16 December 2017 sees the centenary of the birth of science-fiction writer and science populariser Arthur C. Clarke. Last weekend, scholars and critics came from around the world to reflect upon his work at a conference organised by Dr Andrew M. Butler (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Dr Paul March-Russell (University of Kent).
The Significance of Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Andrew M. Butler
Some science-fiction critics identify the “Big Three” writers of the genre as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke thus has a good claim to be the most significant writer of genre science fiction to be born in Britain. Whilst H.G. Wells had published forty years earlier, it was only within the American magazine market of the mid-1920s that the genre emerged as a coherent megatext and conversation. Of course, John Wyndham and other, largely forgotten, writers had been publishing in those magazines before the Second World War and Clarke’s American professional debut was not until 1946. But Clarke’s career and fame outstripped them.
Born in Minehead, Somerset, on 16 December 1917, Clarke was a reader of Amazing Stories from 1929. He also read Olaf Stapledon’s epic Last and First Men (1930) and David Lasser’s championing of spaceflight and rocketry, The Conquest of Space (1931). Clarke was to produce a series of articles on this topic for Urania, the journal of the Junior Astronomical Society, beginning a parallel career in science popularisation. On leaving school, he moved to become a civil servant in London and placed work in both the amateur and professional markets: the story “Travel by Wire” (1937) in Amateur Science Stories and the article “Man’s Empire of Tomorrow” (1938) in Tales of Wonder. He was active in British fandom and the British Interplanetary Society in the 1930s and after the Second World War.
In the war, he had served as a radar operator and instructor for the RAF, specialising in early-warning radar and ground-controlled approach radar. In 1945, he wrote a letter to the British Interplanetary Society, proposing that a geostationary orbit could be used by satellites for communications purposes; an article version was published in Wireless World. On being demobilised in 1946, he went to King’s College London to study maths and physics, gaining a first. After graduation, he worked as an editor for Physics Abstracts and published short stories on both sides of the Atlantic, novels such as Prelude to Space (1951), The Sands of Mars (1951) and Against the Fall of Night (1953, based on a 1948 novella of the same name) and nonfiction including Interplanetary Flight (1950). Perhaps the most significant novel of his early career was Childhood’s End (1953), in which alien Overlords appear and save humanity from extinction. In time, humanity evolves into a single group consciousness.
In 1956 Clarke left England for what was then Ceylon, and this was to be his main residence for the rest of his life. His output was increasingly science popularisation, with Dolphin Island (1963) being his last sf novel for a number of years. However, much of the 1960s was taken up with a collaboration with American director Stanley Kubrick to create the ultimate sf film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), inspired by a number of Clarke’s short stories including “The Sentinel” (1951). Kubrick wanted their film to be as based on accurate scientific knowledge as possible, although the (unseen) aliens inevitably lends it an air of mysticism. Again there is a depiction of humanity being uplifted from one evolutionary state to another through nonhuman intervention – from hominid to human, from human to posthuman. The closing stargate sequence was notoriously baffling, but served as a cinematic equivalent to the psychedelic light shows of bands such as Pink Floyd. The book version was partly written to keep the studio executives happy, but also allowed Clarke to tell his version of the story. But 2001: A Space Odyssey made him world famous and when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969, he was used as one of the CBS commentators.
In the 1970s, he returned to novels — Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Imperial Earth (1976) and The Fountains of Paradise (1979) – garnering large advances and readerships, before writing the first of three sequels to 2001: 2010: Odyssey Two (1982). This was filmed by Peter Hyams in 1984. Clarke’s novels interspersed their narratives with the latest thinking on stars, planet, moons and other areas of science. In the meantime, his fame led him to be asked to front three TV series, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994), his scientific scepticism jarring somewhat with the content. He did much charitable work, such as funding the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a diving school in Sri Lanka, an award for achievements in space and the protection of gorillas. He maintained links to fandom through being president of the BSFA and a patron of the Science Fiction Foundation.
Whilst Clarke remained prolific, he fell ill in the mid-1980s with post-polio syndrome. At this point he began to collaborate with other writers: Cradle (1988) and a sequel trilogy to Rendezvous with Rama with Gentry Lee; Beyond the Fall of Night (1990) with Gregory Benford; Richter 10 (1996) with Mike McQuay; The Trigger (1999) with Michael P. Kube-McDowell; The Light of Other Days (2000) and the Time Odyssey trilogy with Stephen Baxter and The Last Theorem (2008) with Frederik Pohl.
Clarke was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to British cultural interests in Sri Lanka in 1989 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list and in 1997 was given a Knight Bachelor for services to literature. He died aged 90 on 19 March 2008 from respiratory and heart failure.