Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke 1917-2008

At the beginning of The City and the Stars (1956), Alvin and his friends are on some type of outrageous adventure. They have just escaped the Cave of the White Worm and are winding through underground labyrinths. Then, next thing you know---what? The dream--is it a dream?--is over. But not before Alvin suggests they climb the Crystal Mountain. Why not?

Alystra, his love, is upset with him:

"Oh, Alvin!" she lamented, as she looked down at him from the wall in which she had apparently materialised. "It was such an exciting adventure! Why did you have to spoil it?"
Alvin's friend Callistron also shows up, to pile on. Callistron is similarly pissed:
"Now listen, Alvin," began Callistron. "This is the third time you've interrupted a saga. You broke the sequence yesterday, by wanting to climb out of the Valley of Rainbows. And the day before you upset everything by trying to get back to the Origin in that time-track we were exploring. If you don't keep the rules, you'll have to go by yourself."
And with that, we were hooked. Particularly those of us who didn't keep the rules and were always trying to climb out of the Valley of Rainbows. We UNDERSTOOD Alvin, instinctively. And we followed Alvin across the planet Diaspar and into deep space, where we grappled with the concepts of destiny, religion, mind, God, the future of humanity... all the major philosophical concepts packed into a dazzling story of space exploration and the upheaval of old civilizations.

Yes, said the book, this is for YOU, you nonconformist Alvins out there. I know who you are.

We knew who he was too, and upon hearing that Arthur C. Clarke had passed, I cried the way I've cried for relatives who had given me precious gifts of love and time; I felt he had done this for me. His work said to us: Here is the universe, go! CLIMB THE CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN!

The New York Times writes:
The author of almost 100 books, Mr. Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. It was a vision served most vividly by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the classic 1968 science-fiction film he created with the director Stanley Kubrick and the novel of the same title that he wrote as part of the project.

His work was also prophetic: his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight.

Other early advocates of a space program argued that it would pay for itself by jump-starting new technology. Mr. Clarke set his sights higher. Borrowing a phrase from William James, he suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent of war,” giving an outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust.

Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.
Left: photo from Reuters, 2002.

It is fitting that Arthur C. Clarke left his mark in space itself.

In 1945, he wrote a hugely influential technical paper, published in the British journal Wireless World:
[The paper included] a series of diagrams and equations showing that “space stations” parked in a circular orbit roughly 22,240 miles above the equator would exactly match the Earth’s rotation period of 24 hours. In such an orbit, a satellite would remain above the same spot on the ground, providing a “stationary” target for transmitted signals, which could then be retransmitted to wide swaths of territory below. This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.

Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his Wireless World paper “the most important thing I ever wrote.” In a wry piece entitled, “A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time,” he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.
And on this Maundy Thursday, let me say that I've always found it amazing that an atheist could write so movingly about religious faith and spiritual awe, as Clarke did in his short story The Star (1955):
Religion, and in particular religious faith, are central themes in ‘‘The Star.’’ The narrative is the interior monologue of the central character, a Jesuit astrophysicist. He is aboard a starship on a mission to investigate the causes of a supernova in a distant galaxy. He and the rest of the crew discover the artifacts of a highly developed civilization, carefully preserved on the only planet that remains in orbit around the supernova. Knowing that all life would be wiped out when their sun flared into a supernova, this race of sentient beings left a record of who they were and what they accomplished. The pictures, sculptures, music, and other relics of a very human-like race doomed to destruction depress the crew and investigating scientists, who are far from their own homes and lonely. What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.
As so many of us struggle to reconcile tragedy with God's will, Clarke took us seriously and respectfully--because he cared so passionately.

Goodbye dear friend, Sir Arthur Charles Clarke. A piece of heaven deserves to bear your name.


Entire text of The Star.


CrackerLilo said...

What a wonderful post. What a wonderful writer. I clean forgot to mention anything about him yesterday--can you believe that?!?! Thanks for doing it for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to 'old' scifi and just read my first of his books. Googled blog entries about him, and found yours. Lovely obit.

Certainly true, you are an Alvin or you aren't.