"There were some whom Earth could never reclaim, as it had gathered back all their ancestors since the beginning of time. These were the voyagers who had failed to reach their goals, but had won instead the immortality of space, and were beyond change or decay." —from an early draft of 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in The Lost Worlds of 2001.
On March 18, 2008, a beautiful day, one of the men who shaped my life met a quiet end in his home in Sri Lanka. If you are reading this—if you are reading science fiction at all—then he almost certainly shaped your life as well. Arthur C. Clarke gave sixty years to the future, and never looked back. The last of his more than 100 books will be published posthumously this year.
Clarke had the rare privilege—or perhaps burden—of being a legendary figure in his own time. A profile by Salon.com's Frank Houston dubbed him "the Time Traveller," for his skill at predicting advances in technology; it was the only kind of prediction Clarke believed was possible.
The idea of a wizard in a space station may seem strange or contradictory—even dangerous in its invocation of pure fantasy to describe one of the great pioneers of "hard" science fiction. But it is the role Clarke played most of his life: a mythologized figure of intellect and prescience, standing on the shadowy frontier of modern science.
America in the early 1960s was Camelot, and Clarke was Merlin.
He was the man born in the future who lived backwards to show it to us through his much-reported predictions: satellites, laptops, ICBMs, and Internet news. He was the secular prophet of America's national triumph in the Apollo program. Through his writing he became an embodiment of wisdom, both as it applied to earthly science and metaphysical mysticism; he was both the wizard and the sage.
It's hard to believe he's gone. At the end of the story of Camelot, remember, Merlin doesn't die—he's traveling through time the wrong way. Instead, he dives, down into the roots of the great tree (or the cave of Nimue, depending on your version). His passage into the Earth is a birth in reverse; a return to the primordial source of life. If you liked, you could say he was downloaded.
It's a fitting metaphor for the passing of a futurist who foresaw humans uploading their consciousnesses into spaceships of metal and gemstone and exploring the galaxy; a visionary whose ideas drove a nation to its greatest accomplishments and a writer who imbued millions with a sense of wonder at the grandeur of the universe.
Reports of Clarke's death have focused on his skills as a prognosticator, and indeed, he was, with his insistent visions of space exploration, telecommunications satellites, and a connected world.
"Men will become neighbours . . . [w]hether they like it or not," he wrote in Profiles of the Future (also quoted in his Economist obituary). He was talking about telecommunications, not the Internet—though in one short story he did posit that the world's phone network would grow so huge it would develop consciousness.
But relatively little space has been devoted to Clarke's writing—the notable exception being the essays of his collaborator and friend, Gregory Benford, an astrophysicist and author of many science fiction novels including Timescape, the Galactic Center Saga, and Beyond the Fall of Night (a collaboration with Clarke).
In many of Clarke's obituaries, there is a subtext (occasionally text) suggesting that while his way of seeing the future was extraordinary, his writing was perhaps not very good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though he wasn't known for vivid character portraits, his prose was always elegant, and its style precisely suited to his purposes: prompting readers to think and to wonder.
"The Clarkian voice is a unique one, I think," Benford says, in a phone interview from his home in California. "Uniquely cool and distant. And he used it very effectively."
In a video message recorded on his 90th birthday, Clarke told his friends and fans how he wished to be remembered: "as a writer, one who entertained readers, and hopefully stretched their imaginations as well."
Merlin's Books (The Ones He Left Behind)
Clarke has consistently been compared to two other longtime giants of American science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Sometimes Ray Bradbury is thrown in for good measure. But the only similarities these authors really share with Clarke are good timing and good sales figures. He was not an author of space adventures; nor a predictor of future societies or a scholar of the human condition.
In terms of theme and style, Clarke is less like Heinlein or Asimov than he is like, say, Lovecraft. Clarke was by leaps and bounds a better writer, but there is something tangible he shares with the grandfather of horror. Both seemed haunted by a vision that for years they struggled to put in words, a vision of mankind's transience and its power; our insignificance and our possibility. His fiction is grand in scope, operatic in style: sometimes spanning hundreds of thousands of years in a single story, at other times focusing on the powerful implications of minute discoveries.
Clarke did write a couple space adventures, and paint a few pictures of future societies, but for the most part he stuck to stories where either his vision or his uniquely dry wit would serve as the driver. Though not a research scientist himself, he always focused on keeping his stories grounded in what might happen. For some writers, the story comes first and then the science is researched, but for Clarke, Benford says, it was the other way around.
"He was a gourmet of science," Benford explains. "He felt that the first thing was to see whether the science had a good 'taste,' so to speak . . . whether it really went to the fundamentals. . . . Clarke of course preferred the big, large-perspective stuff that had implications. . . . He was always, always looking for what will last."
And he was brilliant at finding it. At a time when science fiction was still dominated by Intrepid Explorers and their Rocket Adventures, Clarke was a fabulist whose tales laid bare the connection between the scientific and the metaphysical.
He was also a mystic, albeit a secular one. A recent review of his work in the New York Times theorized that his mysticism sprung from the fact that science is like a religion—invoking Clarke's famous third law for justification. I suspect Clarke, a determined atheist, would have been horrified.
More likely he would have said religion is akin to science in its earliest developmental phase.
Mankind will always ask questions; science is one of the names we give our attempt to understand the world. At first, with few tools for understanding, we simply make up answers for why the lightning flashes or the seasons change. By telling stories, we create magical beings in order to give natural phenomena the qualities of humans. These are the first religions. The most destructive among them never get past this point; they take their stories for absolute truth, and enforce this belief on their followers. Others grow in a different direction, looking inward for ultimate truths.
But assuming the search for answers continues, then a point arrives when we realize we can observe patterns in the fluctuations of weather, or the movements of disease. We learn that these can allow us to predict what might happen in the future. In the beginning, progress is agonizingly slow, because the phenomena that concern our pastoral lives are huge and complex systems—meteorology, bacteriology, ecology. But there are keys to be found: the circulation of the blood; the cataloging of minerals and lifeforms; the laws of gravity. We begin to understand that we live in a world with rules; then we create our own, in rigorous systems of analysis, repeatability, peer review.
But through it all the questions remain. Newton and Einstein used mathematics to tell us how the Earth goes around the sun; their equations were unable to tell us why—though they surely wondered. What remains beyond the realm of "how" is the domain of the mystic, the one who gazes into the future for technologies advanced enough to blur the distinction between physical law and magic.
As a writer, this was where Clarke lived and breathed. The emotional appeal of his work came from his understanding of our basic need to question our existence; his literary power was born of the intimate linkage of wonder and terror that infuses the best of his stories. These elements have formed the foundation for much of the broad appeal of science fiction today.
As Clarke himself requested, I can think of no better way of talking about him than to look again at the words he left behind.
Against the Fall of Night
When the Second World War ended, Clarke was 27. He studied physics after leaving the RAF, and soon found work as an editor at the journal Physics Abstracts. He was also writing and publishing science fiction in this period, though his work was not yet well known. He also wound up chairing the British Interplanetary Society, and became involved in various futurist groups. He would later cite his work at the journal as a major source of inspiration.
Between the late 1940s and early 1950s, Clarke developed a large body of short stories, many of which later became icons of science fiction. Often, these stories concerned the little-touched topic of the distant future; a particular theme was different scenarios for contact between humans and alien intelligences.
In one story, an alien ship from a dying empire attempts to help early humans up the evolutionary ladder; the emotional meeting of a race at its dawn with one in its twilight is one neither species will ever remember—but no reader will forget. In another tale, a similar ship arrives at a dying Earth to try to save the population, and discovers that humanity has already escaped on primitive rockets, leaving the aliens shocked by their ingenuity—and not a little frightened.
Tales like "The History Lesson," "The Sentinel," "Encounter at Dawn," "The Songs of Distant Earth," "The Star," and "The Nine Billion Names of God" were the raw matter of science fiction, and they made Clarke a pioneer in using the genre to specifically address the big questions of our existence: who are we? Why are we here? When we look into the dark, what will we find?
Genre-defining stories often seem dated or even cliched to modern eyes, reduced by the mass of similar tales that have come after. Not so Clarke's, which retain much of their power to this day. Partly this is because of his clear, distinctive, and dispassionate prose, evoking the epic and the eternal. Partly, too, it is the stories' focus on scientific plausibility, which was to be a major influence on the way science fiction would develop in subsequent years.
Clarke's short fiction inspired the hard-SF writers of the 1970s, and influenced subsequent generations of futurists like Greg Egan and Kim Stanley Robinson, and it will continue to influence more still.
When I was perhaps 15 years old, I wrote a story I called "The Iliad"; the main character was Clarke himself, stamping across the surface of the Moon on bionic legs to view an alien artifact. Reviewing his stories today, I see echoes of a half dozen in my early foray into science fiction, and realize again how much his tales shaped me.
Of all Clarke's early works, the most perfect and precognitive was Against the Fall of Night—later re-worked as The City and the Stars. It tells of a far future when humans, essentially immortal and equipped with machines that bestow almost godlike power, live cloistered in enclosed cities on a near-dead earth, trapped by their own decadence and fear.
Frederik Pohl, one of America's most noted hard-SF authors, writer of the classic Heechee Saga, and also Arthur C. Clarke's last collaborator, says The City and the Stars remains his favorite of Clarke's books, primarily because of its technological inventiveness.
"It has more informed inventions than most science fiction," says Pohl, in a phone interview from his Chicago home.
The dystopian format, which highlights an individual's fight to escape a constricting future society, is one of the oldest plots in science fiction. But while other dystopian writers have used the form to rail against social trends they see as pernicious, Clarke's technological take on the genre speaks to our society as a whole. Mankind is the inheritor of near-limitless potential, he suggests—but this power carries within it the seed of destruction. The tension of human intellect as a creative and a destructive force is the motor that fuels many of his stories.
No work better illustrates this than Childhood's End, which many critics consider Clarke's best work. It connects destruction and creation even more intimately than any other tale: the creation is humanity's elevation to a new stage of consciousness, but that elevation requires the end of civilization and humanity as we know it. Here, Clarke echoes not Copernicus or Kepler so much as Nietzsche. When we look into the darkness, what will we become?
Before moving on, it's worth mentioning something too about Clarke's wit and humor, which were also abundant in his stories—particularly in the collection Tales from the White Hart, a set of science-fictional drinking yarns. More than anything, these are reminiscent of the cyber-fables of Polish author Stanislaw Lem in their blend of light-hearted humor and dark-hearted cynicism.
Lem may be the one contemporary of Clarke's whose style and substance bear marks of a similar intent: his works are often Iron Curtain versions of the same stories, riddles, and metaphysical parables as are Clarke's. But while the British-born Clarke remains eternally hopeful, Lem's work is riddled with a cynicism born of life in a semifunctioning Soviet bureaucracy.
Yet it was not in Britain but rather in America that Clarke made his biggest mark.
One obituary, by astronomy writer Saswato R. Das for the International Herald Tribune, has it that Clarke's nonfiction book The Exploration of Space, in the hands of rocket man Wernher von Braun, was a major part of the inspiration for Kennedy's space program. If true, this illustrates perfectly Clarke's idea that creation and destruction are connected.
Von Braun, after all, was the living reminder that modern rocketry, including the space program that Clarke was so sure would be our civilization's great achievement, was born out of the Second World War's frenzied quest for better engines of death. A final irony was that in that same rocket research, Clarke saw a foreshadowing of the threat of intercontinental war waged with ballistic missiles. Having served in the war and been one of the first to anticipate that space would be its aftermath, this particular conflict doubtless fueled those early stories' sense that creation and destruction were intimately linked.
Whether or not von Braun drew inspiration from The Exploration of Space, the 1960s were, in a sense, Clarke's decade, marked by his tireless advocacy for space exploration in general and the Apollo program in particular. He later said that putting a man on the Moon might be the one human achievement that would be remembered long after America—or even Earth—was forgotten.
Though he worked on several other novels in this period, much of the middle 1960s was taken up by Clarke's long collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, which eventually resulted in the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Driven in part by the huge success of the film, 2001 quickly became Clarke's best-known work, and would remain so until his death. Both came out in 1968, just a year before the real Moon landing.
Clarke himself described the process of developing the story in The Lost Worlds of 2001, and so much has been written about it that it almost seems there is little more to say.
There remain two major critical points of view on 2001. One (I'll call it the Kubrickian) holds that the movie is infinitely superior to the novel, usually because the book undermines the film's mythic mystery with too much explanation. The other, the Clarkian, maintains that the novel is infinitely superior to the movie, typically because the film version, taken on its own, doesn't make any sense.
In this dichotomy of interpretations, 2001 bears a great similarity to any religious text—another simile Clarke would doubtless have hated—though thankfully the Clarkians and the Kubrickians haven't started burning each other at the stake (yet).
From his later writing and interviews, it would seem Clarke subscribed a bit to both camps. Kubrick explicitly said he was out to create a myth: a story that could mean all things to all people. Clarke was writing a novel, and he produced an elegant and thought-provoking one. It may be worth saying that the collaboration has served to blend the two men together somewhat. Though Clarke had metaphysical elements in his work, his approach to 2001 appears to have been much more based on the science, while Kubrick was preoccupied with its metaphysical implications.
But 2001 would also influence the course of Clarke's own work, as well as science fiction as a whole.
Rendezvous with Rama
In the early 1970s, Clarke was already beginning to experience the first tremors of the post-polio syndrome that would eventually leave him confined to a wheelchair. He hated crowds, friends said, and he was spending more and more of his time in Ceylon (soon to be renamed Sri Lanka). He had moved there in the 1950s because of the island's fantastic opportunities for diving, another lifelong interest.
Still, his creative pace never slowed, and after 2001 debuted, Clarke turned his attention to what may be one of the best novels in Western science fiction: Rendezvous with Rama. In the book version of 2001, Clarke may indeed have tipped his hand too much; in Rama he achieves in print the kind of mythic grandeur and mystery that made Kubrick's film a cinematic classic.
The novel begins in 2130, when mankind is briefly paralyzed by the discovery of a huge meteor that appears to be on a collision course with Earth. (Early warning systems for meteor impacts were one advance Clarke argued for in vain for most of his life.) It is soon discovered that the meteor will not hit the planet, but simply fly alarmingly close. Then comes the kicker: this particular meteor is not a random lump of rock, but a perfectly formed cylinder of awesome size.
The story concerns the team sent to explore this mysterious object, which they name "Rama." Unlike 2001, it is not overtly metaphysical—in fact, the plot is shockingly close to a space western, with Intrepid Explorers boldly venturing into the unknown. But the implications go far beyond what readers of space adventure might expect.
The explorers find a whole world inside Rama: plants and machines and built structures flourishing within a spacecraft the size of a small moon. Exploring it provides tight spots and escapes aplenty, but most significant is what the explorers do not find: answers. Rama is a huge ecosystem filled with "hows," but there is no sign of the "whys"—at least none our space cowboys can interpret. The more they study, the more they find their own concepts of space, exploration, and even "life" fall short of describing what they have found.
Rama remains unguessable.
Part of the book's genius is that these implications are not discussed or dissected in metaphysical terms. One can read Rama as, simply, an adventure about exploring an alien ship. Though it lacks some of the epic literary style of 2001 or Against the Fall of Night, it makes excellent use of Clarke's particular, dispassionate voice, and features some of his most realistic dialog; it is short, focused, readable, and adventuresome. But to stop there would be a bit like calling Moby-Dick (one of Clarke's favorites) an adventure on a whaling ship.
Rama's closest antecedent may be Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, written in Polish a decade earlier. In that book, human scientists discover a planet that appears to be one giant living organism, and set up a space station to observe it. But these observers, too, find their attempts to study the alien do little more than reflect their own minds back at them.
This kind of uncertainty was Lem's stock-in-trade, as his fiction, much like Clarke's, dealt in metaphysical quandaries and the realm of distant possibility. But for Western fiction, it was a revelation: who could write a book in which the Intrepid Explorers did not defeat the alien race—or, in fact, even meet it, or guess at its purpose? We want to hear that we are destined for revelation, not ignorance; we hope to believe that when we step into the Star Gate we will discover the secrets of the universe, when more likely all we will find there will be our own face, staring back at us.
In the years that followed, more and more speculative fiction would begin to follow this mold. Mankind's role in the imagined universe of the future would begin to change, from that of a great player to a mote in an unguessable design. Rama was a turning point, one of the first of a group of 1970s hard-SF novels that focused on technological accuracy, and began to put humankind's role in the universe into a much different perspective. Others included Larry Niven's Ringworld, Frederik Pohl's Gateway, and Greg Benford's In the Ocean of Night.
"A lot of good stuff [came out] in the 1970s," Pohl says, though he puts more emphasis on those novels' technological completeness than on their philosophical meaning. "They were among the first science fiction novels that tried to imagine the future in three dimensions, thinking about all the consequences of the major scientific discoveries that they discussed. Usually before that, science fiction writers would confine themselves to one big lie and not worry too much about the inevitable consequences."
The Great Communicator
Neither the onset of illness nor isolation stopped Clarke from writing, even as he came to live in a sort of continuously connected exile.
"He was a great communicator, that's how he held out in Sri Lanka so long," Benford says. "I've always suspected that one of the elements in his fiction came from his psychology," he adds. "He prefers abstract spaces, and some distance—one thing he said: 'there's nothing that stops you from thinking, no matter where you are.' He once told me that he wrote one of his short stories while he was sitting at a party in New York. He'd had the idea coming over to the party, and he sat down and wrote the entire story by hand, while people around him were doing New York gossip stuff."
After writing at least four of the most important books in science fiction, Clarke began devoting more time to sequels, developing the implications of those earlier works. In three sequels to 2001 he sketched out the geography of the far future in intimate detail.
And, too, he began to collaborate more, forming partnerships with other writers, with whom he worked in collaboration or for whom he was a source of ideas. With former NASA engineer Gentry Lee, Clarke produced the novel Cradle, as well as three sequels to Rama that share almost nothing with the original.
Another early collaborator was Benford, who wrote a sequel to Against the Fall of Night. Together, Clarke's novella and Benford's sequel formed a novel called Beyond the Fall of Night. That partnership began in the late 1980s, Benford recalls, when Clarke was in Washington, D.C. for post-polio treatment.
"He and I went for the day to the National Space Museum," Benford says. "We had lunch . . . and we were sitting around and thinking about 'what's wrong with science fiction?' and Arthur said that very few people ever wrote about the far future. I said, 'Yes, that's true, and I've always wondered what happens after the end of "Against the Fall of Night,"' and he said, 'Yes, I have too; I have no real idea.'"
So the collaboration began. The sequel section of Beyond the Fall of Night is one of the few collaborations that was not coauthored; Benford wrote it, with advice and ideas from Clarke.
"We had fun with it," Benford continues. "He'd call me up about every week and say, 'How's our project going?' . . . I decided to not even try to echo his style. . . . That was just beyond the pale." Instead, he says, he tried to take the idea even further into the future, to imagine how evolution might work in the world Clarke had created.
"It suddenly struck me that the great evolutionary paradigm is: life comes from the sea onto the land, then learns to fly. Well the next big leap will be when life comes to inhabit vacuum, space. Now, it's going to take some help from us to get it out there, but once you've got functioning biological organisms in space, they have an essentially infinite space to cavort in."
The result is both a typically Benfordian tale of the powerful endurance of life, and a new twist on Clarke's classic formula: we have met the aliens, and they are us.
Clarke's interest in both following and promoting real science also continued unabated. Though never again with the same prominence he attained in the 1960s, Clarke continued to push the frontiers of scientific research all his life, Benford says.
"He really wanted the future to be great and beautiful," he explains. "He tried to concentrate on the good, and I think that's very important to realize: that he chose the optimism. He came, after all, out of the Second World War, which was not a place for optimists. So he had seen real adversity, and he thought the way out of it was by moving onward and not looking back."
To sum up, Benford paraphrases Percy Shelley, who said the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the future.
"Now we know that it's really the science fiction writers," Benford concludes.
The Last Theorem
In his last years, Clarke wrote less, though he never stopped. He also became more and more an idea man, feeding thoughts and innovations to his collaborators.
His final work, The Last Theorem, was cowritten with fellow hard-SF pioneer Frederik Pohl. It began, Pohl says, with close to 100 pages of notes and drafts, which Clarke had begun but was having trouble finishing, due to his illness. The two writers had been in touch by mail. At one point, Clarke wrote to Pohl and mentioned that he was looking for a collaborator, "which I took to be a hint, and volunteered," Pohl says.
The title comes from the famous "last theorem" of French mathematician Pierre de Fermat. In the margin of a book on mathematics, Fermat wrote that he had a marvelous proof of a certain proposition—but that it was too large for the margin to contain.
"He never published the proof and he probably didn't have it," Pohl explains. But for centuries, it remained a mystery, one that came to represent all that was unfathomable in science. In the 1990s British mathematician Andrew Wiles finally proved the theorem, though using methods Fermat would never have had access to.
Clarke's idea made the last theorem into a turning point in humanity's development, Pohl explains. "The book is about a young man from Sri Lanka named Ranjit Subramanian who, at an early age, was inspired to find the proof," he says. Subramanian eventually succeeds, leading him to become involved in a number of high-level events, including space travel and contacts with extraterrestrials. Like many of Clarke's earlier works, the book spans vast stretches of time, incorporating numerous ideas about how technological change will affect humanity's future.
"The book starts about 20 years from now, and goes to about 100,000 years later than that," Pohl concludes.
The collaboration was complicated by Clarke's increasing illness, Pohl says, but the work was finally completed to both writers' satisfaction just a few days before Clarke's death. The Last Theorem will be available on August 5, 2008.
The Cave of Nimue
At the very end, Clarke's home in Sri Lanka was like the roots of Merlin's tree: his refuge and his prison. The isolation of illness was counterpointed by the growing brutality of Sri Lanka's civil war, which was a continual worry for Clarke.
"As happens when you get older, everybody he knew in Sri Lanka who was of like mind, they all died off," Benford says. "When I visited him last year, he said, except for visitors, he didn't find anyone to talk to."
In the end, what wonder he chose to dive back into the roots of the Earth? He was a great optimist living in an age not meant for optimism. The U.S. space program Clarke predicted had achieved great things, then fallen into stultification and obscurity. From a society that saw science as the hope of the future, Clarke lived to see one in which science is a consumer good, surrounded on all sides by the rising tide of religious fundamentalism. He saw a world that was threatened by war, but dreaming of peace, transform into a world with the potential for peace, but still unable to give up its addiction to violence. He imagined satellites long before they appeared, and dreamed they would unite the planet. Today the sky is full of them, and they allow billions to chatter while the world remains divided.
Camelot falls. Of course, in the myths, all the great heroes get the chance to come again.
"My problem with reincarnation is: what is the input-output device, and what is the storage system? This is a question that I've never had an answer to, but it's a rather interesting one I think," Clarke said, in an interview with Dr. David G. Stork for the website 2001: Hal's Legacy. "If we are somehow stored after our deaths and could be revived then there is the question—if no information is ever lost, if it is stored somehow in the fabric of the cosmos, then anyone who ever lived could be reincarnated—and this has been the subject of serious philosophical speculation."
He's not the only scientist to express such a hope. The systems theorist Ervin Laszlo posits a very similar idea in his book Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything. Even at the lowest possible energy state allowed by quantum theory, space still contains energy, Laszlo says, energy that could carry information as part of some vast universal record.
Is it science, or modern mysticism? Who knows. But it's the kind of idea that almost certainly would have sent Clarke spinning off into a new dream of our distant futures.
If all information is indeed stored somewhere in the vast fabric of space, if what I hope is true, then Sir Arthur C. Clarke isn't really dead. He's just been uploaded somewhere. We will never know, but as Clarke himself has said: we can always wonder.