Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke—Homage to a Visionary

The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond
them into the impossible
—Arthur C. Clarke

When I was in my early twenties (some time ago) I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. He’d written it a year before I was born. I remember being moved by the story’s grandness and scope about the transformation of humanity. On the slightly garish cover of the Ballantine science fiction classic book jacket Gilbert Highet’s endorsement said, “…a real staggerer by a man who is both a poetic dreamer and a competent scientist.” This remains an apt assessment of this self-professed "mildly cheerful" British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist, perhaps best known for the novel 2001: a Space Odyssey (also about the transformation of humankind).

On March 19 of this year, Arthur C. Clarke died at age ninety in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he’d made his home since 1956. He left behind a legacy of incredibly imaginative works, valuable scientific inventions and concepts and profoundly thoughtful discussions of the future.

During the time Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar instructor and technician (from 1941 to 1946) he proposed satellite communication systems, which won him the Franklin Institute Stuart Ballantine Gold Medal (in 1963) and a nomination in 1994 for a Nobel Prize. What you might not have known about him is that he was an avid scuba diver and helped fight for the preservation of lowland gorillas, which won him the UNESCO-Kalinga Prize in 1962. Clarke was also fascinated with the paranormal and admitted that it was part of the inspiration for his novel Childhood’s End. He was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1986. And in 2000, he was knighted. Yes, he is Sir Arthur Charles Clarke. He served as the first Chancellor of the International Space University from 1989 to 2004, has an asteroid named in his honour and a species of ceratopsian dinosaur (Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei), discovered in Inverloch in Australia.

Born in Minehead, Somerset, England, Clarke enjoyed stargazing and reading old American science fiction pulp magazines when he was a boy. His first professional sales (e.g., Loophole and Rescue Party)appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946 at age 29. In 1948, Clarke wrote The Sentinel for a BBC competition; although it was rejected it represented a turning point in Clarke’s writing, which introduced a more mystical and cosmic element to his work (the Sentinel was the basis for his best known work, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Many of his subsequent works (including Childhood’s End) features the theme of a technologically advanced but prejudiced humankind being confronted by a superior alien intelligence—the encounter of which produces a conceptual breakthrough that accelerates humanity into the next stage of its evolution.

Among Clarke’s visionary science (fiction) and inventions, some of his most notable include the following:
  • Geostationary satellites as telecommunications relays (described in a paper in Wireless World, October 1945 entitled, Extra-Terrestrial Relays—Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?) The geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the equator is officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union as a “Clarke Orbit”;
  • Space elevators (first described in The Fountains of Paradise, 1979); and,
  • A “global library” (in Profiles of the Future, 1962).
We get a good sense of Clarke’s beliefs and philosophy in his works. In his introduction of Mysterious World: Strange Skies, Clarke said, “I sometimes think that the universe is a machine designed for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers.” At the end of the episode, of the Star of Bethlehem (of which his favorite theory was that it was a pulsar) he added, “How romantic, if even now we can hear the dying voice of a star which heralded the Christian Era.”

In the 1973 revision of his 1962 book, Profiles of the Future, Clarke added two laws to create his famous three laws of prediction, aptly termed Clarke’s Three Laws:
1. 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.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Fiction is more than non-fiction in some ways…you can stretch people’s minds, alerting them to the possibilities of the future, which is very important in an age where things are changing rapidly—Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s most notable works include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, The Fountains of Paradise.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I haven't read the notable works you mentioned, but did read the two sequels to 2001, named 2010 and 2061. Very good noveld.

A fine homage to the man.

sfgirl said...

Ah.... I didn't read these, Jean-Luc. I will have to pick them up and find out what happened to Frank Poole...

Drowsey Monkey said...

Wonderful post in memory of an amazing guy. He had an amazing mind & imagination.

sfgirl said...

Yes, he did. I can recall when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theatres. I was totally transported into something much larger. And complex. People came out of the theatre in awe, some confused. It was, at the time, perhaps the most realistic SF movie made (no wooshing space ships in space, for instance; just silence)