time to learn how the gear works!"
"Are you presuming," purred Williams, "to doubt the inscrutable wisdom of Group HQ?"
"Yes," retorted Alan, without hesitation. "What's it all about? Where are they sending me?"
"I haven't a clue — the signal didn't say. But they want you in a hurry; you've got to report to a Wing Commander Stevens tomorrow afternoon. So you'll have to pack your things right away — you won't have much time if you're going to catch the 6:30."
"What about my inventory? It'll take hours to check."
"You're not short of anything, are you?"
"I hope not."
"Well, Hicks will sign for it, unless you both want to stay up all night counting bits and pieces."
Alan was shocked at this casual attitude, but if his successor was willing to accept responsibility, sight unseen, for a hundred thousand pounds' worth of radar equipment, that was his business. There was certainly no chance of catching that morning train if every spare part and every secret document had to be accounted for before he left the station.
F/O Bishop was a chronic worrier, and halfway back to the radar hut he suddenly recalled an item well worth worrying about. A few weeks ago, some mysterious interference had blotted out the radar signals on several of the local sets and had, naturally, been blamed on enemy jamming. It occurred at the same time every morning, and for a few minutes only; after several days of intensive research, the antijamming expert from Group Headquarters had proved that the interference came, not from the other side of the North Sea, but from Alan's electric shaver. By great good fortune, the electronic sleuth was an old classmate from Alan's radar course, and between them they had managed to contrive an innocuous report. But suppose the truth had leaked out, and he was now being called back to Group to be told that his old rank of acting corporal was yearning for him? He remembered a film about Dreyfus he had seen, years ago; he could still recall, with the utmost vividness, the scene in which the unfortunate Captain was stripped of rank and honors. He doubted if Group would arrange anything quite so spectacular (after all, no one could match the French at this kind of thing), but he found himself possessively clutching the thin blue band stitched to his sleeve.
These pessimistic reveries never lasted very long; by the time he was back inside the receiver hut he had already reconciled himself to whatever adventures the morrow might bring. Everyone had already heard of the posting, and Sergeant Campbell knew exactly what it implied.
"They're getting mobile units ready for the Invasion," he informed Alan with gloomy relish. "That's going to be a pretty tough job, sir. It's been nice knowing you."
Alan doubted the sincerity of the tribute; he had not been with the unit long enough to have been of much use, and all the work had fallen on the Sergeant. Yet he felt surprisingly sentimental as he walked over to take a last look at the picture on the tube. It was always a wrench when you left one station and prepared for the unknown hazards of another.
The echoes were abnormally strong today. Instead of slicing straight on out into space as the curve of the earth fell away beneath it, the radar beam was being bent downward by some peculiarity of the atmosphere. It was wave-hopping all the way across the North Sea, bouncing off the Dutch coast, and — little more than a thousandth of a second after it had started its journey — returning along the same curving path with the secrets it had gathered.
There they were, displayed at the extreme edge of the cathode-ray tube, beyond the hundred-mile-range mark. The delicately quivering line of green light reared upward to profile a jumble of peaks which the WAAF operators, through long practice, could read at a glance. Even Alan, whose job was to provide the signals, not to interpret them, could pick out the smaller spikes which were surface ships, and the more distant and solid ones which marked the coast of occupied Europe. The pattern shifted and changed as the beam swept back and forth, racing along that distant, unapproachable shore like an invisible searchlight. On the plotting board were the results of its probing, drawn in colored crayons — the trucks of convoys moving cautiously out from Rotterdam, the route of an Air-Sea Rescue boat patrolling on some special mission, the suspected signature of a periscope in a spot where the Admiralty felt no periscope had any right to be ...
Well, good-by to all this, Alan told himself; it was no longer his concern. He gathered up his papers, grandly bequeathed some unread paperback books to the operators, signed the log, and shook hands with Sergeant Campbell. Then he turned his back forever upon Coast Defence Radar, and the first half of his life.CHAPTER 2
As he cycled up the gravel drive of Elvesham Manor, whose reluctant hospitality he shared with the two other officers on the radar station, Alan wondered if his next billet would be quite so memorable. The big house, with its stables and aviaries, its private chapel and crypt, its bay windows and battlements, its acres of park and woodland, had been the residence of the Elvesham family for more than five hundred years.
But not, judging by the current residents, for much longer. Mrs. Elvesham was an octogenarian dragon who had taken a very dim view of RAF officers ever since her late dear husband had told her of a World War I Royal Flying Corps bounder who had actually boasted, in the Mess, of shooting a fox. Her daughter, Mrs. Esme Elvesham-Boyle, ran all the Women's Institutes for miles around with an iron hand, and terrorized the neighborhood with her good works. The third generation was represented by Miss Felicia Elvesham-Boyle, a sprightly, giggling maiden in her quite early forties, who had sometimes alarmed Alan with her not altogether mock flirtatiousness. It was a weird and pathetic household, decaying in the faded glory of the past, doomed soon to be dispossessed by the bureaucrats of the National Coal Board.
Alan had been treated very kindly, and had been splendidly fed on the products of the Elvesham farm. But he was never given a chance of forgetting the social gulf across which this hospitality — paid for in any event by the RAF — was tendered. F/Lt. Williams swore that when he had first presented himself at the Manor and asked the butler if one dressed for dinner, he had been told, "Don't worry, mate. You're eating with us."
Sometimes Alan wished it had been arranged that way; when he dined with the Elveshams, he always felt on the verge of some appalling social gaffe. And once, indeed, he had started on the soup with the dessert spoon ...
He reached his room on the second floor of the east wing without interception; the family was out for the day, and the servants were probably taking it easy in their own quarters. Alan's bedroom had an impressive approach, for the corridor leading to it was lined with huge glass cases, each holding half a dozen birds of Paradise. These stuffed mementos of Mrs. Elvesham's hobby were getting a little moth-eaten, but even after forty or fifty years their feathers still blazed with iridescent glory. It must have cost a fortune to bring them to England, and to provide the artificially heated jungles they needed in this cold and alien land. The last of them had died before Alan was born, but the old lady remembered all their names. To her, they were still alive; she had once found Alan examining them, and had taken him on a tour of inspection, introducing him to every one of the winged jewels her wealth had snatched across the world. For the rest of his life, when he recalled Elvesham Manor, Alan would always think of birds of Paradise.
He was halfway through his packing when he came across the last letter from home. It had arrived almost a week ago, and he had locked it in his suitcase away from prying eyes. At least, that was the reason he had given himself, and it was true as far as it went. But it would be just as true to say that he had hidden the letter from himself, until he could face the problem of answering it.
Well, he'd have to answer now; it couldn't be put off until the weekend, as he had intended. With a sigh, he settled down at the bureau and pulled a sheet of the Manor's embossed notepaper out of the drawer.
"Dear Father," he began. Then he nibbled his fountain pen morosely for five minutes, as he stared out across the park in search of inspiration. When it came, he put the words down in a breathless rush and scarcely lifted pen from paper until he had signed his name.
* * *
I'm very sorry to know that you have been poorly again and trust that you're much better now. I'd hoped to write a longer letter this time, but I have just been posted to a new station and have to pack in a great hurry. I don't know what the new job is but hope to find out tomorrow. As soon as I know where I'm going, I'll let you have my new address. Meanwhile, please don't send any more letters to the Manor.
I'm sorry this is so short but I have only a few hours to wind everything up here. I'll have more news next week.
Love to Miss Hadley and yourself,
Your affectionate son, Alan
It was hardly an inspired letter, but it was not quite finished yet. Alan glanced once again at his father's inevitable postscript, then prepared to add his own. First, however, he opened his wallet and carefully counted the thin wad of notes.
I wish I could send you as much as you asked for, but I shall need all my spare cash for traveling expenses during the next few days. This is all I can manage now.
* * *
He wrapped the solitary pound note in a separate sheet of paper so that its crinkling would not betray it. Miss Hadley would be annoyed if she caught him sending the Captain money — little though it was. Every penny, of course, would be spent in the dock-side bars; but what else could he do? It was easy enough to say that one should be ruthless — that it was for the Captain's own good not to put temptation in his way. Unfortunately — or otherwise — Alan lacked that kind of ruthlessness.
One could, indeed, make out a fairly good case for considering him something of a moral coward. That thought crossed Alan's mind (not for the first time) as the ivy-covered battlements of the Manor faded behind him in the dismal, predawn light. Yet it was not his fault that he had to catch the milk train, and so was unable to say good-by to the ladies of the house. If that Whist Drive in aid of the church roof had ended at a reasonable hour, he would have stayed up to make his farewells, but now he was sneaking off like a hotel guest who hadn't paid his bills.
He had left a note to the old lady, thanking her for her hospitality and conveying his best wishes to daughter and granddaughter. Perhaps he should, after all, have given something to the servants, but how was he to be sure that they wouldn't be insulted? The aged butler had given him a reproachful look, now that he came to think of it ... Well, it was no use worrying about the past. Another episode of his life had closed, and it was of no concern to him if the Elveshams recalled him only as that uncouth young Flying Officer who left without saying good-by. He wondered if, when they woke up, they would start anxiously counting the silverware.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Glide Path"
Copyright © 2003 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.