Who is he
Arthur C Clarke was born in 1917, served the British Army during World War II and was primarily a writer from 1946 to his death in 2008. He was sometimes called the “prophet of the space age.” He predicted online banking and shopping and personal cell phones. In 1946, he popularized the idea that satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit would be excellent communications platforms – three years before Sputnik was launched by the Russians. While it hasn’t come to pass, he will be credited for popularizing the Space Elevator and space stations at LeGrange points.
As a science fiction writer, he was one of the early greats who revived the genre. Ray Bradbury, I have discussed before. Clarke had good relations with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asminov who were the other pillars of Science Fiction at the dawn of the age of space.
Growing up, my first encounter with Arthur C. Clarke was through his short stories. He had several collections and, looking over the list, I owned three of them through garage sales or school book sales. I will discuss three from his “Expedition to Earth” collection. “Breaking Strain” is a story that stuck with me for years. Two men are on a cargo space ship that is transporting freight from Venus to Earth. Clarke, accurately, equates the cargo ship as the equivalent of an automated train: you couldn’t speed it up and you couldn’t change its course. Between Venus and Earth, the ship is struck by a meteor (a vanishingly small chance of that happening as the author notes) and starts losing oxygen. Only enough is left for one to survive. And now the story gets interesting as one character starts plotting the other’s demise. The climax line is delivered as one character sips a bad batch of coffee saying, “You probably know there is only enough oxygen for one of us…”. “Hide and Seek” is written in a first person mode. The story teller relays an event from a conflict between Mars based humans and Earth based humans. A spy escaping from a large ship seeks refuge on Phobos (the smaller of the two moons of Mars). The nature of the battle switched from Jaguar out running the Zebra to Cat seeking Mouse. And the territory is decidedly “Mouse Friendly”. His accuracy in describing how one might move on Phobos was remarkable and he made it integral to the story. As I look over the titles of this book, I can remember each one and they are each stellar (forgive me) in their own right. One could reread this book multiple times and learn new things and laugh every time.
Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur Clarke wrote several novels. “Rendezvous with Rama” was a series he wrote later in his life. An object originally thought to be an asteroid is found to be an alien space craft hurtling towards the sun. A rocket is diverted to the alien spacecraft with the purpose of exploring it. The crew then enters the strange craft to discover a mini planet on the inside with lighting, an ocean and multiple complexes or “cities.” What strikes me about this book, years later, is that Clarke probably picked the most likely alien encounter we will experience –someone else using our Sun as a slingshot to somewhere else. No one would look for us or visit us; we simply aren’t worth the trouble. Clarke also switches from technology to anthropology deftly in the novel as the scientists try to figure out who the Ramans are and what are they actually interested in. The book challenges our supremacy in the galaxy and (metaphorically) our self centeredness as members of a culture.
2001: A Space Odyssey
“A Space Odyssey” is Clarke’s most famous literature and yet it is, in my opinion, one of his weakest. Clarke’s science in the book and movie (they were created concurrently) was every bit as visionary as his early work: space stations creating artificial gravity through rotation, shuttles to the moon, interplanetary space ships so huge they have to be built in space, the isolation and boredom of long term space exploration, computers that go mad. But it lacked in plot. The story is an extension of “The Sentinel” (found in “Expedition to Earth”) tells of an object found on the moon. Nothing humanity has seems to scratch the surface of this object. Finally, they manage to break it open and a signal is sent to far off Saturn (later to be Jupiter). One character’s speculation is that the Sentinel was a signal to some other civilization that we had reached a critical point. “The Sentinel” was an excellent short story. In 2001, Clarke tries to turn that into a novel and makes the Monoliths talisman or sentinels or doorways or who knows. The story limps along from one sequence to the next: strange object found on the moon sends signal to Saturn (let’s explore), space ship makes long boring journey to Saturn and computer goes mad along the way (ok that bit was exciting, but the space travel bit was every bit as monotonous as the journey itself), space ship arrives at Saturn (something strange happens…or doesn’t). Bits and pieces are interesting by themselves, but the story as a whole…meh. In book sequels, the story becomes more coherent and the meaning of the monoliths becomes clearer. But in the original, it simple fell flat.
A Childhoods End
“A Childhood’s End” is arguably his best novel. The story has three parts. The story begins with the Earth now invaded by the “Overlords” – a mysterious but peaceful set of aliens who are providing technology and observing Earth and generally preventing us from doing ourselves in. They maintain a light hand, but remain something of a mystery hiding their appearance. The second part begins 50 years later and the Overlords have revealed themselves and they resemble humanities vision of a demon. But other than a bit of uncomfortable association, everyone seems to be ok. A party happens in which something mysterious happens and the Overlords moving from being features at a cocktail party to something much more. The third part begins 10 years after that. It turns out humanity is on the verge of an evolutionary leap. The Overlords protect the emerging species and changes occur. In the meantime, someone has travelled back to the Overlords planet and seen how things work there.
This book stands out from others by Clarke in that it examines some of the fundamentals of humanity and existence. What if we aren’t the pinnacle of creation? Where does meaning come from for the individual as well as the species? Why put an end to bull fighting?
How Clarke Influences Me
First, as with Bradbury, Arthur Clarke wrote some of the best stuff as I was a developing reader. I can add him to the list of people who converted me so completely to science fiction. I was drawn by his careful depictions of the science of technology, integrating into the story, and still having an interesting plot. I try to have the same careful attention to science and reality in my stories and work. Where Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein had cynical and jaded view of humanity, Arthur Clarke was fundamentally an optimist. In an era of Cold War and Red Scares, and being a gay man, he still wrote of a humanity that overcomes those issues to a better self. His encounters with aliens are (on the whole) not scary but benign or beneficial. He wrote as if the ugly world he lived in had somehow grown up and become so much more. I hope to have that optimism in my writing over time as well.