Tuesday, 16 December 2008


“Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” – George Scialabba

It is Arthur C. Clarke’s birthday today and he was born in 1917. He died in March this year at the age of 90 years after a long battle with post-polio syndrome. He was one the most famous of science fiction writers whose pragmatism and cool logic could be seen in even his most fanciful works. He denigrated religion as “a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species” leaving written instructions that his funeral be completely secular. “Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral,” he wrote.

As well as writing science fiction, Clarke was a visionary who wrote more than 100 books on space, science and the future. The 1968 story “2001: A Space Odyssey” (written both as a novel and screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick – see yesterday’s blog), was a frightening prophecy of artificial intelligence run amuck and it shot him into international fame. When Clarke and Kubrick got together to develop a movie about space, they looked for inspiration to several of Clarke’s shorter pieces. As work progressed on the screenplay, Clarke also wrote a novel of the story. He followed it up with “2010,” “2061,” and “3001: The Final Odyssey.” “2010” was made into a film sequel. In 1969 Clarke was the co-announcer in American television’s coverage of the moon landing, making him an instantly recognisable face across the globe.

Clarke is credited with the concept of communications satellites in 1945, decades before they became a reality. Geosynchronous orbits, which keep satellites in a fixed position relative to the ground, are called Clarke orbits. His nonfiction volumes on space travel and his explorations of the Great Barrier Reef and Indian Ocean earned him respect in the world of science, and in 1976 he became an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

His last novel, “The Last Theorem” was co-written with Frederik Pohl, another famous sci-fi author) and is the swan-song in a long and distinguished list of brilliant creativity: Some of his best-known books are “Childhood’s End” (1953); “The City and The Stars” (1956); “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1967); “Rendezvous with Rama” (1973); “Imperial Earth” (1975); and “The Songs of Distant Earth” (1986). Clarke's legacy in the movies may well continue after his death, with a film adaptation of “Rendezvous with Rama” having been in development for years, with actor Morgan Freeman as producer and star.

Real-life space exploration of space followed in the wake of Clarke’s fiction. After the first moon landing in 1969 (an event predicted by Clarke decades earlier) NASA Administrator Tom Paine said in an inscription to the writer that he “provided the essential intellectual drive that led us to the moon”. Clarke's 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise” helped spark the real-world efforts to build a space elevator from Earth to orbit. The idea is still being pursued, even though its realisation may still be decades away.

Clarke was born in Minehead, western England, the son of a farmer, Arthur Charles Clark became addicted to science fiction after buying his first copies of the pulp magazine “Amazing Stories” at Woolworth’s. He read English writers H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon and began writing for his school magazine in his teens. Clarke went to work as a clerk in Her Majesty’s Exchequer and Audit Department in London, where he joined the British Interplanetary Society and wrote his first short stories and scientific articles on space travel. It was not until after World War II that Clarke received a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College in London.

Serving in the wartime Royal Air Force, he wrote a 1945 memo about the possibility of using satellites to revolutionize communications. Clarke later sent it to a publication called Wireless World, which almost rejected it as too far-fetched. He moved to Sri Lanka in 1956. In an interview with The Associated Press, Clarke said he did not regret having never traveled to space himself, though he arranged to have DNA from his hair sent into orbit. “One day, some super civilization may encounter this relic from the vanished species and I may exist in another time” he said. Clarke enclosed with his DNA, a handwritten note that read “Farewell, my clone”.

“Rendezvous with Rama” is one of my favourite of Clarke’s books. It is set in the 22nd century, the story involves a forty-kilometer-long cylindrical alien starship that enters Earth’s solar system and is hurtling to the sun. The story is told from the point of view of a group of human explorers, who intercept the ship in an attempt to unlock its mysteries. I first read the book when I was a young and impressionable high school student and then again more recently. It is a book full of solid science and is essentially the blueprint for a starship that can be built by earthlings for travel in interstellar space.

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