Remembrance of a Genius: Arthur C Clarke

Sir Arthur C ClarkeMany years ago, during a talk preceding a book signing in Edinburgh, Clive Barker expressed his frustration that his work was categorised as either horror or fantasy, two narrow pigeonholes, both of which he rejected. His were works of imagination, ranging through the whole of human experience and beyond, but Waterstone’s don’t have a category for that, and since the stock is ordered by computer, everything must be classified into one thing or another, otherwise there is no place for it.

The vast imagination of one writer is limited by the lack of imagination of a machine.

What other way would there be to classify books? Perhaps one method could be based on how they make you feel? Romance books could be hopeful or optimistic or comforting; crime procedurals and thriller novels are for those who wish to be intellectually stimulated by their intricate plot mechanisms.

Clarke’s First Law ~ “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke
Sir Arthur C Clarke
Conversely, chick lit could be for those who have no ambition or desire to be mentally challenged, and similarly, religious texts are for those who wish to abdicate responsibility to a higher power. Literary fiction is for those who wish to feel vicariously, to have their emotions explained to them, to experience a life broader than their own, or to find voice for the feelings they themselves cannot express.

And science fiction? That’s for the practical dreamers, and that phrase is not an oxymoron. The ones who want their lives, and the lives of those around them, to be more than they currently are, possibly more than they could ever be. That’s not a pigeonhole. That’s far beyond any horizons you could ever see. That’s as far as light has travelled since the first instant of the known universe. And from his comfortable – and mislabelled – retirement in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sir Arthur C Clarke could see that far.

Although I was aware of the reputation and work of Arthur Charles Clarke (1917 – 2008) as I was growing up, I was already in my teens before I read Imperial Earth (1975). The story of Duncan Makenzie, privileged citizen of Titan, sent on a diplomatic mission to a planet distant and strange on which he did not belong, yet on which he had to fit in so that the greater concerns of his family and planet could be met.

That planet was Earth. While some teenagers fall upon The Catcher in the Rye as their touchstone, for me the clear prose, the calmly observed wonder of the advanced technology, and the alienation of one who can pass himself off as the same, yet knows he will always be the outsider caught between personal desires and his sense of duty, spoke to me more directly than any self indulgent whiny teenager wandering the streets of New York.

I was enraptured, and immediately fell in love with Clarke’s novels, and the stars he spoke of. I awaited the arrival of the future that he promised with his words, learning the names of the satellites of Jupiter and the constellations of the winter skies over Inverness.

Sat alone on rainy summer afternoons, the novels 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two would follow, one full of mystery, the next full of answers, and both, my god, were full of stars, as were the collections of short stories I devoured.

Despite the insistence of my English teacher that I only write on texts studied in class, I passed my examination with the help of A Meeting with Medusa (1971). I knew the words as well as any of the approved texts we had been assigned, and unlike the drab characters of Sunset Song, my vision and aspirations extended beyond the limits of the village where I grew up.

The gas dwelling lifeforms of Jupiter described in A Meeting with Medusa and 2010 led me to read more of that planet, bringing me to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which confirmed that such life was theoretically possible, as was the existence of a warm ocean under the ice of the Jovian satellite Europa. Unlike the dry words praising the soul of the Scottish soil, as though meaning could only be found by following the lives of your parents on the same patch of ground they worked until they died, science opened doors of possibility and imagination, and that enthusiasm was something I could convey in my answers.


Clarke’s Second Law ~ “The only way to discover the limits of the possible, is to go beyond them, into the impossible.”

Clarke's works
Clarke’s works
I am far from the only one to have been so influenced.  Ideas from Clarke’s novels have become staples of modern science fiction vocabulary. V, Independence Day and District 9 all drew the motif of the city-sized alien mothership hovering above skyline of a familiar city from Childhood’s End (1953), which also portrayed an idea contrary to the prevalent alien invasion obsession of the media of the time – that of a more advanced, benevolent race shepherding humanity to a better future, a theme that would be repeated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET – The Extra Terrestrial, Cocoon, the mysterious Preserver race occasionally referred to in Star Trek and, most notably, Clarke’s own collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

This work would have the dual honour of moving science fiction films away from low budget fifties monster movies towards something that could be regarded as serious and meaningful, and heralding a revolution in model photography and effects work that would pave the way for first Silent Running, then Star Wars, Close Encounters, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and all that followed them.

Of all Clarke’s works, undoubtedly the most famous is that filmed version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has been written about and analysed in so many diverse and exhaustive ways that I feel little need to comment on it here, other than to say I once had the opportunity to enjoy a pristine 75mm print at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and it was breathtaking.

In this age of computer generated illusion, the effects created forty years ago are comparable, and in many instances superior, to what is rendered now with a fraction of the craft and ingenuity. And once again, let us not forget the twin icons of the monolith and HAL, technologies that can offer great advancement and liberation, but with the caveat that if we become too dependent on technology, that it may fail us, or worse, turn on us, a theme revisited many times from Colossus: The Forbin Project to The Terminator, and most recently in Battlestar Galactica.

Sir Arthur would write directly, precisely and with the unhesitating confidence of one who not only knows his subject, but who had a hand in
creating that subject, not only in science fiction literature, but also in much of the technology that shapes our world. His proposal of the geostationary orbit in 1945 that led to all modern communication and global positioning systems is well known, but he also worked on the radar assisted approach that allows aeroplanes to land safely in poor visibility or blackout conditions.

A particular hypothetical technology that he popularised was the “space elevator,” an idea that had long been discussed in the space science industry, but was unknown to the general public until The Fountains of Paradise (1979), the fictionalised account of the construction of a cable lift system between an equatorial mountain on the surface of the Earth and a geosynchronous satellite, allowing payloads to climb to orbit at a fraction of the cost of lifting by rocket propulsion.

Although fictional, Clarke was quoted in a New Scientist article as saying that work on the elevator would begin in earnest “about fifty years after people stopped laughing.” The article, about carbon nanotubes, a material that could theoretically be used as the basis for the cable, concluded with the words, “They just stopped laughing.”

Another New Scientist contribution was the suggestion by the editor to a correspondent on the letters page of a fourth law to complement the three already attributed to Clarke. The letter recounted a suggestion to Clarke that one way an advanced civilisation might advertise their presence across long distances would be by adjusting the orbiting stars into conspicuously artificial arrangements. Clarke agreed with the idea, then went on to point out that was why he had used it in his 1956 novel The City and the Stars. The suggested fourth law was “You have to get out of bed early to think of something before Arthur C Clarke.”

Beyond his published work and television appearances, hosting the television show Mysterious World, amongst others, he championed education, the communication of science, the dream of humans to live in peace with each other and with the planet, and to look beyond our small world for ideas and solutions. Professor Carl Sagan said of him, “He has done an enormous global service in preparing the climate for serious human presence beyond the Earth.”


Clarke’s Third Law ~ “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Sir Arthur at home
Sir Arthur at home
It is an astonishing shame that more of Clarke’s work has not been adapted for the screen. In The Collected Stories (2000) he notes that his short story All the Time In the World (1951) was adapted for television in 1952, although no recording exists, and The Star (1955) became a largely faithful expansion in a 1985 episode of The New Twilight Zone, but despite the great breadth of his work, and the cinematic structure of many of his novels, only 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) would ever grace the silver screen. Studio options were taken out on The Hammer of God (1983), although the resultant movie, Deep Impact, only retains a superficial resemblance to the source, and Rendezvous with Rama (1972), despite having both a director and star attached, in the forms of David Fincher and Morgan Freeman, has still never progressed beyond the scripting stage, although a recent fan made trailer posted online gathered a great deal of excited interest.

Alastair Reynolds, creator of the Revelation Space sequence, has said “The stories were so clevely constructed and so simple that I loved them. I still do. What Clarke did was to write stories that treated human ignorance as the adversary. There was a marvellous purity in that, and I increasingly want to emulate what he achieved.”

Although sometimes criticised for having character secondary to the technology and ideas of his stories, I would suggest that his characters, like Clarke himself, were just terribly British. Even under the most extreme pressure they were an ideal to aspire to behaving with reserve and dignity, a belief in humanity evolved to the most enlightened and educated specimens we could be, never portrayed in the manner of a shallow primitive.

Mortality was a theme in the work of Clarke, from Death and the Senator (1961), The Fountains of Paradise and The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990), all of which feature lead characters who face death with calm resignation, satisfied that they have completed significant work in their lives. At ninety years, there can be little doubt that Sir Arthur himself, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, with a body of work numbering over a hundred published short stories and twenty novels, qualified in that regard, when, in his own words, “his time ran out and Death fell softly from the summer sky.”

One of Clarke’s best remembered short stories is The Nine Billion Names of God (1953), and it is sad that, for so many of the leading lights of the golden age of science and science fiction – Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), H G Wells (1866 – 1946), Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), John Wyndham (1903 – 1969), Rod Serling (1924 – 1975), James Blish (1921 – 1975), Philip K Dick (1928 – 1982), Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985), Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986), Richard P Feynman (1918 – 1988), Robert A Heinlein (1907 – 1988), Gene Roddenberry (1921 – 1991), Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992), Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), Terry Nation (1930 – 1997), Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006), Nigel Kneale (1922 – 2006), Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) – that the closing paragraph has come true.

The story tells of a computer installed at a remote monastery in the Himalayas, programmed to compile all the possible linguistic combinations that could be the name of god, the belief being that when the monks know the true name of god, the universe will have served its function, and can be wound up. On the evening the computer is due to complete the assignment, the two engineers leave the monastery, not wishing to be present for the monks’ disappointment when nothing happens and the prophecy proves false. On their descent, they pause to look back up at the mountain and the sky above.

“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”



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