Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008

Arthur C. Clarke has been a frequent visitor to the home of Joseph Green. Who better to discuss
Sir Arthur’s fiction?

The Two Faces of
Arthur C. Clarke

Joseph Green

Illo by Randy Cleary

Several years ago I did a study on the accuracy of science-fiction predictions by four acknowledged masters of the field, two older (Verne and Wells) and two modern (Heinlein and Clarke). That study appears elsewhere. During these analyses an interesting aspect of Clarke's body of work emerged. (I had noted individual pieces of it before, but not assembled them to form a conclusion.) Clarke, a prominent and influential space exploration exponent, author of numerous factual articles and books on science and space in addition to his many novels, has another side. His work sometimes shows a strong inclination toward the mystical, seemingly a search for transcendence.

In science fiction, the order of popularity in the US in the last century was always Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, according to numerous polls. But there isn't much doubt Clarke was the most popular in Europe (including Russia), and likely everywhere else SF was sold outside the USA. Clarke, now over ninety, has outlived the other two, though now reportedly in poor health.

Clarke is also one of the few SF writers (not counting real scientists who later write SF, like Fred Hoyle) to have made a real and direct contribution to science. In an article titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays", in the October 1945 "Wireless World", he laid out the basics for how three communications satellites could be placed in orbit, spaced equally around the equator, and provide (minus the polar areas) a world-wide instant communications system. The height he worked out, of 42,000 kilometers above the Earth's center of gravity, turned out to be slightly off, but not enough to matter. Ben Bova and others have urged NASA and various scientific bodies to call these "Clarke" orbits, so far without success.

Even a surface perusal of Clarke's work, from his short stories and novels to the many scientific essays (usually later combined into books), shows the two contradictory sides. The more prominent one is that of scientist/engineer, technologically savvy, well grounded in physics and the other sciences needed for spaceflight (though not that strong in biology). The second is highly mystical, an examination, usually in fictional form, of some of the mysteries of human existence; apparently a yearning for transcendence, a promise of escape from this mundane life. These two aspects of human nature have appeared in his work almost from the beginning, most often each standing on its own within an individual story or article.

One fact you learn quickly when studying the accuracy of prediction in science-fiction is that the body of speculative knowledge is highly cumulative. Later writers build on those who preceded them -- and usually, in the process, try to outdo them in imaginative speculation. This has caused many of the ideas and concepts in the modern literature to move so far into the future it's not possible now to judge how accurate they may prove. By contrast, a great many of the ideas of Verne and Wells have either come true, or been proven unlikely ever to become fact. And while I didn't do a scoreboard, it's seems clear Verne and Wells had many misses, just a few hits.

Any chronological study of Clarke's work quickly makes one fact apparent. There's an inverse relation between the age of the author and the imaginative range of his novels. Some of his earliest books go so far into future technology that the science becomes, in his own famous, phrase "indistinguishable from magic". Most of his later novels venture only a short distance beyond known science and/or technology. He shares this quality with many other writers. A. Merritt wrote the two most imaginative of his science-fantasies (The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster) early in his career.

As a writer of science fiction, Clarke is a superb imagineer, spinning intellectually fascinating tales of the future. His technical background, in those areas where I can follow him (and I spent 37 years in the American space program, both military and civilian), is always carefully worked out and quite accurate. His mistakes can usually be traced to writing within the bounds of what was known at the time. He is an outstanding example of the science fiction-writer where the emphasis goes on the first word, of the type who first made the genre fascinating to science-oriented kids from nine to ninety.

According to the forward in a later edition, Clarke's first novel was The Sands of Mars, though Prelude To Space was actually published earlier. The first edition appeared in 1952, years before the general public thought of spaceflight as a serious possibility. This book is a fine example of the work of a careful and technically competent science-fiction writer working with information that is incomplete or incorrect. It contains many errors of fact, but incorporates the best knowledge available at the time of writing. His several discourses that utilize basic scientific principles are usually right, if limited. It's in the many details necessary to flesh out the story of the exploration and colonizing of Mars where he sometimes falters.

Against the Fall of Night made Clarke's reputation. It appeared first as a short novel, serialized in Startling Stories. A few years later Clarke revised and expanded it into the definitive version, re-titled The City and the Stars. In either form, it's an excellent example of thoughtful science fiction, one where the predictions appearing in the story are too far-future to be verifiable today. But among them is one that seems astonishingly prescient, in the light of our current knowledge of solid state physics. It's an epigram that appears posted on an equipment room wall in the city: "No machine may contain any moving parts."

Childhood's End was Clarke's most famous book until the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared., and made the movie novelization a bestseller. This book deals with the growth and change of the human species into something not recognizable today. It also contains two sociological statements of high interest. One deals with scientific progress: "It works both ways -- you've told me that yourself. Our free exchange of information means swifter progress, even if we do give away a few secrets. The Russian research departments probably don't know what their own people are doing half the time. We'll show them that Democracy can get to the moon first." This clear understanding of the importance of free exchange in scientific progress still has not been grasped by many Western politicians today.

The second sociological statement was to the effect that the long-standing racial prejudice in South Africa had to end -- except that in Clarke's future, it was blacks oppressing whites, the opposite of the situation at the time of writing. The first necessary change for that prediction to come true has happened. The majority (by a lot!) blacks are now in political control. The second part, obvious oppression of whites, hasn't. But South Africa is a nation with big problems, and undergoing some turmoil from ongoing change. At this point we don't know if its diverse population can be successfully mingled, or if whites will indeed become a persecuted minority.

2001: A Space Odyssey contains several predictions of interest, some of which are either already here or on the immediate horizon. One big one, Clarke's "rolling wheel" configuration for a space station, isn't going to happen. I talked with one of the NASA engineers in on the original design studies. He said the wheel was the first idea they examined, and tried to work out (which illustrates the influence of the movie and book). It couldn't be done. The entire wheel would have had to be assembled and all parts carefully balanced before it could be "spun up." And that was just too difficult.

Others were more accurate. In 2001 Dr. Floyd catches up on the news by plugging a "Newspad" into a spaceship's circuits to connect him with data bases on Earth. We can do the equivalent now. The famous HAL 9000 computer Clarke projected is already on the way. It would be interesting to know how many of the top researchers working in Artificial Intelligence (AI) today were inspired by the book or movie.

In 2001, when the expedition reaches Jupiter, the story moves on into dimensions of science and technology too advanced to say today that such a system of galactic travel is actually possible. And the novel opened with another speculation that can't be proven, that intelligent alien beings visited Earth and tampered with proto-humans to increase their intelligence, leading to the development of Homo sapiens. Throughout the central part of the novel, set in 2001, there are many predictions of future capabilities we can see already here, or in the process of arriving. One big one Clarke missed, though, was how rapidly computers would spread throughout the world, and how quickly the Internet would emerge and play such an important role in most of Earth's societies.

Imperial Earth, set in the year 2276, has people living below the surface on the moon Titan. Most of the predictions incorporated lie too far ahead to determine now how accurate they may be. But one of special interest appears throughout the book. It's a type of computer, small enough to carry in a pocket and large enough in capacity to handle all of a person's business and communications needs, including vast storage. As in 2001, Clarke was way off on the time-frame. We will have such an item two centuries and more ahead of the time predicted in this novel.

In The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke's first novel after supposedly retiring, he postulated a space elevator, an idea where the physics are known but the materials to make it possible do not yet exist. Others have also written on this idea, and it is under serious consideration by possible builders. Whether the money and determination to actually build it will be there, once the technical problems are solved, remains to be seen.

Profiles of the Future contains a listing of some of the most important scientific discoveries and inventions since 1800, followed by an extrapolation of progress into the future as Clarke envisioned it. He predicted a moon landing by 1970, only a year off. He predicted automated translating machines by 1970, and they arrived in early forms (much better ones are available now) about that time. He called for a much more efficient means of electric storage, and that didn't happen. He predicted landing on another planet, probably Mars, by 1980. Instead we retreated from even our closest neighbor, the moon, and don't plan to go back before 2020 -- and even that effort looks under funded. Before the year 2100 Clarke expected human replication, immortality, matter transmission, interstellar flight, and a host of other advances -- all of which remain to be seen, most of which look doubtful.

The other face of Clarke, the mystic, the seeker of transcendence, has a grounding in science, but displays a yearning to move beyond its known bounds. In an early story, "The Nine Billion Names Of God" (later heading up a short story collection), Clarke has a sect of Buddhist monks using a computer to print out all the possible names of God. This was apparently the sole purpose for which their God created humanity, and when the job is done, the universe ends. The computer scientists they hired of course think this is ridiculous -- but when the last name prints out, the story ends in a jarring, startling statement that owes nothing at all to science: "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out".

In the early novel Childhood's End, Clarke envisions creatures at a much higher stage of development (who are unfortunate enough to physically resemble the Satan of Christianity) appearing via space travel to take charge of Earth and save us from ourselves. They succeed, and at the end all of humanity metamorphoses into an entity of pure energy, without a physical body, and leaves Earth forever to merge with a universal overmind. (An oddity with this novel is that in the 1953 Ballantine original pb edition, Clarke states on a frontispage: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." This continues through many reprints. One wonders why he felt this necessary.)

This was an early expression of a theme appearing frequently in Clarke's work, that some higher power will appear to save humanity from itself; a concept not that different from belief in an omniscient God. It appears again in 2001, when higher beings interfere with evolution on Earth to create us from ape-like ancestors (natural selection apparently not being up to the task). Said beings leave access to a system of travel that allows humanity (or at least one man) to visit distant stars, but until after Man has reached a technological stage that enables us to travel to Jupiter. (But strangely, the logical follow-through whereby that man returns to Earth reborn as "The Star Child", clearly an improved form of humanity, was Stanley Kubrick's idea. Clarke told me in person, on one of his visits to the Greenhouse, that he didn't know himself exactly how the movie ended until he saw it. That didn't stop him from incorporating this moving, profoundly thoughtful ending into the novelization, though.)

I've selected only a few examples to illustrate the mystical side of Clarke. There are probably hundreds more available through a perusal of his large body of work. (And it's interesting to reflect on the fact the mind many think the most intelligent humanity has ever produced, in the head of Isaac Newton, also had a mystical side, one that seems to have dominated his later years. See Neal Stephenson's long but excellent trilogy The Baroque Cycle for a fictional examination.) I've presented only a few of the major, best known ones here.

The two polarities in Clarke's work (and the scientific/technical clearly dominates, though the mystic can rear up unexpectedly at any time) have kept his novels fresh and interesting for decades now. His place in the history of SF, and in popular science writing, particularly on the space program, is secure.


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