I Remember Babylon

A mildly science fictional short story by Arthur C. Clarke. First published in Playboy, April 1960. Clarke dryly discusses his part in the real and fictional moral breakdown of the United States, and elsewhere, caused by satellite TV via an encounter with the fictional* Gene Hartford.

The story starts with the narrator introducing himself as Arthur C. Clarke. This is, I believe, the only time Clarke has directly featured in one of his own stories. Clarke goes on to explain that in 1945 he “had the only original idea” of his life - a network of satellites in geostationary orbit carrying TV transmitters. For those of you who have not read the node, sometimes called Clarke orbit, is an orbit 33,810 km (22,300 miles) above the Equator that takes one day to complete. This means that an object in geosynchronous orbit will stay directly over the same point on the Earth’s surface all the time. Satellite TV transmitters are, as Clarke suggested back then, in this orbit.

The story then introduces Gene Hartford, a young American TV network executive, who wants to thank Clarke for inspiring him. So that Clarke can discover what he has inspired, they arrange to meet the next day.

At the meeting Hartford reveals that he is about to create the first coast-to-coast satellite TV network. Then Hartford reveals what it is that he intends to show on his new universally-available channel. He starts by showing Clarke a “documentary”** film of the Temple of the Sun in Konarak entitled “Aspects of thirteenth-century tantric sculpture”. You know the Indian temples adorned with erotic sculpture that “leaves nothing to the imagination - any imagination”? This is that. After showing this “orgasm on celluloid”, Hartford explains that his aim is to show everything in Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Then he mentions the “sensation aspect”, a series called Washington Confidential. Then, as his pièce de résistance, he reveals the “Can You Take It?” series. “Can You Take It” will show uncensored violence etc, that every “red-blooded American” man will watch out of pure machismo.

Hartford, it is revealed, wants to brainwash, then destroy the US.

“History is on our side. We’ll be using America’s own decadence as a weapon against her, and it’s a weapon for which there is no defence.”
Hartford leaves to be about his business, and the story ends with Clarke’s thoughts:
“ 'History is on our side.’ I cannot get those words out of my head. Land of Lincoln and Franklin and Melville, I love you and wish you well. But into my heart blows a cold wind from the past; for I remember Babylon. ”

* Probably fictional in the real world, and he may have been lying in the story anyway.
** Inverted commas used to denote scepticism.

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