Arthur C. Clarke

For decades, the author of the science-fiction classics "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Childhood's End" has exhibited an uncanny ability to see the future.

Topics: Space, NASA,

The main character in the classic science-fiction story “The Time Machine” is known only as the Time Traveller. He travels aboard a machine of his own construction — made of ebony, bronze and chrome — far ahead in time, glimpsing the harrowing changes in store for humanity, and then returns home to the Victorian England of his creator, H.G. Wells, to relate his tale. At the end of the story, the Time Traveller enters the Time Machine again, equipped with his Kodak, and literally disappears into the future.

Since he began publishing in the 1940s, writer Arthur C. Clarke has been a modern-day Time Traveller whose mission has yielded far more practical results. With more than 80 books of science, fiction and nonfiction, Clarke has displayed an uncanny ability to see the future. In 1945, a year before the death of Wells and 12 years before Sputnik, Clarke predicted a global relay system of radio and television signals using geosynchronous satellites — a communications revolution that began taking shape 20 years later. The first draft of the article “Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” is now in the Smithsonian.

“As far as the future is concerned, any political or sociological prediction is impossible,” Clarke has said. “The only area where there is any possibility of success is the technological future.” This is the future he has seen. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” his most widely recognized work (thanks to the Stanley Kubrick film), Clarke presages a space station (now under construction), videophones, laptops and e-mail. And he gives us one of the most impressive and enduring creations of his career: the HAL 9000 computer. Coming at a time when computers filled entire rooms, Clarke’s prediction of a sentient computer was way ahead of its time — and still is.

The machine that carries Clarke forward in time is his scientific imagination, fueled by clear, powerfully informed writing. Few writers in contemporary America can match Clarke’s breadth, versatility and penetrating intellect. Because of his background in physics and mathematics and his dedication to “hard,” fact-based science fiction, Clarke is the scientist’s favorite sci-fi writer. Astronauts revere him too — Neil Armstrong, in fact, had seen the Clarke and Kubrick depiction of a lunar base in “2001″ just a year before he became the first man on the moon.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998) was born in Minehead, Somerset, England, in 1917 but has lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), since 1956, when he developed an interest in undersea exploration and took up scuba diving and photography. He’s been afflicted with post-polio syndrome since the 1980s, and although he can no longer walk without assistance, he still plays table tennis daily, leaning against the table, and is said to be a fierce competitor who gloats shamelessly in victory. He has many times documented his fervor for diving, which first led him to Sri Lanka, where he and his friend Mike Wilson started a scuba diving business a few decades ago. He and Wilson once discovered a 250-year-old wreck off the country’s Great Basses Reef. Sadly, Clarke hasn’t been able to dive in several years.

His seaside refuge in Colombo is a self-contained media center, work station and observatory that racks up a monthly telecommunications bill in excess of $1,000. The details of Clarke’s personal life are closely guarded. He was married once, for less than a year in the early 1950s, and now lives in the large, walled compound with a Sri Lankan-Australian family he has “adopted” as his own and a Chihuahua named Pepsi.

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As a boy, Clarke mapped the moon using a homemade telescope and became fascinated with science fiction after seeing his first sci-fi magazine, “Amazing Stories,” in 1928. Lacking the funds for higher education, he worked as a British Civil Service auditor from 1936 to 1941 and joined a new group that called itself the British Interplanetary Society.

After wartime service in the Royal Air Force, Clarke got his degree from King’s College in London. Already he had obtained the services of literary agent Scott Meredith and was finding that his scientific writing was providing him with what he called “occasional jam” — Clarke just “needed a more reliable source of bread and butter,” as he recalled in a 1999 nonfiction compilation “Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!” He got a job, thanks to a dean at the college, as assistant editor of Physics Abstracts, published by the Institute of Electrical Engineering. The budding author couldn’t believe his luck: “All of the world’s leading scientific journals passed over my desk, and I had to mark the ones that appeared important.” The same year, 1948, Clarke wrote a short story called “The Sentinel,” a seed that would grow into his most famous work.

Clarke made himself expert in all matters pertaining to the dawning Space Age. In a review of the 1950 film “Destination Moon,” based on Robert Heinlein’s story, Clarke wrote, “The exhaust velocity, mass ratio, and other technical details of the spaceship have obviously been worked out with great care.” In an address to the British Interplanetary Society, “Space Travel in Fact and Fiction,” Clarke discussed his literary forebears, adding the great astronomer Johannes Kepler to the list. Kepler, who discovered the laws governing the motion of the planets, also composed a story about a Moon voyage in 1643. Kepler would prove to be an ideal role model for Clarke.

The Book-of-the-Month Club made Clarke’s “Exploration of Space” a selection in June 1952 and the book became a bestseller. Its closing words offered a hint of the passions that would animate much of Clarke’s career: “We stand now at the turning point between two eras. Behind us is a past to which we can never return … The coming of the rocket brought to an end a million years of isolation … the childhood of our race was over and history as we know it began.”

Just a year later, Clarke published what many consider (to his annoyance) to be his finest novel, “Childhood’s End,” a dark tale of an alien occupation of Earth. According to Thomas Disch, author of “The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World,” Clarke “never surpassed this tale of mankind self-destructing for its own transcendental good.”

If the two works seemed to exist in yin-yang opposition, it was because Clarke’s formidable intellect made for a complex optimism. As Clarke had said of Kepler, “He was both a scientist and a mystic.” The fabulist in him was stimulated by the new frontier, but his inner scientist was guarded. In 1962 — the same year John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth — Clarke cautioned, “We’ll never conquer space.” The universe is too vast, and stories like “The Sentinel” and “Childhood’s End” demonstrated his belief that, should there be intelligent life out there, it was likely far too advanced for human comprehension.

Clarke was prolific, publishing novels — “Earthlight” (1955), “A Fall of Moondust” (1961) — and collections of essays and lectures. Critics such as sci-fi editor David Pringle fault Clarke’s characterization as “minimal, the dialogue embarrassingly stilted.” But Pringle admits, “Clarke writes an unusually pure form of science fiction.” Clarke’s “City and the Stars,” he writes, “succeeds in evoking a childlike sense of wonderment.” The elegant novel, about the last city on Earth and a lone boy who yearns to escape, conforms “to popular science fiction stereotypes … and moreover does it beautifully.”

In April 1964, while in New York to work on a Time-Life book called “Man and Space,” the Time Traveller was summoned to Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel to meet director Stanley Kubrick. Clarke joined Kubrick after the director, fresh from his success with “Dr. Strangelove,” informed him of his desire to make “the proverbial really good science fiction movie.” They used Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” as a launch pad. As it evolved, the theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “man’s place in the pecking order of cosmic intelligence” (as Clarke later put it), would suit both men perfectly.

The pair were in some ways a classically mismatched odd couple — English gentleman Arthur, who believes “no sane person is awake after 10 p.m., and no law-abiding one after midnight,” Stanley the Bronxite with “a night-person pallor,” as Clarke wrote in “Son of Dr. Strangelove” in 1972. But Stanley’s genius and meticulous attention to detail dovetailed with Arthur’s imagination and raw scientific knowledge. Diary entries from Clarke’s journal seem to encapsulate the relationship:

July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor’s Transfinite Groups … I decide that he is a mathematical genius.

Sept. 28. Dreamed I was a robot, being rebuilt. Took two chapters to Stanley, who cooked me a fine steak, remarking, “Joe Levine [executive producer of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians] doesn’t do this for his writers.”

The dream foreshadows the HAL 9000. Kubrick breathed life into the sentient computer, but it was Clarke who provided HAL’s soul. He was holed up in the Hotel Chelsea — where diversions included visits from Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs — to write the story upon which Kubrick would base his screenplay. “2001″ was published a few months after the film was released in the spring of 1968.

The film was a visual masterpiece, impeccably timed, but the novel is only slightly less opaque. Like other Clarke works, “2001″ imagines extraterrestrials as an enlightening force on humanity, steering the species toward the development of intellect. The aliens leave an alarm — the monolith — on the moon to notify them the moment humanity is smart enough to find it; astronaut David Bowman, on the outskirts of the solar system, eventually makes contact. Bowman is reborn in the image of the alien: as a form of radiation, bodiless, able to travel beyond the speed of light. “2001″ ends in a euphoric rush of hallucinatory imagery and Clarke’s familiar refrain: “History as men knew it would be drawing to a close.”

At Christmas, the Apollo 8 crew read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon, and later confided to Clarke that “they had been tempted to radio back the discovery of a large black monolith” on the dark side.

As for Clarke’s continuing track record: Later, after the Apollo 13 crew barely survived the explosion of an onboard oxygen tank, Clarke received a report on the mishap from a NASA administrator with the inscription, “Just as you always said it would be, Arthur.” And while “2001″ the film carries the spaceship Discovery only as far as Jupiter, in the novel Clarke uses Jupiter’s gravitational field to give the ship a boost in momentum, carrying it farther toward Saturn, a “slingshot” maneuver used for the first time 11 years later by Voyager II on its way to Neptune and beyond.

Clarke has often hit the moving target of the future with amazing precision, but part of his charm as a writer is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously to admit his misses: “I’m already a little embarrassed to see that ‘The Sands of Mars’ (1951) contains the sentence, ‘There are no mountains on Mars,’” he wrote in 1973. When a Sunday Times columnist offered a prize for the best alternative to the clunky new phrase “word processor” in 1986, “I submitted “word loom”, which seems to have taken off like the proverbial lead balloon,” Clarke writes.

The same year, and for the first time, Clarke entered into a novelistic collaboration, with NASA’s former director of planning for the Viking missions to Mars, Gentry Lee, with whom he penned “Cradle” and three sequels to his novel “Rendezvous With Rama” even as he continued to grind out sequels to “2001″: “2010: Odyssey Two,” “2061: Odyssey Three” and “3001: the Final Odyssey,” in which original astronaut Frank Poole (sent into the deep freeze of space by the homicidal HAL) is revived and given a crash course in human history by a device called the brain cap, which pumps information directly into the cerebral cortex.

As an essayist, Clarke discusses the implications of science, but humanity — its obsessions, aspirations and foibles — is the underlying subject to which he continually returns. He has little patience for organized religion: “The rash assertion that ‘God made man in His own image’ is ticking like a time bomb at the foundation of many faiths,” he writes in 1965, “and as the hierarchy of the universe is disclosed to us, we may have to recognize this chilling truth: if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.” If you think that’s harsh, you should hear what he has to say on the subjects of UFOs and astrology.

In “Credo,” an essay published in 1991, Clarke lays out a belief system by distinguishing between two views of God: Alpha, who “rewards good and evil in some vaguely described afterlife,” and Omega, “Creator of Everything … a much more interesting character and not so easily dismissed.” Clarke writes, “No intelligent person can contemplate the night sky without a sense of awe. The mind-boggling vista of exploding supernovae and hurtling galaxies does seem to require a certain amount of explaining.”

But Clarke is always careful to educate rather than merely lecture. On the immensity of space he writes, “To obtain a mental picture of the nearest star, as compared with the distance to the nearest planet, you must imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away — and then there is nothing else to see until you have travelled a thousand miles.” On biological evolution: “We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.”

In 1975, the Indian government gave Clark his first satellite dish. Since then, appropriately enough, he has used the link on several occasions — including millennium eve — to address the world he helped to envision half a century ago.

The citizens of the future, Clarke has written, may be “like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the universe when it was young.” Clarke has
preserved his young state of mind; indeed, he often quotes his own
epitaph: “He never grew up; but he never stopped growing.”

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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