Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Tuesday 18 March 2008 American Midwest time,
Wednesday 19 March 2008 Sri Lanka time:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died at age 90 in Sri Lanka, where he's lived since the 1950s.

I have an 8X10 2001:  A SPACE ODYSSEY poster hanging above my desk.  It is framed because it is signed by Sir Arthur in white/silver ink.

My friend Dan gave it to me as a gift.  

Clarke was my favorite sf writer in large part because his work is concise as well as smart.  It wastes neither time nor intellect.  

I hope the mention he'll receive in media from his death encourages people to read his work more widely.  

Economy of thought and word requires understanding. Clarke grasped his work fully before writing. He could present complex ideas simply and spell out mind-boggling implications directly.

Many found his work unemotional. It was, instead, visionary. His emotion was invested in lifting us up into bigger, better worlds.

He was visionary not only technologically. His work often held a touch of mysticism. Childhood’s End is literally and metaphorically transcendent. One of Clarke’s comments in 1965 about the movie/novel he was then working on with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, was, "MGM doesn't know it yet, but they've footed the bill for the first six-million-dollar religious film."

Characterization was not considered his forté but HAL, from that novel/movie, is perhaps as vivid and well known a character as science fiction has produced.

He detailed communication satellites in stationary or geosynchronous orbit in a technical paper in 1945. After WWII he got degrees in Maths and Physics. He was a genuine scientist yet lent his name and attention to ARTHUR C. CLARK’S MYSTERIOUS WORLD and ARTHUR C. CLARKE’S WORLD OF STRANGE POWERS, both dedicated to examining fringe or Fortean topics with an open mind. In one notable episode he caught the semi-amusing James Randi cheating in his analysis of a dowsing experiment and stiffly corrected the math, and conclusions, in his summation.

In his novel Imperial Earth he introduced a gay character, marking a shy literary coming out Clarke later embraced openly on his own terms.

Clarke supported Humanism. He worried that religion was the one meme mankind might not survive yet retained faith in the fact of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. While he lived an enviable life of the mind, including a long debate in letters over technology with C. S. Lewis, he was also an avid SCUBA diver most of his life and argued for the preservation and exploration of the world’s Oceans.

The City and the Stars was an early favorite of mine but I’m not sure today which version I read as a kid. There are two, one the original, the second a rewritten version that improved scenes and changed some specifics.

Childhood’s End staggered me. I had never read anything so simultaneously shattering and uplifting, and the African scenes drew me with a visceral vividness.

Another fond memory is curling up on my mother’s rocking chair in the living room, under a quilt my great grandmother had made, reading Clarke’s short stories, savoring each and thinking about it for a few minutes after finishing, until I could no longer resist reading the next. The motion of the rocker helped evoke weightlessness, lower gravities, and the endless fall of a spaceship.

In this way I read through the early Ballantine collections Expedition to Earth, Reach for Tomorrow, Tales of the White Hart, The Other Side of the Sky, The Wind From the Sun, and the Nine Billion Names of God, the latter named for perhaps Clarke’s most famous short story. In it, monks have purchased a supercomputer to help them name the nine-billion names of God more efficiently. They believe that, once this is done, this cycle of reality will end and, as the technicians who installed the computer are descending the mountain from the monastery dusk falls and, one by one, the stars blink out. It is an elegant, chilling, and inspiring story, and quite brief. That Zen concision again.

The Sands of Mars, with its urgent message not of ecology but of terraforming, has enthralled me with desert visions as compelling as Frank Herbert’s Dune or the movie LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but with science replacing the espionage and realpolitik. Earthlight drew me to imagine colonizing Luna and living in new ways. This novel’s espionage and politics were the opposite of indoctrination for me. His stories got me ready to forge new traditions and experience different loyalties. Upward was outward, and freedom meant embracing the universal rather than the parochial.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is my favorite movie. I would probably say favorite science fiction movie these days to make room for favorites in other categories but I would be hard pressed to name a film of any type I admire as much. I saw it on the big screen and people cried when the lights came up; I sat stunned, unable to absorb how layered and amazing it had been for me. To this day the film mesmerizes me. If it is on cable as I scan through channels, I’ll stick on it and watch again, instantly enthralled.

I wore out a copy of The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 by Jerome Agel. A compendium of facts, interviews, and backstories about the movie, the book was also crammed with pictures, each image evoking a thousand others in my mind. Could there have been a denser message delivered than 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? Enticement balances warning; technophila vies with technophobia; man and machine negate each other, yet both triumph; there is space travel and earthbound politics; there is conspiracy and revelation; the ancient past, implicit in archaeology, uncovers a future both unimaginably far off yet here, now; there is loss and transcendence yet again; evolution is made vivid and taken beyond comprehension; the aliens are genuinely incomprehensible; every instant of the film is laden with rich signal, some still being decoded 40 years later.

Clarke’s body has died, the inevitable result of not switching to Machine/Digital Intelligence soon enough but his memes, in large part his mind, the best parts of it, live on for any and all of us to discover anew.

Go read some Arthur C. Clarke and celebrate an astounding personal human odyssey.

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