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Arthur C. Clarke: Songs of a Future Earth


Sir Arthur C. Clarke, a visionary writer of this century and the last, passed away on March 19. He conceived the idea of communications satellites, authored classic science-fiction novels and short stories, and co-wrote the landmark movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, described by Steven Spielberg as "the Big Bang" of his filmmaking generation. I am late with this blog because my wife gave birth to twins two days before Clarke died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. Despite my severe state of parental bliss and sleep deprivation this week, I want to pay tribute to Sir Arthur, whose books and ideas are a window into the future Earth my children will inhabit.

Born in 1917 in England, Clarke was an avid stargazer and reader of American pulp science fiction as a youth. He was a radar specialist for the Royal Air Force during World War II, which led to a 1945 technical paper in which he introduced the idea of using satellites in geostationary orbits to relay radio signals. That path above the Earth is now known as the "Clarke orbit" in his honor. Think of Sir Arthur the next time you watch television: satellite TV obviously owes him a great debt, and broadcast and cable television use communications satellites to distribute programming. Clarke never filed a patent and once wrote a humorous piece called "A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time."

1945 was also the year Clarke sold his first science-fiction short story and after that his other prophetic ideas were mostly expressed through his fiction. After graduating from King's College London with honors in physics and mathematics and working as an assistant editor for a scientific journal, Clarke decided to devote himself full-time to his writing. His short stories "The Sentinel" (1948) and "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1953) were seminal early efforts, and he found early success with the non-fiction book The Exploration of Space in 1951, and the novel Childhood's End in 1953. The latter illustrates what made Clarke so popular: a meeting of science fiction with metaphysics in a well-told story that explored humanity's place in the cosmic scheme of things. Clarke went on to publish dozens of novels and was one of the Golden Age of Science Fiction's "Big Three," the other two being Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Azimov. Sir Arthur paved the way for later sci-fi writers who blended future tech with the transcendental, such as Gregory Benford and Vernor Vinge.

Clarke's gripping yarns vividly brought his speculations to life, be they about space exploration, the evolution of mankind, or the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence. In Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Sir Arthur introduced the idea of "Project Spaceguard," an asteroid-tracking system for preventing collisions with Earth; a present-day system has been operating since the '90s, partly supported by NASA, and is named Spaceguard as an homage. Clarke also envisioned nuclear-powered spacecraft (which have come to pass) and championed the use of space elevators (in The Fountains of Paradise in 1979). In 2001, he depicted a space station years before we had one and the memorable hyper-intelligent computer HAL, which presaged many malevolent-AI stories to follow.

"My God, it's full of stars!"
-astronaut David Bowman in 2001

Sir Arthur's spiritual and cosmic themes, charged with awe and wonder, are especially evident in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on his short story "The Sentinel." He co-wrote the script of the 1968 movie with Stanley Kubrick and authored the novel of the same name. The film 2001 took us to a new conception of what was possible in sci-fi movies and in the cinema as a whole. It was the first meeting of science fiction with avant-garde film, and it was a quantum leap in special effects. Kubrick's cinematic genius and Clarke's visionary ideas combined in a filmic tone poem that was philosophical, hallucinatory, unforgettable. In The A List, James Vernier wrote, "2001 was more than a vision of the future. It was a vision of the future of movies." While Kubrick made the ending intentionally ambiguous, Clarke's ideas are further explicated in three subsequent novels: 2010: Odyssey Two (made into a film by Peter Hyams), 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey.

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."
-- English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

Clarke's rational, scientific protagonists often encounter powers beyond their comprehension, created by advanced God-like beings. "What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old," wrote Carl Sagan. Sir Arthur had the power to take us a hundred years, a thousand years in the future, and project what might be. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," he once famously commented, and his own ideas were sufficiently advanced that they can seem magical when you read one of his stories.

Sir Arthur, who was knighted in 1998, was a much-acknowledged influence on the scientists and astronauts who pioneered the space age. He inspired everyone from Carl Sagan (Cosmos) to Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), from generations of NASA workers to several decades worth of science-fiction enthusiasts. I look forward to seeing my children explore the wonders of the universe, with the help of Arthur C. Clarke, a science-fiction master who will be fondly remembered.