SIR ARTHUR C[HARLES] CLARKE (1917–2008)
British author and science writer, knighted in 1998.
“Probably best known for his script for and novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968) and his role as a communicator on science and scientific progress, Arthur C. Clarke’s importance to sf is more fundamental. Clarke’s propaganda for space travel was based upon a thorough understanding of the necessary science and technology, even as he argued, in what was to become known as Clarke’s Second Law, that the only way to discover the limits of the possible was to venture into the impossible. In fiction, however, his vision embraced humanity’s future in space as both symbol and actuality of the kind of secular mysticism he encountered as a schoolboy in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930).”
“Born in Minehead, Somerset, Clarke developed two childhood passions: science and sf. His brother, Fred Clarke, recalls experiments with rockets, the wireless, and photography, and in Astounding Days (1989) Arthur C. Clarke recounts how acquiring his first sf magazine irrevocably changed his life. By the time he left Huish Grammar School in 1936 for London and the Civil Service, he had contacted both sf fandom and the British Interplanetary Society, founded in 1933 by Philip E. Cleator (Clarke served as its chairman in the late 1940s and early 1950s). Like much of his early writing, his first published story, “Travel by Wire” (1937), an amusing account of matter-transportation, appeared in a fanzine. After working on radar during the Second World War, he published, in Wireless World in 1945, the first theoretical article on positioning communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. His first professional fiction sales, “Rescue Party” and “Loophole,” appeared in Astounding in 1946.”
“Building on his nonfiction Interplanetary Flight (1950), Clarke’s first novel, Prelude to Space (1951), is told by an American historian, Dirk Alexson, recording the background to the first moon landing in 1978. While Prometheus’s lift-off to the tones of Big Ben affirmed Clarke’s advocacy of a continuing British presence in the Space Race, national rivalries are absent from the novel, which apart from a vague reference to the “unsettled 1950s” overlooks the Cold War. Rather, Interplanetary, the (British-dominated) international body putting its arguments for space travel into practice, derives from the pre-Second World War “Interplanetary Societies” of enthusiasts, hobbyists, and visionaries. For Clarke, the project is a single step in the long voyage of understanding the universe. In the epilog, set thirty years later, Alexson, one of thousands of people with heart conditions whose lives have been saved by the moon’s low gravity, reflects on the isolation of the moon, his interior monolog segueing into the narrator’s “And now at last, after all these ages, its loneliness was coming to an end” (Clarke 1951: 132). Clarke is not arguing that humanity will move into space but persuading his readers that it should, even as the project’s Director-General reflects upon the inevitability of “eternal night” and poses the question: by understanding its place in the universe, can humanity stand against the unavoidable end? Clarke’s stoic utopianism is hardly geared to give a cozy answer.”
“Gibson, the observer-protagonist of The Sands of Mars (1951), is an sf writer who chooses to remain on Mars when his task of writing about the new colony is over. A rather awkward subplot – the youngest member of the Ares crew turns out to be Gibson’s son by a failed relationship – explores personal rather than cosmic loneliness, but the revelation of a terraforming project pushes the novel to the verge of what C.S. Lewis would call “eschatological fiction.” This concern with “cosmic” goals shapes Clarke’s masterpiece Childhood’s End (1953) and Against the Fall of Night (1948; revised as The City and the Stars (1956)), as well as 2001. Like Stapledon, Clarke’s grand sweeps of vision eschew comfort and accept the possibility of unease. Fall/City thus considers the concept of utopia, one which Prelude’s “bright Renaissance” might imply is a necessary consequence of technological progress, but which is threatening precisely through its assumption of fulfillment and stasis. The alternative utopias, Diaspar and Lys, are each, despite their marvelous developments, limited. There are wonders – and dangers – in the universe which transcend them. Even the utopia which Childhood’s End’s alien Overlords force upon humanity is a false paradise, a step toward the sublimation of humankind into a new trans-species identity. Poignantly, the Overlords, who assist Humanity’s transition into the Overmind, are unable to make that transition themselves, suggesting that knowledge about our own place in the universe will not necessarily be comforting.”
“A number of Clarke’s short stories are masterpieces in this mode. In the enigmatic and haunting “The Sentinel” (1951), an alien artifact discovered on the moon is programmed to broadcast a signal if disturbed. The narrator contemplates the result: a welcome or a threat? “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) demonstrates Clarke’s gift for a simple arresting image. Tibetan monks, whose self-appointed task is to list all the possible names of God (and thus fulfill the purpose of the universe), have installed a computer system to speed up the process. The technicians, nervous about the monks’ reaction when the list is complete and nothing happens, leave. One of them looks upto the sky: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out” (Clarke 2001: 422). It is that “without any fuss” that lifts Clarke’s prose from the effective to the occasionally startling. (Perhaps the most famous example of this quiet technique is the final sentence of 2001. The astronaut Bowman, transformed into the godlike “Star Child,” hovers over the face of the earth, unsure of what to do next: “But he would think of something” (Clarke 1968: 256).)”
“More than almost anyone, Clarke evokes the numinous in sf’s “sense of wonder,” as “The Star” (1955) demonstrates: a Jesuit priest and scientist, returning from a world whose civilization was destroyed by a supernova, has to come to terms with the fact that this occurred (if his religious beliefs are true) so that the Star would shine above the stable in Bethlehem. This interest in religion is continued, more critically, in later fiction. In The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), a spaceship from a destroyed Earth, en route to terraform a new world, visits a utopian colony. The Thalassans, selected for physical traits, have been given only a carefully edited version of Earth’s culture. “With tears in their eyes, the selection panels had thrown away the Veda, the Bible, the Tripitaka, the Qu’ran, and all the immense body of literature – fiction and nonfiction – that was based upon them … they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatreds, belief in the supernatural, and … pious gibberish” (Clarke 1986: 83). The crew must decide whether to continue their voyage or to stay and risk disrupting utopia. The melancholy in this novel moves from a sense of love between individuals knowing that they may be separated by time and space to the fact that even highly technological, advanced civilizations know loss.”
“Other important Clarke books are Profiles of the Future, a much-revised collection of speculative essays first published in 1962, Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Imperial Earth (1976), and The Fountains of Paradise (1979). 2001, which made Clarke for a time the best-known sf writer in the world, was less a director–scriptwriter teaming than a collaboration between two talented men with strong, sometimes opposing, opinions about the nature of the enterprise. Based upon several sources in Clarke, it shows Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail and Clarke’s visionary realism at work. Various sequences – the match-cut from the bone hurtled into the air to an orbiting spaceship; the dance of the space-station and the docking spacecraft, accompanied by Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz (1867); the chilly rebellion of the HAL 9000 computer which jeopardizes the Jupiter mission – are among the most unforgettable in all cinema.”
“After 1956 Clarke lived in Sri Lanka, the setting for The Fountains of Paradise, where he was Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa. His awards, both in literary and scientific fields, were numerous. A Patron of the Science Fiction Foundation, President of the British Science Fiction Association, Chancellor of the International Space University, holder of the UNESCO Kalinga Prize and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, he was also awarded several honorary degrees, one of which (from the University of Liverpool) was fittingly conferred by satellite link. He was one of the few genuinely bestselling sf writers, and one of the most indefatigable. He announced his “retirement” several times, and for many years illness kept him in a wheelchair; but he continued to write. Many later novels were collaborations, including three sequels (1989–93) to Rendezvous with Rama with Gentry Lee; The Light of Other Days (2000) and the Time Odyssey trilogy (2003–2007) with Stephen Baxter; and his final novel, The Last Theorem (2008), with Frederik Pohl.”
“Although Clarke’s enthusiasm for scientific progress sometimes caught him out (the 1999 edition of Profiles of the Future wryly notes his wrong or overoptimistic predictions), his novels and stories are among the finest in the genre, distinguished by two interwoven voices. First, he is the poet of the 1950s vision of space travel as, particularly, articulated through the postwar British sensibility which saw rebuilding the country, and the world, after the horrors of the Second World War as a challenge willingly to be met. If other British sf writers such as John Wyndham and John Christopher showed the anxiety of the 1950s, Clarke’s early novels – and stories such as the six linked vignettes published in a 1956 newspaper as “Venture to the Moon” – showed the dream: that history does not have to be the way it is, and that humanity can take control of its destiny. It is a dream built upon its own anxieties and the tension between its conservatism and its dramatic vision. That Britain would play a major role in the forthcoming space age remained a simple fantasy, but at the time it offered many a possible shape for a new post-Empire Britain.”
“Second, and perhaps of greater importance, there is a more universal sense of futurity. Clarke’s reputation will remain attached to a vision of the future which assumed, years before it happened, that space travel was both possible and desirable. Much of his fiction can be seen as documents of the space age by someone who was trying to make it happen. He was, however, more than a propagandist. In the penultimate chapter of Prelude to Space, Alexson recalls the “image of the lonely island lost on a boundless and untraveled sea” (Clarke 1951: 156). The chapter’s final words suggest a tentatively hopeful resolution as the “first frail ship” embarks upon the great project of knowing the universe.”
Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Stanley Kubrick, China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Mary Shelley, Olaf Stapledon, and H.G. Wells
- Blackford, R. (2001) “Technological Meliorism and the Posthuman Vision,” New York Review of Science Fiction, 159: 1, 10–20.
- Clarke, A.C. (1951) Prelude to Space, New York: World Editions.
- ——(1968) 2001: a space odyssey, London: Hutchinson.
- ——(1986) The Songs of Distant Earth, London: Gollancz.
- ——(1989) Astounding Days: a science fictional autobiography, London: Gollancz.
- ——(2001) The Collected Stories, London: Gollancz.
- Clarke, F. (1987) “Arthur C. Clarke: the early days,” Foundation, 41: 9–14.
- James, E. (1987) “The Future Viewed from Mid-Century Britain: Clarke, Hampson and the Festival of Britain,” Foundation, 41: 42–51.
- ——(2005) “Arthur C. Clarke,” in D. Seed (ed.) A Companion to Science Fiction, London: Blackwell.
- Kilgore, D.W.D. (2003) “Will There Always Be an England? Arthur C. Clarke’s new Eden,” in Astrofuturism: science, race, and visions of utopia in space, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Lewis, C.S. (1966) “On Science Fiction,” in Of Other Worlds: essays and stories , London: Geoffrey Bles.
- McAleer, N. (1992) Odyssey: the authorised biography of Arthur C. Clarke, London: Gollancz.