The last rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke

Back in the day, 50 cents would get your mind blown. Thanks for the psycho-computers and ominous aliens, Arthur.

Published March 18, 2008 11:53PM (EDT)

Not one of the six yellowing paperback novels by Arthur C. Clarke that I just pulled from a bookshelf in my bedroom bears an original price tag greater than $1.50. One volume, a collection of short stories called "Tales of Ten Worlds," cost only 50 cents when first purchased. That revelation sent me into instant reverie-land, recalling those days as a 12-year-old when a dollar or two was enough to buy a brand-new Asimov or Heinlein or Clarke novel. In 1974 there were no personal computers, no video games, no Cartoon Channel, no DVDs of "Battlestar Galactica," and heaven knows, no YouTube. But if I needed to escape, there was always science fiction. And I always needed to escape.

They are fragile things, these paperbacks from my youth, concoctions of "dazzling imagination and startling insight" (as one blurb exclaims) that are not built to last. And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have ever cracked the pages of "Tales of Ten Worlds" since the first time I ripped through it. But these were my books, bought with my allowance. I can never let them go.

The news of Clarke's death, at age 90, in his adopted home in Sri Lanka, sent me scurrying to see what memories I could elicit. I wasn't even sure what I owned, but there they were, in all their glory: "Rendezvous With Rama," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "Childhood's End"; pages yellowing at the edges, sporting their gorgeous garish covers. And there were others I barely remembered -- "The Sands of Mars," "Imperial Earth," "Prelude to Space." When I was 12, I was not particular. I read them all.

Curious, I peeled open "Tales of Ten Worlds" and started reading the first story, "I Remember Babylon." It begins:

My name is Arthur C. Clarke, and I wish I had no connection with this whole sordid business. But as the moral -- repeat, moral -- integrity of the United States is involved, I must first establish my credentials. Only thus will you understand how, with the aide of the late Dr. Alfred Kinsey, I have unwittingly triggered an avalanche that may sweep away much of Western civilization.

Believe it or not, "I Remember Babylon" is a bizarre mix of fact and paranoid fantasy in which Clarke's breakthrough conception of the geosynchronous communications satellite is foully co- opted into a Cold War plot in which the technologically superior Soviets seek to destroy the West by interlacing propaganda with broadcasts of Tantric pornography filmed on location from the walls of ancient Indian temples.

"For the first time in history," [says the American traitor who plans to corrupt the West from on high] "any form of censorship has become utterly impossible. There's simply no way of enforcing it; the customer can get what he wants right in his own home. Lock the door, switch on the TV set -- friends and family will never know."

"I Remember Babylon," incidentally, bears a copyright date of 1960, which was at least four decades before the true destruction of American civilization, a date most future historians will likely agree coincides with the original debut of "America's Next Top Model." But Clarke, who is credited in real life with being the first to come up with the idea of an "artificial satellite" that could "broadcast to half the globe," was nothing if not prescient. Two years before I was born, he had already grasped the inevitable, unstoppable business model of on-demand sex flicks in the privacy of your own living room.

I can't imagine what I made of that story as a 12-year-old, with all its sly sarcasm and seething sexuality. The traitor boasts that one of the programs that will be raining down from the sky at the Americans will be a show called "Queer Corner" -- "Don't laugh -- no go-ahead agency can afford to ignore that audience. At least ten million, if you count the ladies -- bless their clogs and tweeds."

I mean, come on -- in 1960, Clarke had already sketched out "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Were there no limits to his imagination!?

No, actually. None. And the same was true for all those masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Literarily speaking, returning to some of these authors decades later can be a painful experience -- Heinlein, sad to say, has not held up well under the ravages of time. Clarke, I think, does better -- there's an intellectual playfulness to his prose that is more lasting.

But we didn't read them for their craft! (Excluding Ray Bradbury, who really did know how to write.) We read them because they dispensed dazzling, startling visions as if tossing handfuls of confetti. Because they cooked up psycho-computers and sent them lurching through the crevices of our minds, dreamed up overpowering alien races to shame us out of our petty human squabbling, zipped us recklessly through space and time with so much gleeful abandon that you knew they could hardly believe they were getting away with it.

I can't remember anything about the plot of "The Sands of Mars." But I remember as if it was yesterday the anticipatory rush that flooded through me as I began to turn that first page on a new (to me) science fiction novel from a giant like Arthur C. Clarke. I remember the happy expectation that my mind was about to be blown.

Thanks, Arthur.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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