A bone was hurled high into the air by a prehistoric hand. When it came down, it was a spaceship. All of human history was encapsulated between these two shots of that now-famous montage in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even more amazing: all of human history was also being discounted as nothing more than the distance between footsteps. The mysterious monolith bestows intelligence to the tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra, and when we earthlings have achieved a technology sufficient to answer the call, the monolith summons us offworld for the next stage of our evolution. Step one, step two. Sir Arthur C. Clarke dealt in big ideas—the biggest.
“It takes clear sight to view true cosmic grandeur,” says John Meaney, British Science Fiction Association Award-nominated author of the critically acclaimed space-opera trilogy of Paradox, Context, and Resolution, “and Sir Arthur C. Clarke had optimism and rationalist vision enough for generations. He taught us, by the real magic of metaphor, to see the vast scale of evolution and the cosmos. He was the last and most farsighted of science fiction’s three timeless greats, and an exemplar of the best our species can become.”
Sir Arthur died March 19, 2008, in his home in Sri Lanka (where he had lived since 1956) at the age of ninety. He was the last of “the big three”—the other two being Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein—and now, the giants of science-fiction’s golden age no longer walk among us. Giants they were: men whose vision not only saw the future but who led the charge to bring it about. As well as big ideas, Clarke also dealt in the details necessary to make change happen. Years before he became a household name with 2001 and his television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe, he published a technical paper entitled “Extraterrestrial Relays” in a 1945 edition of Wireless World. Therein, Clarke became the first to propose the principles of a geosynchronous communications satellite. It would be almost twenty years before someone else implemented his concept, and he never benefited financially from it himself—his 1965 essay on this topic was subtitled, “How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time”—but there is no denying that we live today in a globally connected, wired world that his notion made possible. That alone would be enough to make him one of the most significant and influential figures of the twentieth century, but that was only the beginning. His “hard science” novels of space travel in the 1950s, such as Prelude to Space and The Sands of Mars, had a direct (and very powerful) influence on the scientists who would build and shape the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as did, undoubtedly, his nonfiction works like Interplanetary Flight and Profiles of the Future. Appropriately, Clarke joined Walter Cronkite on television as co-commentator on the Apollo moon missions. Charles Kohlhase, who planned NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, acknowledged Clarke’s contributions to the space program when he said, “When you dream what is possible, and add a knowledge of physics, you make it happen.”*
Joel Shepherd, author of the Cassandra Kresnov series of military science-fiction novels, which deal with the very Clarkean concept of artificial intelligence, says, “What sets him on another level from the rest of us is that most of us only set out to write about the future. He set out to actively shape it. And he did.” Nor have we reached the limits of Clarke’s vision. His popularizing of and support for a “space elevator”—a tether hung from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit up which a vehicle can travel—may be the next idea to transition from science fiction to science fact, as recent developments in carbon nanotube fibers approach the tensile strength to density ratio necessary for such a conveyance.
In an article titled “The Fuzzier Crystal Ball,” published in the March 23, 2008, edition of The New York Times, journalist Dave Itzkoff used the occasion of Clarke’s passing to wonder, “in a world where technology evolves so rapidly that the present already feels like the future, will a modern-day author ever inherit Mr. Clarke’s aura of prescience? Do any of his successors share his apparent talent for envisioning technological breakthroughs before they are realized?”
Of course they do, though it may be a long time before one achieves his level of worldwide recognition or holds his position as such a dignified and eloquent spokesperson for the cause of both science and science fiction. But in addressing Mr. Itzkoff’s question, one should look at a recent article titled “The Multiverse,” published in Norman Spinrad’s “On Books” column in the April/May 2008 issue of Asimov’s magazine. Therein, Norman Spinrad explains why we are never out of future:
Picture the sincere writer of serious science fiction—someone really trying to do the job—as standing in the bow of a boat in a moment we might call the present. The boat is human history and all scientific knowledge available in that moment, and the waters that the boat is sailing through is the ocean of time. The science fiction writer is riding the vessel of all that knowledge, and his or her mission is to peer ahead from that vantage into the fog-bank of the future ahead of the boat utilizing all the knowledge upon which he or she stands, “stands on the shoulders of giants,” as this sort of thing is often put
Thus, while the accumulation of scientific and other forms of knowledge as well as the profusion of technological innovation may be accelerating as the boat sails forward through the sea of time, no matter how fast it goes, no matter how much cargo is accumulating in the hold, the science fiction writer is always standing in the bow of the boat looking forward.
That is why it is impossible for science, technology, evolution, or history to render science fiction obsolete. There are all too many ways that a civilization can end up destroying science fiction as a commercially viable literature or even as a visionary mode of thought, but the necessary visionary function performed by science fiction in a progressively evolving civilization can never be rendered obsolete. If nothing is performing that visionary function, it is the civilization in question that in the end renders itself obsolete, as has happened many times in world history.
Amen, Clarke might say, with some irony. But while it is always a favorite topic of the press, prediction is only one part of science fiction’s job. Inspiration is another. “He was an amazing prognosticator,” concedes Kay Kenyon, Philip K. Dick Award-nominated author of Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near. “But I read him for the wonder and richness of his stories—that’s the part that will last. In fact, like a lot of people I suppose, I’m re-reading Childhood’s End right now, and it’s all still splendidly there.”
David Louis Edelman, multiple-award-nominated author of Infoquake and MultiReal, agrees. “All the tributes to Arthur C. Clarke I’ve read talk endlessly about the ‘science’ half of his job. But nobody seems to be taking much note of the ‘fiction’ half. There are a million futurists out there who’ve mad
e accurate predictions about the future. Clarke knew how to take those predictions and pin them to simple, beautiful, masterful stories about human ambition. I can think of few writers who could balance those two pieces—science and fiction—better than Clarke. Some of the obituaries claim that he’ll be remembered for dreaming up the telecommunication satellite. Personally, I’m going to remember him for that image in 2001 of Moon-Watcher [the principal prehuman character in the film’s prologue] looking up at the sky after having invented stone tools and wondering what comes next.”
Like Moon-Watcher, Clarke kept his gaze on the heavens all his life—he only recently completed the Time Odyssey trilogy (coauthored with Stephen Baxter). His final novel, The Last Theorem, coauthored with Frederik Pohl, will be released by Del Rey in November 2008. From the start to the end, Clarke championed the notion that humanity’s destiny lay among the stars; he understood the danger of civilization rendering itself obsolete or extinct if we did not leave the nest and travel offworld. In the BBC’s December 2007 Focus Magazine, he said: “Organized religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation” was the greatest danger humanity currently faces. Though he instructed that “absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral,” religious iconography played heavily in his fiction, from his most famous novel, Childhood’s End, to his most famous short fiction story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” His famous law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” [See essay by George Zebrowski in this issue.—EDS.] shows us how a material universe can still engender mind-boggling awe.
Ian McDonald, Hugo-award winning author of River of Gods and Brasyl, reminds us that “Clarke’s humanism was always tinged with mysticism—one of his many one-liners was ‘I don’t believe in God but I’m very interested in her.’ He recognized the difference between religion and spirituality, and celebrated the latter as something profound and baffling in the human condition: his spirituality always seemed to me that of a small child looking up into a huge, star-filled night with a sense of deep and electrifying wonder.”
That wonder was always tinged with loss, as when the parents of Childhood’s End are left behind when their children transcend. As McDonald continues, “The stars are our inheritance, but what goes to the stars will not be us, but the thing that follows us, the seed of potential that Arthur believed lay within humanity.”
Sir Arthur drew an immeasurable number of us along with him in his vision and carried us farther than we could have gotten on our own. Now we have to transcend, to move into the future on our own steam, to erect new monoliths to our own destinies. But, just as he reminded us recently that he would remain with us in the words he left behind, so he pointed the direction we should follow with his own epitaph, given in 1993 to Wired magazine: “He never grew up—but he never stopped growing.”
* Gerald Jonas, “Arthur C. Clarke, Author Who Saw Science Fiction Become Real, Dies at 90,” The New York Times, March 19, 2008.