The Enigma Of Arthur C. Clarke

clarke_2001.jpgI was five or six years old when I saw 2001 for the first time at a revival showing at the Orange Cinedome in 1971. It’s the first movie I remember seeing in a theater and thirty-seven years down the line that experience of seeing it stands out more in my emotional memory than things like my first visit to the Grand Canyon or even the launch of Apollo 17. Stendhal syndrome may not be soley limited to Florentine art and 2001 is my proof positive of that. Having said that, I’m going to commit an unspeakable act of criticism…

Arthur C. Clarke basically only wrote one story and then spent the rest of his writing career revising, modifying, and re-editing that story as science, society, and the simple passage of time evolved. It’s a process that wouldn’t be unknown to any of the characters in his books – mostly scientists, learned people, assorted technocrats and polymaths, all of whom have the sufficient time and resources to argue, complain, and otherwise deal with the big questions.

That one story was Clarke’s first sale: Rescue Party from 1946. In it, a galactic federation of ETs learn that the Sun is about to go Nova – threatening an intelligent species that lives on the third planet. A ship is dispatched to make contact and “if there was any trouble the rescue would be by force and the explanations could come later.” Along the way there are alien hive minds, planetary tourism, misidentification of what’s information and what isn’t, hell even a black monolith. And as with many of his storys, Clarke throws in a punch line at the end.

The evolution of humanity is much too important of a task to be left to mere humans and if asteroid impacts, heat death of the sun, or well-placed prehistoric artifacts won’t accomplish this then direct alien interference will do just nicely in order to become a citizen of the universe. Shades of a space-age Rudyard Kipling with aliens as Imperial Britain and the solar system as colonial India. The Overlords in Childhood’s End have a pretty advanced case of White ET’s Burden and I can’t help but wonder at how non-coincidental it was that Clarke lived most of his life in Sri Lanka. And if we’re going to play the intelligence relativism card, just how appropriate is it for the humans in The Deep Range to harvest an intelligent species (whales) for food?

Clarke’s famous third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” could be semantically interpreted as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from god” and there’s a lot of that going around in his stories: the revivification of Frank Poole in 3001, the clones of Imperial Earth, most of Childhood’s End, the Chrislam sect in The Hammer Of God. Maybe advanced technology requires an advanced form of mysticism to keep it in check? Maybe it’s the other way around? Maybe it’s both? Clarke’s later stories do consider the blowback effects of unchecked technocracy, but you’re never really sure. Maybe he’s leaving that up to us to figure out.

It’s that open-endedness that’s kept me a fan of his work. And honestly, I’d much rather live in a world created by people who avidly read Clarke than I would one created by fans of Heinlein, Asimov, or really anyone else. These days it’s much more radical to be an optimist.

Favorite Clarke book? It’s really not any of his novels (the 2001 story benefits much more as a movie when Kubrick is on board) but his short stories. Two to check out are “I Remember Babylon” – a PKDesque story in which Clarke (as himself!) encounters a Soviet agent who thanks him for creating geosynchronous satellites. The satellites are used to beam junk television around the world, only with propaganda embedded within. Second is “Patent Pending” – scientists create a machine that can record and playback human experience. Can’t afford a meal at an expensive restaurant? Purchase the experience at a much lower price. If you’ve seen Brainstorm and/or Strange Days, you know what’s coming next…

I think there’s only three members of SF’s golden age left now. Ray Bradbury, Fred Pohl, and Jack Vance.

Author: Chris Barrus

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