Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Man With Vision

One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers, he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching in the display unit's short term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

...yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word "newspaper," of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.
excerpt from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Arthur Charles Clarke died last week. It was only December when I acknowledged his 90th birthday. As I blog on my personal computer, I realize that activities like this were envisioned 40 years ago. Note the quote above, it reads like someone using his iPhone and accessing or something similar.

If there was ever a person I wanted to meet, it was Arthur Clarke. Of course if I had ever met him, I'm sure I would have been a bumbling fool without any idea of what to say to him so maybe, it's best that I didn't. Years ago, in reading his autobiographical book, The View from Serendip, I felt I had met a kindred spirit. He said things and did things that I imagined I wanted to do and say.

He was certainly the right man for his time. He grew up at the dawn of the modern technological age. Airplanes and automobiles were just entering the scene. Computers and spaceflight were in the minds of dreamers. Imagine how different the world was between 1917 and now. Never before in human history did an entire generation witness such change.

A Pioneer
Clarke served in the second world war. Apparently the RAF recognized Clarke's extraordinary intellect and he was assigned to help develop a budding technology called radar and use it to aid aircraft in landing in poor conditions. Clarke became one of the first air traffic controllers. His novel Glide Path is about this work.

After World War II, Clarke turned his interest back to an earlier love; outer space. In 1945, he published a small paper on how a satellite placed at an altitude of approximately 22,000 miles would remain stationary with respect to the Earth below. Arranging a ring of such satellites would allow instantaneous global communication by sending a signal to one satellite and having it relay around the globe to its desired destination. 17 years later, this speculation became reality with the U.S. launch of Telstar.

Most of Clarke's speculations and extrapolations would come from his short stories and novels. In addition to the Internet-like technology I mention above, his works speculate such ideas as:

Atomic Engines - spaceships powered by controlled nuclear explosions (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Mass Drivers - using the inherent energy in matter/plasma to propel spaceships (2010: Odyssey Two)
Space Elevators - An efficient means of getting payloads into space (The Fountains of Paradise)

I should note that none of Clarke's short stories or novels, with the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, used the convenient science fiction ploy of "hyperspace". Clarke strongly believed in stories that were based on science and true speculative science, not fantastical science that breaks laws of the universe.

An Explorer
While Clarke never made it into outer space, he was able to do the next best thing. He became an avid scuba diver in the 1950's. He and his then partner Mike Wilson (no relation) explored the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia as well as other places, primarily in the Indian Ocean. It was here where Clarke came upon the island of Ceylon (formerly Serendip and now Sri Lanka). Clarke lived the rest of his life on that island just south of India. It provided him with a great base in which to conduct his scuba diving expeditions. Clarke wrote some works concerning scuba diving (The Deep Range for one), but still concentrated the bulk of his writing on space.

A Screenwriter
Producer/Director/Screenwriter Stanley Kubrick decided to create a film concerning outer space. Someone told him to look up Arthur Clarke to which Kubrick only knew of as a "hermit who lives in India". Kubrick met Clarke while Clarke was visiting his homeland of England. They apparently took a quick liking to each other. For most of the year 1964, Clarke and Kubrick shuttered themselves in the Chelsea Hotel in New York to work on Journey Beyond the Stars. When they departed, a large part of the screenplay and novel for 2001: A Space Odyssey had been written. Kubrick would go on to tweak the screenplay further while Clarke added some polish to the novel so each got credit for one specific work.

In watching 2001 and reading the novel, it is fairly obvious where Kubrick went with it. The film's prominent mysticism is not in the novel. Yet the film obviously has Clarke's influence. Clarke, even then, was well known for his scientifically-grounded fiction. 2001 is to this day, is the most scientifically accurate space film ever made.

A Philosophizing Atheist
Clarke was always, paradoxically, the atheist who often wrote about God. He discarded any and all religious beliefs at an early age and strongly believed that science was ultimately the answer to everything. God, religion, and religious themes permeate his entire opus, however. My favorite short story of his is The Star. It's about a Jesuit priest who is losing his faith due to the discovery that an entire intelligent race had been wiped out by a supernova. The priest is on the edge of despair when he suddenly realizes that this killer supernova had served as the star of Bethlehem. I often think about this story, its incredibly irony, and what I'd think if this really had happened this way.

Childhood's End is my favorite novel. It is about a supreme entity, The Overmind, and the cast out creatures complete with horns and barbed tails who visit Earth to bring about the end of the human race. These creatures, known as The Overlords even inform the human race that they are not destined and not permitted to explore the universe. It is literally a story that portrays the opposite of Clarke's philosophy. Those who think that obviously didn't read the fine print. At the front of the novel, there is a disclaimer saying "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author."

An Aged Cynic
I remember interviews of Clarke where he believed he would walk on the Moon within his lifetime and possibly even go to Mars. In reflecting on those thoughts later, he lamented that humans were too fond of warfare and their own self-interests. It is really sad that on his 90th birthday this past December, his dreams were a bit more mundane. He wished for evidence of extraterrestrial life, for an end to the use of oil as fuel, and peace in perpetually war-torn Sri Lanka. At least he was fairly upbeat as it were. I remember recent interviews he gave where he came off as bitter and frustrated with humanity.

Clarke certainly got frustrated with the world's religions. It showed in all his recent writings, including his many collaborative efforts. Note that Clarke in his later years, suffered from Post-Polio Syndrome and couldn't move about very well. He wasn't able to do much writing himself so all his recent works were in collaboration with other authors. Clarke became convinced that religion is the cause of much, if not most of the evil in humanity. Personally, I disagree with him here as I think that religion is just used as a shield to justify an evil that is already in the heart of the evildoers, but I digress. Clarke went as far to say that he didn't want any iota of religion at his funeral.

For a man who was right on so many things, I hope he was wrong about there not being an afterlife. I'd hate to think he was really gone.

I'll re-post the link to his 90th birthday speech here.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. IMOHO, you did him justice.

Robert E Wilson said...

Thank you. It was actually, very easy to write.