Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke: Britannia Ruling the Spaceways

I was just starting out with a review of "SF giants," and Sir Arthur C. Clarke had the good taste to celebrate his 90th free trip around the sun:

A few biographical notes, to put Clarke into perspective. Born in 1917 in England, Clarke was educated as an engineer and served as an RAF office in World War II, being one of the first to work with radar. In the mid-1950s, he moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and has lived there ever since. At some point in his career, he formed the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, which uses modern technologies--especially space technologies--to improve the lives of people in the undeveloped world. Clarke is usually considered one of the "Big Three" in SF, along with Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, whom I'll write about next, and is one of the few SF writers that most non-SF fans can name.

While Heinlein affects a great deal of my personal and political beliefs, Clarke was my first SF writing "father" (influence). I picked up Childhood's End, followed by Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke's prose flows forth like water, gracefully wrapping itself around alien landscapes and cosmic mysteries in ways that uplift and sometimes startle the reader.

There are, of course, other books of Clarke's that are better known, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he cowrote as both book and screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick. The shame of 2001 is that it's such a dreadfully dull film, "psychedelic" ending notwithstanding. The book makes a lot more sense, though a smart enough viewer can probably get what the Monolith was doing. 2010: Odyssey Two (made into the Peter Hyams film 2010: The Year We Make Contact) is actually a much better book, from almost every angle. Taking knowledge of the Jovian moons not available in 1968, Clarke builds upon his cosmic evolution themes and presents us with a system of worlds, not just tiny lights in the sky. He also manages his best characterizations among a mixed crew of Soviets and Americans going back to the scene of action to find out what happened in 2001. Subsequent sequels in the "2001 universe" include 2061 (a trip to Halley's Comet) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (a return to Earth filled with wonders and a final confrontation with the Monolith) do not match up to 2010 in thematic depth or plot.

Of course as a Christian I must also discuss his atheism. He isn't nasty or insulting about it, like others (Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind). Instead, he looks upon religious believers as people to be pitied for their delusions. For Clarke, the Universe (with a capital U) is wonderful enough not to require God, much less a God in need of worship. And after all, it is Clarke who penned his Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Childhood's End is a tale about the next steps in humanity's future, with some wry humor thrown in, as Clarke shows us what transcendance might look like from a science fiction perspective.

In The Fountains of Paradise, a robotic alien probe passes through the solar system, engaging in philosophical dialogues with Earth before setting off on its next journey. One of the probe's more discerning statements, courtesy of Clarke, reads as follows:
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I
cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.

This wasn't the only book, of course, where Clarke fired broadsides at organized religion. "The Star," perhaps his best-known short story, forces a Jesuit priest to confront the source of the Star of Bethlehem. Another story, "The Nine Billion Names of God," provides a somewhat tongue-in-cheek story about the end of the world.

The Songs of Distant Earth, one of his best space operas, depicts future interstellar colonies as being seeded by robotic ships transplanting only the embryos or DNA of human beings and the plants and animals necessary to survive on those other worlds. Not having any human beings aboard these vehicles to raise the first children, they were raised instead by robots and computers, given the basic laws of human society (a "Jefferson Mark 3" constitution), and some basics of human history--but without any references to religion. When a ship finally embarks from Earth, it visits one of these seeded colonies, Thalassa, on its way to another world. Thalassans are peaceful, well-adjusted, and seemingly without large-scale conflicts.

This is one of those utopian experiments that are not likely to be tried any time in the near future, if only because it's impossible to isolate human beings far enough to avoid contact with religion-inspired cultures. But again, Clarke makes us ask the question: if we did not grow up with religion, would we invent it anew? Clarke seems to think not; I am not so certain.

Rather than end on a critical note, I will finish by focusing on the things I like best about Clarke's works, of which I have read many. That "sense of wonder" thing ("gosh-wow" writing, as I've called it elsewhere) is where Clarke excels, whether he is describing the massive alien artifact Rama, the massive jellyfish-like floating creatures in the atmosphere of Jupiter, or future engineering works of humanity, like the space elevator, Clarke manages to convey beautiful word pictures and convey a sense of seriousness and love for what is being described. He also uses some of his most evocative prose to convey high tragedy or cosmic loss, for instance at the end of Childhood's End or the short story "Transcience" (printed in an anthology, the name of which I cannot now recall), or the end of The Songs of Distant Earth. In all of these examples and many others, Clarke does what he can to make you understand that it's a big, lonely universe out there.

Perhaps most charmingly, Clarke's writing is well-mannered. He believes in a positive, sensible future, assuming people learn to behave rationally. If you begin to read a Clarke story, much like riding an attraction at Walt Disney World, you need not fear serious personal danger, violence, or foul language. Indeed, one has to look to his later works cowritten with other authors before there's much more than a "damn" in anything Clarke writes. For that, he is to be commended, and appreciated for the art he has produced.

No comments: