The Ideas of Arthur C. Clarke

George Zebrowski

Most critical discussions of Arthur C. Clarke’s writings rarely delve beyond his stories and novels; but to understand his fiction, one must examine how Clarke thought about future pos sibilities. His approach to looking ahead is the basis of his vision of human history and its promise.

Clarke fulfilled the ambitions of science fiction (SF) in both intellectual and artistic terms. His work met Isaac Asimov’s definition of SF as a literature dealing with the human impact of changes in science and technology. It is these “changes” that make the work science fiction but the “human impact” that makes it literature. This definition emphasizes SF’s most compelling feature: it presents not just a story but something that might happen—if not literally then symbolically. Without this element of genuine possibility, SF becomes fantasy. Einstein’s profound prescription for the work of science—that hypotheses and theories are at first free creations of the imagination that must rejoin reality through the experience of an experiment (an organized form of experience by which theories are confirmed, denied, or left pending)—applies equally well to science fiction. The central premise affecting the characters must be at least possible—at least not easily discredited—or the story loses the means by which it suspends our disbelief. This is perhaps the most difficult feature of genuine SF to explain to the casual reader, who may not understand the resourcefulness, creativity, and imagination required to comprehend the cutting edges of the sciences and use them in the realm of fiction.

Clarke’s grasp of human scientific and technical creativity is best expressed in Profiles of the Future, an often-revised collection of his essays. In these pieces, Clarke expressed no naïve, uncritical faith in science and technology; rather, he set out what is possible regardless of whether humankind will accomplish any of it or not. Clarke’s essays are marked by playfulness, but their light touch conceals the weight of their subject matter. Revolutionary statements come and go in the space of a sentence, suggesting tomes of more detailed explanation. Such is the case with the famous Clarke’s Laws, introduced in this volume. They are essential to understanding not only Clarke’s fiction but the essential purpose of all genuine science fiction.

Law One: “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.” Here Clarke decries conservative inertia, which tends to see innovation as extravagance. Failures of nerve and imagination prevent our seeing how familiar obstacles may be overcome, even though the record of the past shows that many seemingly wild predictions have been fulfilled (so long as they did not violate basic physical laws). This psychological brake regarding technological applications must be overcome anew in every generation.

Law Two: “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Science is not made up of absolute truths but of candidates for truth that continue to resist disproof. Positive proof of scientific claims would require an infinity of experiments—a feat that cannot be performed—any one of which might fail sooner or later, but even one negative experiment is all it takes to cast a fatal doubt. It must be possible to at least imagine the conditions under which a hypothesis or theory might be disproven, even if that will never happen. Law Two may be viewed as an application of Karl Popper’s famous Falsifiability Criterion for identifying whether a claim is scientific. Only theories that may turn out to be wrong are legitimate candidates for scientific truth.

Law Three: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Here Clarke sounds the central fact of both science and science fiction—that science is the discoverable magic of our universe, the only magic that works, the boon yearned for in all our myths. Scientific knowledge will not give us omniscience and omnipotence, but it has provided applications that would have seemed like magic to our ancestors. We can have a large measure of wish-fulfillment if we turn away from idolatry before the mysteries of existence and support the development of science and technology.

Arthur C. Clarke not only looked ahead, he examined what logical and practical problems our attempts to look ahead involve. In this he was heir to the efforts of H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, J.D. Bernal, and J.B.S. Haldane. His contemporaries in this effort, all of whom predeceased him, included Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Loren Eiseley, and Jacob Bronowski, to name a few of the best.

The playful aspect of Clarke’s three laws is superficial; their subtlety and far-reaching implications could easily fill whole volumes of discussion and examples. The thinking behind them takes for granted that we live in a quantum, Gödelian universe of relatively open possibilities that is more like a great evolving thought than a clockwork Newtonian machine, a universe in which recognizing and shaping possibilities must replace guesswork and naïve prophesying of the religious and mythical kind.

Clarke’s views about the universe and human possibilities were not merely present in his science fiction; they shaped it by selecting its dramatic possibilities. His SF was imbued with authenticity lacking the arbitrariness too often found in lesser works of the genre.

Childhood’s End (1953), a novel of human-alien contact, was Clarke’s first major success in the form. It was one of the first few SF novels to be widely reviewed outside the genre, a distinction then shared with novels by Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. Like them, Clarke had spent the forties writing outstanding stories for SF magazines, publishing his great short novel of the far future, Against the Fall of Night, in the November 1948 issue of Startling Stories. In 1945, he proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite, for which he would later receive credit as the “father of the communications satellite” and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. In 1951, he published The Exploration of Space, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection that remains to this day, revised as The Promise of Space, one of the most important books about the meaning of space travel.

Childhood’s End, together with the short story “The Sentinel,” presented ideas about human-alien contact that later became central to Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name whose 1968 release made Clarke the most famous science-fiction writer since Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. If humanity survives its own destructive impulses, maintains any of its ties to its historical character, and survives contact with interstellar cultures, then the Space Odyssey novels (of which there were four) may become the prescient Homeric epic of humanity’s childhood longing for kinship with other evolving intelligent life in the universe.

Clarke also sounds warnings that all may not be progress: human reason, ingenuity, and heroism may be pitted against humbling forces. In the Space Odyssey novels, humanity may be redeemed by contact with the patron race or races that have already guided our history; but in Childhood’s End the contact is at first humiliating, then politically constructive (it brings world peace at the cost of cultural stagnation), and finally terrifying—even a horror story—as much a rebuke to
our vanity and ignorance as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was to the smugness of the British Empire.

The quiet, scientifically motivated heroism of characters in Clarke’s more obviously realistic novels is represented in Childhood’s End by Karellen, one of the most convincing aliens in all science fiction. In him, we find a strange, rational affection for humankind, a knowing admiration for beings who still have a further development awaiting them, and a regretful sense of loss about the tragic dead end of his own kind, the Overlords. Humanity does not know itself, whereas Karellen knows himself completely. There is nothing else left for him to become, no surprises remaining. His people serve the Overmind, a growing interstellar entity burgeoning with power and discovery that now seeks to merge humanity into its aggregate. But they cannot join with the Overmind, because they lack the inner richness of a creative species. However powerful their constructive intellects, they represent a dead end.

Karellen’s benign and rationally restrained governance of Earth produces a humane golden age free of war, politics, crime, and disease, but, culturally and scientifically, human civilization is at an end—and most people do not care.

Much of Clarke’s work sang of a farewell to childhood, whether of individuals or humanity as a whole. A different childhood’s end was depicted in the unfinished sequence of the Space Odyssey novels, Clarke’s second great success in terms of popularity, influence, and sales. It is possible that the Odyssey novels have been critically underrated. On conceptual grounds they offered ideas that may later prove prophetic, even profound. The inner story of both the film and the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey is that human evolution is a nurturing program undertaken by a highly evolved alien civilization; its token is a slablike black monolith. In its first appearance the monolith stimulates mental development among our prehuman ancestors; its second sends an alarm signal to another monolith circling Jupiter to announce that the human species has developed space travel. The signal’s direction lures a human expedition to the giant planet, where the astronaut Bowman is taken as a sample for investigation by the aliens who transform him into a more advanced form, the Starchild, and return him to the vicinity of Earth to further develop our world’s intelligent life.

In subsequent novels, the failure of the sentient computer HAL, whose murderous breakdown dominated the middle portion of 2001, was explained, and HAL was rehabilitated. Readers learned the nature of the monoliths and what kind of technology they represented.

Clarke’s greatest critical success may well be 1973’s Rendezvous with Rama, which took the Nebula, Hugo, and John W. Campbell awards for best novel—the triple crown of SF awards—as well as the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Locus Award, and the Jupiter Award. It is the only novel so honored.

In the novel, a fifty-kilometer artificial alien worldlet swings through our solar system and is boarded by an exploratory team. Rama, the alien vessel, was a mind-quickening challenge to the novel’s characters, to a future human civilization, and to Clarke’s readers. Eric S. Rabkin described the novel as combining “the absolutely fascinating exploration of an extra-solar vessel come into our system with profound philosophic questioning of the significance of humanity, of biological life, and of intelligence.” The result was a spectacular, inspired, and subtle observation of an imaginary artifact that convinces us of its reality.

Just as subtle, and sometimes critically satiric, are the human reactions to this visitor from the stars. There is the solar-system–wide civilization’s bureaucratic response to Rama’s arrival through the Rama Committee of narrow, hilariously portrayed specialists. We are given the religious response through the lone Cosmo Christer aboard the ship Endeavour, who becomes convinced that Rama is another Noah’s Ark come to save the elect. Endeavour commander Bill Norton’s sensitive and diplomatic encounter with the beliefs of this crewmember is an incisive bit of characterization. The colonists of Mercury respond by deciding to destroy Rama before it takes up a power position around the Sun. The human drama is played out as a conflict between our best and worst selves as impulses toward exploration race against the xenophobic urge to destroy Rama.

Clarke’s work produced readers who either fell under the spell of his discursive poetry or were respectful but relatively unmoved. Acquiring a taste for Clarke’s writing (both his fiction and nonfiction produce kindred effects) may also be a lesson in how to read science fiction—not primarily as a way of learning about life and character, which is what all of serious classic and contemporary literature is about, but as a criticism of human life and history as seen from the perspective of the growing technical and scientific culture that has been with us since the Renaissance and as an effort to see what can be made of life through innovation born of knowledge. Even the least of Clarke’s works can be of intense interest to readers who have learned to “see” the very human implications of what Clarke understood—something of the utmost importance to the future of humanity.

Clive Sinclair, writing in The New Scientist, summarized one aspect of Clarke’s life as follows:

The plot is improbable: a brilliant scientist, in his 20s, lives on a teeming planet which numbers its people, who are mostly horribly poor and feuding with each other, in billions rather than millions. He invents a means of linking these billions, which requires a technology barely dreamt of. Yet we are expected to believe that, within two or three decades . . . the beings of this planet . . . find the billions of dollars necessary to realise his invention, but that our scientist hero retreats to a remote idyll [Ceylon, later Sri Lanka], there to live by the pen, linked to a grateful world by his own invention.

Unlike Jules Verne’s fictional Captain Nemo, Clarke tended to be apolitical and tolerant of human failures, waiting out human history while explaining and applauding fundamental developments as they unfolded alongside deplorable ones. The imagination Clarke found in science fiction liberated him from ordinary ways of looking at humanity and the universe. The Apollonian clarity of his writings was central to his character, which desired the success of human aspiration. The effortless grace of his writings belied their profound content. But for those who have “caught the Clarke wave,” this humane, rational man was one of a troubled century’s treasures.

This essay is adapted from “Arthur C. Clarke,” in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers ©1996 St. James Press. This version is published by permission of the author.

George Zebrowski

George Zebrowski is an award-winning novelist, story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and lecturer, with work in Nature and World Literature Today , among many other publications.

Most critical discussions of Arthur C. Clarke’s writings rarely delve beyond his stories and novels; but to understand his fiction, one must examine how Clarke thought about future pos sibilities. His approach to looking ahead is the basis of his vision of human history and its promise. Clarke fulfilled the ambitions of science fiction (SF) …

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