Arthur C. Clarke was a legend before I was born. His visionary grasp of the early space age brought him to the attention of the world, and his book The Exploration of Space (1951) is a classic. Clarke was a futurist par excellence — not just randomly speculating on trends but a diviner, able to lay them out clearly. Clarke’s article on geostationary communications satellites in the magazine Wireless World (1945) and subsequent reputation as the initial conceiver of these devices is only the most famous example of his foresight.
He was also a seminal figure in the history of sci-fi, perhaps the defining genre of the twentieth century. Part of a Golden Age trinity. If Asimov was in a sense the father (or one of them) and Heinlein (and his 1950s Cold War forged brethren) the son, then Clarke truly was a ghostly, spirit figure, haunting seven decades of the genre. His influence profound — eternal. And seeing as he was also a committed atheist, my use of religious iconography in this passage would likely have completely dismayed him.
In recalling my own engagement with many of his stories and books, my fondest memory is of reading a more obscure novel, Imperial Earth (1975). The plot was one of periphery and core — country boy comes to the big city. In this case, the “country” was a colony on the edge of a young interplanetary empire — on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, if memory serves.
The protagonist’s journey to the core of the empire, Earth, is painstakingly laid out. There is that Clarkean twist you never would have thought of yourself — the ship powered by a complex controlled nuclear reaction — all lovingly, lavishly and logically described.
Beyond the journey into speculations about interplanetary space travel, this novel touched on the nature of government — and featured a fascinating portrayal of the corrupt, almost stagnant social world at the heart of an ancient American empire. It further dealt importantly with issues of cloning and genetic engineering. I have no doubt were I to re-read it today, I’d find in the novel poignant and precise future visions.
And this is precisely what makes Clarke’s passing noteworthy: His focused genius will be missed from this humble orb.
One could go on about the link Clarke had to Hollywood through the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but it isn’t necessary. The first tale in this vein was a short story, entitled “The Sentinel” (1951). While the 2001 series is doubtless fascinating, it’s only the beginning of an impressive oeuvre of galaxy spanning, mind-expanding fare — on page after page.
There is another article I note from the BBC about his funeral, a day ago, featuring the epitaph on his gravestone. I cannot think of a more spirited, vibrant ode to his ever curious soul:
“Here lies Arthur C. Clarke. He never grew up and he did not stop growing.”
Clarke was 90 and died in Sri Lanka, where he had lived since the mid-1950s.
N.B. Some of these and other links can also be found over at Arts & Letters Daily