Arthur C. Clarke: An Appreciation of a Life Well-Lived
Arthur C. Clarke led at least three different, extremely successful lives. As a scientist, his work with satellites led to the coining of the term a "Clarke orbit." As a visionary award-winning science fiction author he influenced several generations of writers, became an icon of the SF subculture, and had an award named after him. And, in his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke also became part of movie and pop culture history.
Over his lifetime, Clarke received many honors, including being knighted and having the Apollo 13 Command Module and the Mars Orbiter both named "Odyssey" in appreciation of his work. Clarke remained a vital force up until his death. He authored books, made appearances via videophone from his home in Sri Lanka, and continued to deny the polio that had kept him mostly wheelchair-bound for two decades.
Chris Schluep, Clarke's editor at Del Rey for his last few books, was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he heard the news: "It's a very, very sad, and a strange place to find out about Sir Arthur's passing. I can't help but think that without his ground-breaking work on satellite technology, it wouldn't even be possible to have heard the news and provide such an immediate reaction. Somehow, I know he would have twisted a joke out of that. He was a very nice man with a wonderful sense of humor."
Arthur C. Clarke's fiction embodied a fundamental optimism about the future, tempered by a healthy skepticism about the human condition and an ongoing fascination with certain forms of spirituality. Unlikely to indulge in dystopic visions, but rarely sentimental or unrealistic, Clarke was, quite simply, curious about the world.
Schluep met Clarke on his last visit to New York City, a decade ago, and remembers that curiosity vividly. "He was staying in the Chelsea Hotel, where he wrote 2001 with Stanley Kubrick, and...the first thing that struck me was how excited he seemed about everything. People he had encountered on his trip, books, various meetings he'd had about issues he thought were important. Despite the fact that he was already in his eighties and wheelchair-bound, he glowed with optimism. I remember thinking that he seemed like a man from another era."
That era, in terms of Clarke's fiction, began in the 1940s, when he sold stories to the pulp magazine Astounding Stories. During this early part of his career, he corresponded with, among others, C.S. Lewis, and wrote the short story "The Sentinel" that would form the nucleus of the movie 2001. Concurrently, he served in the British Army during World War II as a radar expert and received his mathematics and physics degrees from King's College, London. Much of his telecommunications research occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, before his writing career skyrocketed in the early 1970s with a lucrative book deal centered around his classic novel Rendezvous with Rama--which won most of science fiction's major awards.
Later, in the 1980s, he would be instrumental in lending support and funding to a new major award in science fiction. Tom Hunter, administrator for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, expressed shock at what to him seemed the suddenness of the author's passing: "[Just a few days ago,] he thanked me for all the hard work on the award, and I felt very honored to have his endorsement and support. For me, his legacy to the field of science fiction writing goes well beyond the Award he created or his body of work or the generations of writers he will continue to inspire. He was one of the greats."
Wired.com contributing writer Brad Moon believes that Clarke's lasting contribution as one of the greats is how he has "helped to generate, maintain, and nurture an interest in science-oriented SF. Sure, there were and are authors who beat him hands down in terms of hard science, but I think you'd be hard pressed to name more than a handful of these who also possess Clarke's storytelling abilities. I believe it was that combination of science and compelling stories that made the man stand out in the field."
Noted author and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow remembers Clarke for "the ending of Childhood's End--probably the most wrenching twist I read as a kid. It made my head spin--I didn't know books could be so sneaky. To Doctorow, Clarke was "the epitome of the gentleman scientist and writer, a polymath respected in many fields whose work was always about technology and how it affected its creators."
Evidence of that influence on technology can be found at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, where Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise is on display "as one of the first fictional depictions of space elevator technology," according to Senior Curator Jacob McMurray. Like Doctorow, McMurray vividly remembers his experience of reading Childhood's End: "I was kind of blown away by it. Looking back, it probably was the first time I read anything about a societal Singularity/Sublimation event. The idea of a technological or cultural Rapture was spiritual and hope-inspiring in a way that I didn't find offensive. But I think what got me was that it was exciting and terrifying at the same time. It depicted a great leap forward for humanity, but at a huge cost. And I think I was unused to that level of grayness as to the moral outcome of a science fiction story. "
In a sense, as critic and reviewer Matthew Cheney notes: "Clarke's passing...signals the end of an era. I don't know where the term 'The Big Three Science Fiction Writers' originated, but since childhood I have thought of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke as those writers."
Sir Arthur C. Clarke died on March 18 at the age of 90, in Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. Most recently, Clarke had finished up The Time Odyssey trilogy with Stephen Baxter. The novel The Last Theorum a collaboration with another great from the Golden Era of SF, Frederik Pohl, will be released by Del Rey in November 2008. A movie based on Rendezvous With Rama, directed by David Fincher and starring Morgan Freeman, will be released in 2009.
Says Schluep, about his meeting with Clarke in the Chelsea Hotel, "I remember thinking, 'this is a great man, so just figure out one thing you could take from him that might help you somewhere down the line. One little bit of wisdom.' And I did learn something, which may seem small, but...no matter who he was talking to, Sir Arthur listened to people. He gave them his complete attention. I watched him do it as people came in and out of the hotel that day like they were visiting a king. It seems minor, but it has certainly helped me in my life. He did so much to change how we think and live, it's difficult to imagine he's no longer with us."
All quotes original to this post, unless otherwise indicated. Thanks to Wikipedia for some research.