Born on 16 December 1917, Arthur C Clarke lived long enough to see the year he and Stanley Kubrick made cinematically famous with 2001: A Space Odyssey It seemed for a while as though he might see in his centenary too: he was physically active (he had a passion for scuba diving), non-smoking, teetotal and always interested in and curious about the world. But having survived a bout of polio in 1962, he found the disease returned as post-polio syndrome in the 1980s; it eventually killed him in 2008.
Arthur C Clarke
For a while Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov constituted the “big three”, bestriding science fiction like colossi. Like many SF fans I grew up reading Clarke. He was, for a time, everywhere: his books thronging the shops, he himself popping up on telly to present Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. He was a prolific science writer and presenter, a rationalist and space flight advocate. But most important was his science fiction. With “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) he has a fair claim to have produced the best short story, novel and screenplay in 20th-century SF.
What all three works share is the ability to construe moments of astonishing transcendence out of the careful delineation of scientific or technological plausibility. The amazing final line of “Nine Billion Names” (I won’t spoil it, if you don’t know it), the expertly paced uncovering of the mystery of the alien “overlords” who place Earth under benign dictatorship in Childhood’s End and the wondrous uplift of 2001 – this is the genuine strong black coffee of science fiction.
Not that he lacks detractors. He was an unshowy writer, his prose functional rather than beautiful, his characterisation rudimentary. Some of his short stories are marvellous but many read like five-finger exercises, often aiming at a humorousness that hasn’t aged well. Towards the end of his life Clarke fell into the rut of producing myriad sequels to his earlier masterpieces rather than new work. Rendezvous with Rama (1973), about the appearance in the solar system of a mysterious alien space station, vast and seemingly unpiloted, won all the SF awards when it was published; but Clarke’s egregious three sequels, co-authored with Gentry Lee between 1989 and 1993, neither won nor deserved prizes.
Clarke’s own novelisation of his screenplay 2001: A Space Odyssey makes an interesting companion piece to the film, from which it differs in many respects. But once again the sequel itch struck Clarke in the 1980s: 2010: Odyssey Two(1982) was followed by 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) and when number four was published as 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) fandom breathed a sigh of relief.
We can take with a pinch of salt his claim to have invented the concept of geostationary satellites, where a spacecraft completes one orbit in the same 24 hours of the Earth’s turning, so that it occupies a fixed place in the sky (this is the principle behind today’s communication satellites that enable everything from digital TV to GPS). Clarke certainly did publish an article advocating it (Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?) in Wireless World in October 1945. But Slovene rocket engineer Herman Potočnik proposed exactly this idea in 1928, and in 1942 American science fiction writer George O Smith published a novella, QRM – Interplanetary, set on a stationary “relay station” in space. I’m not accusing Clarke of plagiarism, yet the concept was clearly in the air in the 1940s.
But none of this matters. We don’t need to advocate the whole of Clarke to recognise the best of him, and to acknowledge that his influence continues to inform the genre. His plain writing style and meticulous attention to detail are there not for their own sake but to provide the most effective platform from which to create a genuine sense of wonder.
Not for nothing is the UK’s premier science fiction prize called the Arthur C Clarke award. Knighted in 2000, he is properly speaking Sir Arthur; but for the huge affection many in SF fandom have for him, he could almost be King Arthur.