I was saddened to learn of the death of author Arthur C. Clarke at the age of 90. Clarke was my favorite author and so I very much feel the need to write a few words about his work and what it has meant to me. He is well-known as one of the true grand masters of the science fiction genre and I’m certain that a great deal will be written about his life and work over the next few days, so I am going to focus on my own general feelings and reactions to his work. This may come off as a bit rambling as I’m writing it largely off-the-cuff and it honestly has been quite some time since I have read most of Clarke’s books.
I first discovered Clarke’s writing when I was in junior high school back in the early 1980s. Like many people, I first became aware of him after seeing the film version of "2001: A Space Odyssey". I was fascinated (and, admittedly, more than a bit confused) by the movie and became interested in reading the book. Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 was rather unusual, with the two initially working out the basic story together and then Kubrick going off to write the screenplay (and make the film) while Clarke went off to write the novel. This resulted in a book and movie that had the same basic plot line and characters, but also some substantial differences in approach.
While Kubrick kept the events rather mysterious, at times to the point of obliqueness, Clarke’s writing was much clearer. Reading the book, I was immediately struck by Clarke’s ability to tell a story that was dense in scientific and technical details and filled with speculative elements both about a plausible future and an alien encounter, but still present it in a manner that was very readable and basically understandable. Keep in mind that I was junior high school age at the time as well. Even though I was always a somewhat advanced reader, it still says a lot about Clarke’s writing that he was able to write stories that were so dense in content and unquestionably non-juvenile, but which were still within the grasp of fairly young readers. I don’t know if our school librarian was aware of this or if they simply ordered science fiction somewhat blindly (I suspect the latter), but they had quite a few Clarke books in their collection and I quickly started going through them all, eventually extending that to the collection in the public library and even a few paperbacks purchased.
People who are only familiar with Clarke’s writing from the film version of 2001 might expect his books to have the same generally cold, detached style that was a key component of that film. For the most part, though, that aspect of the film came more from Kubrick’s sensibilities than from Clarke’s. In addition to being an expert at conveying scientific and technological ideas, Clarke was also very skilled at the more basic elements of fiction writing. His books generally have well-defined characters and did often convey pretty complex views on human nature and relationships. Even his novel of 2001 was somewhat warmer with characters that were more rounded than in the film version. Although it did pale compared to the original when it came to political and technological elements, the film version of 2010 actually was a somewhat closer approximation of Clarke’s writing style, particularly when it came to Roy Scheider’s warm and likeable portrayal of Heywood Floyd, a character that made much less of an impression in the first film.
In many of his stories, Clarke speculated just as much about the evolutionary direction of the human race itself as he did about the future of technology. That really is what the much-debated final act of 2001 was really all about. Other books such as "Childhood’s End" and "The Songs of Distant Earth" addressed the future of humanity in an even more direct manner. Both books also touch on theology and spirituality in conjunction with these ideas as well. "Childhood’s End" contains a key revelation that I think could cause a fair amount of consternation among some of the more religious conservatives, if it didn’t largely fall outside of their radar.
"The Songs of Distant Earth" is my favorite of Clarke’s novels and, in fact, probably my favorite novel period. The central idea of the book is mankind’s colonization of distant planets by sending out "seed ships" that contain samples of Earth DNA and complex computer systems that would be able to grow the colony’s residents and educate them with the information needed to survive and the most important parts of human knowledge and culture. The storyline centers on how life in one of these colonies is impacted by the arrival of a manned ship that had actually been launched from Earth and is making a re-fueling/supply stop on its way to forming another colony. What I love about the book is that Clarke took an extremely futuristic, science-fiction concept and used it as the basis for a very character-focused human story. The book is very much about the clash of cultures as the two groups meet and interact. The heart of the story is actually a basically star-crossed (in more ways than one) love story between a woman from the seed planet and a man that arrives on the ship but feels duty bound to eventually travel with the rest of his crew to their own colony.
Other than 2001 (and its three sequels), Clarke’s best-known work is probably "Rendezvous with Rama", a fascinating work of immense imagination and technical detail. "Rama" was probably the strongest example of Clarke’s skill at creating visual imagery through words as he presented what was essentially a travelogue of an alien world. Everything in the story was speculative, but also presented with enough scientific detail to make it plausible. Much later in his career, Clarke did collaborate with author Gentry Lee on three "Rama" sequels that were entertaining and interesting, although without quite as much elegant simplicity as the original.
Despite the success of 2001, it is perhaps a bit surprising that more of Clarke’s novels haven’t been filmed. The only other completed adaptations that I know if are the film version of 2010 (I’ve never heard of any serious consideration about filming 2061 or 3001) and an episode of the 1980s revival of "The Twilight Zone" that was based on Clarke’s short story "The Star". "Deep Impact", the more cerebral of the two asteroid movies from the late 1990s, was reportedly partially based on Clarke’s "The Hammer of God", although it deviated so far from that story that the connection was ultimately uncredited. A film version of "Rendezvous with Rama" has been in development for many years (director David Fincher is attached, the last I heard) although it is up in the air as to whether it will ever be made. Clarke actually envisioned "The Songs of Distant Earth" as a film concept before he decided to make it a novel and his film treatment even ended up being published as a short story. I’ve always felt that was a missed opportunity as the story could make for a really good film, if handled properly.
In addition to being a great writer, Clarke was also a visionary when it came to science and technology. While he obviously wasn’t primarily an inventor or a research scientist, he had a real knack for looking at scientific discoveries or theoretical technologies and seeing the possibilities. The most famous example of this was the article that he wrote in the late 1940s where he postulated that the recently discovered concept of geostationary orbit could be applied to the creation of satellites to aide in worldwide communications. Of course, communications satellites of this type ultimately have become commonplace and essentially transformed the world we live in. While the idea would have almost certainly have been invented regardless of Clarke’s article, he was still the first to publicly suggest the idea. The belt where communications satellites sit is even referred to as the "Clarke Belt" in his honor.
While he was very good at seeing the possibilities of technology, he did tend to be too optimistic at times with some of his predictions. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the comparison of his version of 2001 to the actual year. The book (and movie) depicted a year 2001 full of advances in space travel, artificial intelligence, and other areas of technology that we aren’t even yet approaching now in 2008. He wrote the book right as the Apollo program’s effort to put men on the moon was in full swing. In light of that, I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect that space travel would continue to develop and expand and that permanent bases on the moon, routine commercial travel to orbit and the moon, and scientific missions to the other planets would be occurring 3 decades in the future. I think the differences between the real year 2001 and Clarke’s predictions are probably more a reflection of mankind’s own lack of drive and determination after the first-step goal had been achieved. It is sad that Clarke didn’t live to see a shift in priorities back in that direction.
As sad as Clarke’s death is, at age 90 it wasn’t really unexpected. He has been semi-retired for several years. Although is name has still periodically appeared on books in recent years, they were typically collaborations with other authors who took his story ideas and fleshed them out into full novels. His last solo novel, "3001: The Final Odyssey" was published in 1997. Although, his collaborations generally haven’t quite had the overall eloquence of the novels he wrote by himself, they generally have still been enjoyable and interesting, with Clarke’s hand in them still evident. I particularly enjoyed his recent "Time Odyssey" series written with author Stephen Baxter and, while researching this post, I was a bit surprised to discover that I had overlooked that the third book in the series (entitled "First Born") was published last December. I expect that to be the next book on my reading list. Amazon.com also lists a new collaboration with author Frederik Pohl entitled "The Last Theorom" scheduled for release late this year.
It certainly saddens me that Clarke’s long writing career is now coming to an end, but he leaves behind a very prolific legacy of great books. Even though I have already read the majority of what he wrote, I expect that I will continue to revisit and re-read those stories throughout the rest of my life.