Thus Spake Arthur C Clarke


Posted by in September's Magazine

It was perhaps one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century and also one of the most bewildering. Who can forget 2001: A Space Odyssey released a year before the 1969 moon landings? Who can forget the rogue on-board computer (particularly now when everyone knows the horrors of a malfunctioning computer)? Who can forget the enormous white interstellar station slowly revolving in the blackness of space to the tune of Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz?.

The reality of the year 2001 was not quite as majestic as the British film made it out to be. In real life, technology hasn’t advanced as far as its author had suggested (although he often underestimated the speed of technological change). But it looks likely that by 2051 we may have commercial travel to outer space, scientific space laboratories and even outposts on Mars – and yes, we already have the rogue computers. The writer of the book as well as the screenplay, Arthur C Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

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Sir Arthur (he was knighted in 2000 for services to literature) had been writing speculative and science fiction for years before the film was released but it made his name. Essentially his fiction was optimistic, looking forward to a hopeful world but not one without dangers. There’s a series of 2001-related books (although Childhood’s End is considered to be his finest work): 2001; 2010: Odyssey Two; 2061; and 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Born on a farm in 1917 in Somerset, England, Clarke’s first job was in the civil service but he always knew he wanted to be a writer. His first book, Against the Fall of Night, was written in 1948 and published in 1953. He gained his insights into technology and its capabilities early on. As a boy he made his own telescope from lenses and a cardboard tube. When he was asked if he believed in extra-terrestrial life, his answer was simple: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” When only a teenager he became a member of the Junior Astronomical Association. He moved to London to start his career at the age of 18. During the Second World War Clarke joined the Royal Air Force working on the early warning radar defence system that played such a crucial part in the Battle of Britain.

After the war he studied physics and mathematics. And much of his fiction was grounded in real science or existing and potential technology. He also looked at philosophical aspects of advances in science. He was as much a novelist and storyteller as a thinker and he firmly believed in the power of the imagination in seeking practical scientific solutions. One of his Three Laws was ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong”.

Some 20 years ahead of its time he set out in the magazine Wireless World the principles of satellite communication. It was the time of the space race between America and Russia when both countries experimented with spaceflight and early satellite telecommunications. In 1945 he published a technical science paper on the feasibility of satellite stations being used for telecommunications, exploiting an orbit 22,000 miles above the equator, in recognition of his contributions this geostationary orbit is officially known as the Clarke Orbit.

The English science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock called Clarke “an impeccable gent through and through”. And it was said that he made science fiction an acceptable literary form, rescuing it from juvenile stories of robots running amok. Clarke also had a great faith in the future possibilities of the computer. By the mid-1970s he had predicted the home computer and the age of the internet, artificial intelligence, commercial hovercraft, cloning, robotics, the Mir space station, mobile phones, satnav and much else besides.

Moreover he predicted passenger space travel and huge rotating space stations. In reality scientific innovation did not keep pace with Clarke’s imagination. After the first American stepped on the moon much of the excitement of space exploration fizzled out as budgets were cut and stargazing future thinkers went out of fashion. In the last decade however there’s been a flurry of interstellar activity that would have made Clarke proud.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic project anticipating space tourism may have had its setbacks but no one can deny its ambition. Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has brought back data that strongly suggests that traces of water (or hydrated salts) exist on the Red Planet and where there is water there is life.

In 1956 Clarke moved to Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean where he indulged his passion for scuba diving and table tennis. The lush, subtropical weather suited him and he continued to write up until his death aged 90 in 2008.

His epitaph reads: ‘He never grew up, but he never stopped growing’.

Twitter: @KenWilson84

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