Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Late on Tuesday, I had just finished posting an entry on this blog (a science-fiction story, ironically) and as I often do, I took a last look for the day at the BBC website where I learned that Sir Arthur C. Clarke had died at the age of 90.

As a life-long SF enthusiast, I was familiar with Clarke’s short stories long before I was familiar with him by name. At the age of ten, much of the science fiction in the children’s section of the local library was in the form of multi-author anthologies and the first work by Clarke that I read would have been either Breaking Strain or Hide and Seek (I think they both featured in the same volume).

Breaking Strain is one of the best character-driven short stories ever written – a space freighter is struck by a small meteorite, which causes most of its oxygen supply to be lost into space. Enough oxygen remains to last the two-man crew 20 days – but the ship is still 30 days from its destination. However one doesn’t have to be Einstein to realise that the oxygen could last one man for 40 days…

Here was surely a superb opportunity for a movie in the vein of Lifeboat or Strongroom, but sadly when a film version appeared in the 1990s it was dire: Grant and McNeill (the original crew, whose first names we never learned) were joined by four other shipmates (including the obligatory hot chick), who waste very little time in starting to kill each other. This is in complete contrast to the original in which Grant and McNeill are portrayed as two men of sound if contrasting character, who are gradually driven to extremities by their situation.

The movie’s title was changed to Trapped in Space – something more appropriate for an episode of Thunderbirds.

I recall reading Hide and Seek while my father looked round a house we subsequently moved to. Presumably we had gone via the library: it was more or less standard procedure on a Saturday morning. In this story, the one man crew of a scout-ship takes refuge on the Martian moon of Phobos and manages to elude a pursuing warship until reinforcements arrive.

By 14 I’d graduated to the adult section of the library and duly encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s novels – by the end of 1971 I must have read most of them. Three that stood out for me were Against the Fall of Night (I didn’t come across the expanded version, The City and the Stars, until later – like Clarke himself I have never been able to make up my mind which version I prefer), Childhood’s End and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely enough I did not see 2001 when it came out and in an era before DVDs or even VHS I had to wait until its second cinematic release in the late 1970s. So for many years I was only familiar with the novel version.

The following is a piece I posted on my personal website back in 2000 in an attempt to promote my own rather more modest career as a science fiction writer (square [] brackets denote my later comments):

In just a few months from now, the best-known date in science fiction history (along with 1984) will be upon us.

2001 is undoubtedly Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s best-known work, if not quite his best. The novel cannot really be separated from the late Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film, as the two were written in conjunction. The book version is not a “novellization” of the movie, nor is the movie version the “film of the book”. It says much for the genius of both Clarke and Kubrick that the two versions stand on a par – you cannot really say that one is better than the other, and they are both classics in their own medium.

2001 is based upon a 1948 short story, The Sentinel, which appears in the collection Expedition to Earth (which additionally features the Hitchcock-esque classic Breaking Strain, another childhood favourite of mine, Hide and Seek and the cautionary tale Superiority) [I added these remarks to try and sell Expedition to Earth and other SF books from my site via Amazon, but I don’t think anybody even read the review let alone used the Amazon hyperlinks]. The Sentinel tells of a crystal pyramid (rather than the familiar monolith) found on the moon. It takes 20 years to find a means of breaking through the force-field that surrounds it, and the artefact is destroyed in the process. The narrator speculates that it has been left on the moon in prehistoric times to await the arrival of man, patiently signalling that nobody has found it. Once found and put out of action, it will alert its creators to the fact that man has mastered the secret of space travel.

2001 begins four million years ago, with the appearance of a monolith on Earth which stimulates the development of a group of primitive pre-human hominids (Australopithecus?). The sight of it, the Sun and a crescent moon will be a recurring theme in the movie. The hominids are starving to death in the midst of plenty, with no inkling that the herds of pigs roaming unsuspectingly close by represent a very convenient source of food. The monolith changes that and in a dramatic example of conceptual breakthrough, a hominid visualises how an animal bone can be used to kill the pigs.

The animal bone can be used for killing things other than pigs. The opening scene of the movie ends dramatically when the hominid leader uses it to club to death the leader of a rival group, thus giving the latter the highly dubious honour of becoming the first ever casualty of a war. Unaware of the unfortunate trend he has just started, the hominid leader triumphantly hurls the bone up into the air. It circles round and is replaced by the image of an orbital satellite. The serene “dance of the machines” and its Blue Danube accompaniment contrasts sharply with the brutality of the previous scene [and with the 11 September terrorist attacks, which in our universe at least, was the event for which the year 2001 will be chiefly remembered].

2001 was not the first science fiction movie to use classical music [as opposed to a dedicated score], but none before or since has done so a tenth as effectively.

There is a minor but amusing difference between the two versions at this point. In the movie, we see Floyd’s space shuttle has to spin on its central axis in order to dock with the wheel-like space station; in the book the docking section of the wheel does not rotate and the shuttle is able to dock without it and its occupants being “whirled disastrously around”, as Clarke puts it!

After an interlude aboard a space station that is a masterpiece of ‘Sixties interior decor, Floyd’s journey to the moon resumes aboard an Aries-1B moon shuttle; after landing at Clavius Base he is conveyed by surface transport to Tycho, where the Monolith awaits. As he and his colleagues contemplate the enigmatic ebony-black slab that has been identified by its anomalous magnetic signature, their helmet radios are filled with a piercing burst of sound. It’s not a malfunction – the radios are picking up a signal emitted by the Monolith as the Sun shines on it for the first time in three million years. We see again the mystical alignment of monolith, Sun and a crescent Earth (replacing the crescent moon seen earlier). Unfortunately, the scene is a howler in more ways than one – just minutes earlier, we saw Floyd’s surface transport skimming across a lunar landscape lit by a gibbous Earth!

Both versions now switch to the USS Discovery, en route for Jupiter. But where as in the film the king of the planets is the final destination, in the novel the ship does not stop there but uses the principle of “gravity assist” to speed her passage to her final destination – Saturn. This is exactly the same techniques used just a few years later by NASA to send Pioneer 10 and the two Voyager probes to Saturn. The events aboard the Discovery as HAL turns against David Bowman and Frank Poole are too well known to be worth recounting her. But while in the movie HAL refuses to let David Bowman back aboard the ship with the famous, almost apologetic “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”, in the novel, the maverick computer simply opens the hangar – which does avoid the obvious question as to why Bowman left his helmet behind in the first place.

The movie version is, however, truer to one of Clarke’s pet ideas, that of an astronaut trying to cross between two spacecraft without a spacesuit. Clarke first explores the idea in Earthlight, when the Earth liner Pegasus goes to the aid of the stricken Federation warship Acheron and manages to take off most of her 120-strong crew, despite there being a grand total of five spacesuits aboard – a humanitarian action that shames the two warring sides into signing a peace treaty. The idea crops up again in Take a Deep Breath, one of a series of linked stories set aboard a space station and originally written for the Evening Standard in 1957, when four men have to be rescued from a compartment that has come loose from the rest of the station.

In their very different but equally effective ways, the novel and movie versions follow David Bowman’s mind-boggling jouney through the Stargate (located in orbit around Jupiter in the movie, but on the surface of the Saturnian moon of Japetus in the novel), where he is transformed into a higher but child-like lifeform, capable of returning to Earth in literally no time at all.

The idea of a higher but child-like lifeform is another recurring Clarke theme – in Childhood’s End, mankind is reborn as part of the Overmind with the assistance of the Overlords, a race of satanic-looking beings who are actually benign “cosmic midwives”. And in Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars, the restless Alvin encounters Vanamonde, a creature of pure mentality that is still millions of years away from maturity.

It is a simple but very effective tribute to Clarke’s genius that his unique writing style more than compensates for the absence of the movie’s breathtaking visual effects. As for the movie, it is still stunning after over three decades, with the real 2001 just around the corner.

Perhaps it would have been better if things had been left with the Star Child contemplating the planet Earth, but even Sir Arthur C. Clarke is only human and the temptation to write a sequel must have been overwhelming. As a reader, I have to confess I couldn’t get hold of a copy of 2010: Odyssey Two fast enough. It, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey are all extremely readable (as one would expect from Clarke), all contain fascinating ideas of which the most interesting are the ill-fated Chinese landing on Europa and the discovery of life there, an asteroid-sized diamond left over from the destruction of Jupiter and a very believable account of life at the dawn of the Fourth Millennium.

Eight years after I wrote this piece it is probably worth pointing out that Clarke and Kubrick were also responsible for the pronunciation of 21st Century years – Two Thousand and One rather than Twenty Oh One. The latter would have been consistent with the way years were pronounced in the last century, thus 1999 was pronounced Nineteen Ninety-Nine: only legal documents would have written it as Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine. At some stage we will probably revert to the previous convention, I suspect no later than 2066 if only because the most famous date in English history has always been pronounced Ten Sixty-Six and not One Thousand and Sixty-Six, though I’m unlikely to be around to find out .

Until the 1970s Arthur C. Clarke’s stories regularly featured faster than light travel, which according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is impossible. To quote Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

In one of his non-fiction works, Clarke took a swipe at the Principle of Equivalence, which states that there is no way to tell the difference between a gravity field and the effects of acceleration. Clarke claimed that this must be incorrect because a gravity field obeys the Inverse Square Law (the field weakens as the square of the distance) whereas the effects of acceleration is uniform. Therefore “there might be a hole through which we can push our trans-photic [faster than light] ship”. Arthur C. Clarke was a far better physicist than I am (he gained a First from King’s College, London whereas I only managed a 2.2 from the same institution), so I assume this remark was tongue-in-cheek as even I can see the flaw in this argument.

Clarke remained a prolific writer during the 1970s but it is interesting that his writing then underwent a paradigm shift in that he rejected the possibility of faster than light travel and it did not feature in any of his subsequent stories.

The flood of thought-provoking ideas continued unabated however. Imperial Earth – set 300 years in the future – featured a particularly cool gadget called a Mini Sec which was basically what we’d now call a PDA. At the time, I wanted one but didn’t expect to be able to own one in my life time. In fact, I only had to wait ten years before the first PDA – the Psion Organizer – had made its appearance. However the Mini Sec was based on the then cutting-edge pocket calculator: Clarke failed to anticipate the touch-sensitive screen. He also predicted that the chord-keyboard featured in the late 1980s Microwriter AgendA would come into standard usage, but it never really took off.

Clarke’s more successful predictions include mobile phones and communication satellites (though he anticipated that they would need to be manned) and to this day the geostationary orbit is named the Clarke Orbit. The space elevator remains unrealised, but its time will come.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has said that he would prefer to be remembered as a writer and it thus that he will be largely remembered. However he was much more than just a science fiction writer and it is certainly safe to say that if he had never written a single work of science fiction, he would still have been a household name.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author