Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

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The science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke has died, in Sri Lanka, at the age of 90.

As a person and as a writer he remained an enigma to the end. Part of the challenge of grappling with Clarke is the sheer size of his oeuvre: towering masterpieces like Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama almost disappear among his more than 30 novels and a dozen short story collections.

And there’s a paradox at the heart of that massive body of work. The son of a farmer, Clarke studied math and physics at King’s College London. He worked on the development of radar in WWII. He was among the first people, in 1945, to propose and flesh out the idea of using geosynchronous satellites in communications.

But after the war he turned to writing science fiction, and despite his nuts-and-bolts background his work had a pronounced mystical bent. Look at Childhood’s End, which remains an astoundingly creepy, compelling book, in which humanity hits an evolutionary singularity and children begin displaying unearthly telekinetic and telepathic powers. As their parents commit mass suicide, the future-kids merge into a hivemind, possessed of dark wisdom and high purpose, and begin to radically reconfigure the solar system. Or 2001, more famous now as a book than a movie (on which Clarke collaborated), in which astronauts encounter an interstellar monolith that transforms and translates them into a new kind of being.

Clarke was fascinated with ultra-far-future scenarios and massive technological constructs, like the mysterious 30-mile-long alien starship Rama, soon to be appearing in a movie starring Morgan Freeman. As he put it – in what has come to be known as Clarke’s law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Clarke emigrated to Sri Lanka in 1956 and spent the last 50 years of his life there. He may have been gay, but he politely avoided questions about his personal life. He was and remained a golden-age SF writer at heart — of the generation of Asimov and Heinlein, though he outlived them all – and he never truly embraced the kind of disillusionment with technology that shaped later writers like the cyberpunks. For Clarke the line between scientific knowledge and religious revelation would always be thin, or possibly nonexistent. He saw no contradiction there.

In his immortal story “The 9 Billion Names of God,” he imagined a remote community of Buddhist monks who hire computer engineers to grind out every last one of the 9 billion names of God in search of the true name, which, once revealed, will bring about the end of existence. Nowadays you could do this with a widget on your iPhone, but back then it was 1953, so it takes the monks and their hired engineers 3 months.

At the end of the story the skeptical nerds-for-hire have packed up and are making their way back to civilization. They look up. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

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