As the centenary of his birth approaches, Steve Arnott celebrates the life and work of one of the world’s most famous science fiction writers, scientist and futurist, Arthur C. Clarke.
On March 19 2008, the day Arthur C. Clarke died in his adopted homeland of Sri Lanka, the NASA satellite Swift observed four gamma ray bursts from distant corners of our universe. These bursts were the signatures of super massive stars dying and going supernova, millions and billions of years ago, whose echoes, travelling at the speed of light, all reached our tiny world in that one day. Never before had Swift observed four such supernovae within a twenty four hour period.
It is typical and telling of the intellectual legacy left by Clarke that his foundation website describes the event as ‘a cosmic coincidence’. All of Clarke’s work, in science and in fiction, is permeated with a sense of wonder, possibility and ‘magic’ about the reach of science and technology, about the vastness of the universe and humankind’s place in it, that has nothing to do with irrationality or superstition, but everything to do with understanding and the struggle for understanding.
Arthur Clarke would have found only wry amusement at the gullibility of the human psyche that sees horoscopes published and read in almost every daily newspaper, and at astrology’s claim that the movement of celestial bodies affects the personal paths of our daily lives. But he would have derived a deep sense of joy from the undisputed scientific fact that every single one of us, and everything around us, is composed of elements – atoms – generated by precisely such cosmic explosions as the March 19 supernovae in the deep past. Forget medieval cosmologies of angels and demons. The simple truth is much more fantastical and satisfying. We are all made of stars, and in the last and ultimate analysis, we all go back to the stars.
About six weeks prior to Clarke’s passing, and half a world away, on a cold early February evening in Inverness, I found myself thinking about his scientific legacy in quite a profound way. I was watching the New York Giants quite unforgettable humbling of the ‘unstoppable’ New England Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl (American Football, erroneously described as rugby with padding, correctly described as ‘violent chess with men’ is one of my guilty pleasures). Suddenly I found myself thinking that when I was a young boy growing up the idea of watching such a thing live in your front room would have seemed like science fiction, as would mobile telephones that could send pictures and music instantly across the face of the planet, or sat nav, with its voice from nowhere giving us directions as we drive.
All of these things are dependent on relays of geostationary satellites orbiting the earth. ‘Geostationary’ means that the satellite orbits the earth at the same rate and direction of the planet’s spin, so that it is always above a fixed point.
Such satellites in relay were first proposed in 1945 by Arthur Clarke in a paper to Wireless World called Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations give world wide radio coverage? Clarke never claimed sole authorship of the idea, and it probably would have happened anyway, but Clarke’s contribution in describing and popularising the concept, and in discussing the powerful positive possibilities for world-wide communication and information transfer, and consequently the possibility for increased human understanding in a world emerging from the second world war and entering the cold war, was a vital one. So much so that geostationary orbits are known as Clarke orbits in his honour.
So what, the socialist cynic might say. We ended up with Rupert Murdoch’s world domination and 500 channels of shit to choose from. But the technology and its positive possibilities will still remain long after capitalism as a social power becomes history.
Clarke himself, however, believed that his longest lasting contribution to the development of humanity won’t be the satellite communications network, but the space elevator or ‘needle’ first developed in his 1979 science fiction novel The Fountains of Paradise. Based on the same fundamental concept as the geostationary satellite, the space elevator posits transport pods linked to a hyper-tensile cable stretching from a point to the earth’s surface to a geostationary space station thousands of miles above the earth. While the initial costs of developing such a sky buster would be high, once in operation the costs of moving people and materials into space would be relatively cheap compared to fuel intensive small payload traditional rocket launches. Clarke believed that space elevators could open up the rest of the solar system for exploration and eventual colonisation.
The physics of the space elevator are fundamentally sound – the only stumbling block is the super tensile material required to stretch a heavy payload supporting cable over such a distance. In The Fountains of Paradise Clarke imagines a ‘pseudo one-dimensional hyper diamond crystal’ to do the rope trick, but recent scientific advances have shown that such hyper-tensile materials can be created in the laboratory. Carbon nanotube technology is one possible candidate for the space elevator cable. Clarke himself latterly expressed the view that the artificial carbon Buckminsterfullerene would be able to play the role.
In theory, the construction of a space elevator could begin now. Such a world changing project – a Panama Canal to space – is held back not by theoretical possibility, but by social will, the priorities of capitalism and the limitations of the nation state. Will we ever see Clarke’s space elevator take humankind to the planets and perhaps later the stars? Get back to me on that one in fifty years time.
By the way, almost as a sub-plot in the novel, and way in advance of Dawkins, Pinker and modern evolutionary psychology Clarke speculates that religion has its origin in sexual reproduction. Clarke, though he once dabbled in the paranormal, was a lifelong humanist and atheist – although, perhaps mischievously, he also sometimes described himself as a crypto-buddhist.
A Humanist Laureate of the International Humanist Society, he told an interviewer in 1972 that he could not forgive religion for its role in wars and atrocities.
In terms of his own sexuality, Clarke was once married, very briefly, but always attracted speculation that he was gay. Michael Moorcock once said “everybody knew he was gay.” But Clarke grew up in the thirties, forties and fifties where being openly gay in the wrong circles could be deadly. He may well have been aware of the fate of his contemporary Alan Turing - mathematician, wartime code breaker and inventor of the concept of the binary computer - who took his own life with an apple laced with cyanide when his own sexuality was brought into question. (By the way, think about that the next time you look at the Apple computer logo.)
Whatever the reason, Clarke appeared to take the Oscar Wilde position that his sexuality and sexual life were nobody’s damn business. When asked by journalists if he was gay he would reply, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”
If the two huge concepts of communications satellites and the space elevator, together with his contributions to humanism, were Clarke’s only gifts to humankind that alone would be well worthy of remembrance, but it is, of course, as one of the most well known science fiction writers of all time that he is known best across the globe.
Born in Minehead, in Somerset, in 1917, the young Arthur Clarke first came across science fiction from the gaudy pulp fiction magazines he was able to get from American sailors in the area. But while the American tradition developed from bug-eyed monsters and rocket ships, and tended (although not exclusively) to a right wing Americanised view of the Universe, Clarke was to become one of the key threads in the somewhat different tapestry of a British science fiction tradition – one that concerned itself with progress and/or the consequences of science and technology rather than galactic conquest, and one that placed hard scientific speculation together with observations on the human condition and social concerns.
In reading Clarke’s novel Imperial Earth many years ago, I was thrilled to realise, about half way through the book, that the main character was both black and bisexual. The novel was set in the twenty-third century and Clarke’s technique was to reveal his character’s colour and sexuality almost incidentally. Gradually the reader becomes aware that in the twenty third century someone’s sexuality or race is no more worthy of mention than their taste in food or the colour of their hair. Racism, sexism and homophobia are abolished through cultural normalisation.
In his key – and probably best works – Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars and Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke explores the impact on humanity of contact with alien technological species and our own subsequent physical and cultural evolution. His themes of growth, death, knowledge and transformation are the biggest that there is, and time and time again Clarke proves himself to be a profound dialectical thinker – where each technological leap forward leads to huge social, cultural and psychological changes for human society, which in themselves propel yet further change.
Clarke’s best known work was his collaboration with another late and great – Stanley Kubrick – on the iconic 1969 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. As well as the obvious Homeric reference, the movie was based on an original Clarke short story The Sentinel, in which an alien artifact was found on the moon.
Clarke was brought in to work on the screenplay and technical aspects of the film, as well as to write a simultaneous novel of the same name. As it turned out the movie came out ahead of the book and Clarke was a bit angry with Kubrick for a while on the grounds that it made his book look like a novelisation of a film rather than a work in its own right. Book and movie both follow the same plot closely, but while Clarke provides prosaic and causal explanation for events in the book, Kubrick’s lack of dialogue and rationalisation make the film an altogether more ambiguous and mysterious experience.
The film came out in the year that Neil Armstrong made his 'one small step' - although the famous boot print on the moon everyone knows is actually Buzz Aldrin's!. This temporal congruity of a real world changing cultural event with a big budget science fiction movie based on hard science and real scientific conjecture gave the movie huge impetus. It remains the greatest science fiction movie of all time to this date, and Clarke’s input was crucial to the realisation of Kubrick’s cinematic vision.
The famous ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’ sequence when Dave Bowman slowly dismantles HAL, the onboard artificial intelligence, is surely one of the most memorable ‘death’ scenes in any film. Clarke had heard a voice synthesiser demonstration at Bell Labs, using the ‘Daisy’ song, some months previously, and strongly advised Kubrick to use it. The result is a deeply affecting experience in what is otherwise a relatively cold but vast intellectual and visual film. It takes the form, extends it, and uses it to say something profound – a real ‘Guernica’ moment.
It is a sign of a great futurist when their best work is only truly appreciated many years after it is first done. That has certainly been the case with Arthur C. Clarke. His own foundation, dedicated to ‘science, literature and social concerns’ now carries on his name and his work, and a link to their website is given below. I’ll end by citing Clarke’s own four laws of prediction, of which the third is by far and away the most famous, having been referenced in almost everything from Star Trek to The Simpsons.
Arthur C. Clark, Scientist, Writer, Futurist and Progressive Humanitarian, 1917-2008