No.15 – Arthur Charles Clarke, A Space Odyssey, and Childhood’s End

No. 15– 2013May05– Arthur Charles Clarke, A Space Odyssey, and Childhood’s End


Arthur Charles Clarke
Arthur Charles Clarke

I met Arthur Charles Clarke once when he spoke at my university. He was ebullient and seemed to relish the attention from young academics seduced by the promise of technology. Occasionally, his face would cloud over when a particularly inept gushing of adoration failed to connect the logic dots, but he always recovered with a smile. He braved the questions and long-winded, roundabout talking points (that somehow evaded being questions) as he cleverly meandered his way to the door. His invite for further discussion over coffee was interrupted by faculty who steered him into a quiet nook somewhere in an ivory tower maze of offices and laboratories where he was never seen again. Not on our campus, anyway. No doubt this professorial rescue operation was as self-serving as it was successful.

Clarke married Marilyn Mayfield, but it only lasted about six months. He comments: “…everybody should marry once.” He once discounted being homosexual by saying: “No, merely mildly cheerful.” In Playboy, July 1986, he admitted to bisexual activities saying: “Of course. Who hasn’t?” Why are his memoirs sealed for thirty years post-mortem? “Well, there might be all sorts of embarrassing things in them.” Some think these reports are overblown, but Michael Moorcook claims that: “…everybody knew he was gay…”

Clarke argued rather convincingly, in his 1945 paper, Extra-Terrestrial Communications,” that geosynchronous satellites were a viable application in creating a telecommunication relay platform. The International Astronomical Union honored him by naming the 42,000 kilometer geosynchronous orbit The Clarke Orbit. In 1954, he persuaded Dr. Harry Wexler, of the U.S. Weather Bureau, that there was a lot of potential in using satellites for weather forecasting.

Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein were informally known as the “Big Three” of science fiction writers. Clarke and Heinlein began corresponding after The Exploration of Space was published in 1951. In 1984, however, Clarke testified before Congress against the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Later, at the home of Larry Niven in California, Heinlein attacked Clarke verbally over his views on United States foreign and space policy (especially the SDI). They later reconciled, but remained distant until Heinlein’s death in 1988.

In 1953, Clarke and Asimov met for the first time in New York City. They traded friendly insults and jibes for decades. By verbal agreement, they established the “Clarke–Asimov Treaty.” If asked who was best, they agreed that Clarke would be the better science fiction writer and Asimov the better non-fiction science writer. Later, in 1972, Clarke put this “treaty” in the dedication of his paper:  Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations.

Rescue Party“, written in March 1945, was his first professional sale; published in Astounding Science (May 1946). Previously, he’d had other stories published, but these were in fanzines. He started writing fulltime after 1951.

In 1948, Clarke wrote “The Sentinel” for a BBC competition. He didn’t win, but this piece appears to mark a change in his writing life. His works show, after this time, a greater interest in the cosmic scale of the universe. This work may not be immediately recognizable, but it became the hallmark of his career, the progenesis of: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also in this series is 2010: Odyssey II, 2061: Odyssey Three, 3001: The Final Odyssey.

2001 A Space Odyssey - space station.
2001 A Space Odyssey – space station.

In 2001, Dr. Floyd is part of a team that investigates a slab on the Moon with the dimensions of 1:4:9. As sunlight hits this alien construction for the first time in three million years, it sends a piercing transmission toward Iapetus, a satellite of Saturn. Dr Bowman and Dr. Poole are sent to investigate, along with the infamous computer, HAL 9000.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

HAL develops both a mind of its own and some homicidal tendencies along the journey. HAL devises to murder Bowman and Poole’s sleeping colleagues, then pretending to assist Dr. Poole in repairing a communications module outside the ship, launches the good doctor onto his own flight profile. The remaining victim, Dr. Bowman, physically disconnects HAL memory chips to defeat him. He continues his mission and eventually discovers a second slab identical in ratio to the lunar slab. Dr. Bowman, finding the slab full of stars, mysteriously disappears.

2001: Dr. Poole in free flight

2010: Odyssey Two - cover art.
2010: Odyssey Two – cover art.

In 2010, Dr. Floyd joins Soviets in trying to discover what happened to Dr. Bowman. Dr. Bowman returns as a non-corporeal being and is used by aliens as a probe, both to uncover the nature of humankind and to investigate life forms on Europa and Jupiter. The aliens turn Jupiter into a small star to provide an evolutionary push to the Europan life forms. Dr. Bowman has HAL join him as a non-corporeal being and the aliens then warn off humans from Europa.

The essential plot elements of 2061 are that Dr. Floyd, who is now quite old, becomes duplicated as non-corporeal being and joins Bowman and HAL as part of the Europan slab.

2061: Odyssey Three - cover art.
2061: Odyssey Three – cover art.

In 3001: The Final Odyssey, Dr. Poole is recovered, from a natural cryogenic state, floating in the deep removes of our solar space. Returned to Earth orbit, he struggles to rejoin an evolved human society that has moved beyond him in many ways. He discovers a renewed interest in space and is instrumental in discovering that the alien makers of the slabs do not have good intention for humankind. With help from the non-corporeal beings of Dr. Bowman and HAL, he concocts a plan to thwart the alien intentions … which is, apparently, to purge the human pestilence infecting the solar system.

3001: The Final Odyssey
Cover Art – 3001: The Final Odyssey

Clarke’s works frequently return to a theme: humans encountering aliens who possess superior technology and intelligence. Childhood’s End is one such work. Alien overlords peacefully invade Earth, eliminate war, form a world government, and transform Earth into a paradise. They remain in their spacecraft, ruling indirectly. Their intent is to eliminate the human race through evolution; humans do evolve, developing powerful psychic abilities and an ability to interact as a group mind. Both Clarke and many of his fans believe it’s his best novel.

“As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.”

        ___Arthur C. Clarke

I find this an intriguing remark. What Clarke seems to asserts with this quote is that our advancing technology requires a concomitant social responsibility; that you can’t escape the responsibility that comes with human invention.

Underlying the above quote is a near spiritual belief in the perfectibility of the human species. What of Clarke’s own spiritual path? Clarke had his dog tags stamped “pantheist” on entering the Royal Air Force. In a 1991 essay entitled “Credo,” he claimed to be a “logical positivist” from the age of ten.

Many of the authors I have reviewed in this series may have claimed to be agnostic or atheist, yet at the same time they usually assert an unconscious axiom: the human species must evolve socially in tandem with their technological prowess. Not only does our technology create circumstances empowering our evolution, but we also have a duty and responsibility to proactively evolve socially. No matter how wonderful it may be that technology makes us more powerful and clever, we also have to be accountable to that acquired power.

Clarke understood that precept and used his influence in various ways to reflect that belief. He used his influence in preserving Gorilla habitat in Rwanda.

Clarke was the first Chancellor of the International Space University, serving from 1989 to 2004. In 1986, the Science Fiction Writers of America named him a Grand Master. In 1989, he was Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE): “for services to British cultural interests in Sri Lanka.” On 26 May 2000, at a ceremony in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he was made a Knight Bachelor “for services to literature.” Clarke made humanitarian appeals, after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake tsunami, and utilized the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation as a resource in trying to develop better disaster notification systems.

Clarke died on 19 March 2008, in Sri Lanka, with thousands in attendance. His legacy, I suppose, can be measured in the continuing impact his works have in readers like you.

Arthur Charles Clarke - Pencil drawing
Arthur Charles Clarke – Pencil drawing

“It is yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”

___Arthur C Clarke

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