Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke R.I.P.

Well known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died yesterday at the age of 90. He is perhaps best known to the general public as the writer behind the movie 2001: a Space Odyssey.

Clarke was born December 16, 1917 in Minehead, Somerset. Even as a child Clarke was interested in science. He enjoyed looking at the stars and among his favourite toys was a a Meccano set (the British equivalent of the Erector set). He started reading American science fiction pulp magazines, such as Astounding, as a teen. He also joined the British Interplanetary Society, a small group of enthusiasts who thought that space travel would one day become reality. He attended Huish's Grammar School, Taunton. Unable to afford a university education, he took a job as an auditor in the pensions section of the Board of Education. During World War II Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist. By the end of the war he held the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

Following the war, in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke wrote one of his most important works, an article on the use of geostationary satellites in the field of communications. While Clarke did not originate the idea of artificial satellites, he may well have been the first to propose their use as relay stations for communications on Earth. The article was published in the British journal Wireless World. The following year he made his first professional sale of a work of fiction, the short story "Loophole" to Astounding Science Fiction. At the time Clarke also attended King’s College, London. He graduated in 1948 with a degree in mathematics and physics.

Over the next six decades Clarke would be one of the most prolific and successful science fiction writers of all time. His short stories would become some of the best known in the genre. "The Sentinel," which would provide the basis for the film 2001: a Space Odyssey, dealt with an artefact left on the moon millenia ago by aliens. "The Star" dealt with a Jesuit priest's crisis of faith when he learns the star of Bethlehem was a supernova which destroyed an advanced civilisation. "The Nine Billion Names of God" dealt with the efforts of a Buddhist monastery to find the true name of god.

While Clarke wrote many short stories, he was perhaps best known as a novelist. His first novel, Prelude to Space, was published in 1951. It was in 1953 that the novel which would put Clarke on the map was published. Childhood's End, which dealt with mankind's encounter with seemingly benevolent aliens. His following novels would meet with similar success, including Earthlight, The City and the Stars, and A Fall of Moondust. Among his most successful novels was Rendezvous with Rama, in which a thirty mile alien spaceship enters our solar system. Clarke would write three sequels to the novel.

Clarke also wrote a good deal of nonfiction dealing with science. Among his most popular nonfiction works were The Exploration of Space published in 1951, The Challenge of the Sea, and How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village. Clarke also worked in television. He wrote episodes of both Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Tales of Tomorrow. His short story "The Star" would serve as the basis for an episode of The New Twlight Zone in 1985.

Of course, Clarke's most famous work on film would be 2001: a Space Odyssey. Clarke met Stanley Kubrick in 1964 and the two decided to make a movie based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel." Clarke wrote the novel. Kubrick directed the movie. Both wrote the screenplay. 2001: a Space Odyssey would prove pivotal in getting greater acceptance for the genre of science fiction.

Arguably, Arthur C. Clarke may be the most famous science fiction writer of all time. And there is perhaps very good reason for this. While Clrke's characters were often underdeveloped, he made up for it with the depth of his works. Unlike many science fiction writers, Clarke was not content to examine scientific principles and technology, but their impact on humanity as well. And while the prose of many science fiction writers could be described as dry at best, Clarke often wrote prose that was almost poetry. While he may not have created fully realised characters, he more than made up for this with his examination of the effects of science on mankind and the beauty of his written words.


Jim Marquis said...

Childhood's End is one of my all-time favorite novels.

Unknown said...

I always assumed 2001 the novel came years before the film (I'd never looked at the dates that closely).

"Rendezvous with Rama" is one of my favourite books of all time not to mention that Clarke is one of the only hard science sci-fi authors I really enjoy reading. He has left behind quite the legacy. I doubt there will be another visionary quite like him for some time.

- Row Three

Terence Towles Canote said...

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the very few hard science fiction writers I really got into. I loved both Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama.