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Arthur C. Clarke Remembered

Featurette

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

I had my considerable say about Arthur C. Clarke in my lengthy essay review “Visionary of 2001, and Way Beyond” in our May/June 2000 issue (ostensibly a review of his wonderful essay collection Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! but really more a profile of Clarke and his ideas). So I will only reiterate a few points and raise a couple of new ones.

Without his knowing it, as I am sure he did for countless others, Clarke shaped and guided my professional life and interests. I remember as a school kid in the ’50s coming across in our school library the newsletter of the British Interplanetary Society, which he then headed. That was so cool! Here we hadn’t even gotten into space yet, and already there was an “interplanetary” society. Science and space seemed to be the future, and we wanted to be part of it.

His science fiction, like Heinlein’s and Bradbury’s and Asimov’s, let loose our imaginations. We may have lived in small, isolated towns, but our minds were free to roam the universe. His writings, fiction and fact, were always a combination of clear-thinking, science-informed intellect, and soaring creativity expressed in prose of absolute clarity. What a rare and wonderful combination!

His books influenced generations of us. A glance over my own shelves finds these volumes, a mere sampling of his tremendous output: (Nonfiction) Interplanetary Flight, The Exploration of Space, The Coming of the Space Age, Profiles of the Future, Report on Planet Three, and the aforementioned Carbon-Based Bipeds; (short story collections) The Nine Billion Names of God; (novels) Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, The Songs of Distant Earth, Fountains of Paradise, and of course the 2001 novel series: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey. I am now rereading my copy of The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke’s account of the writing of his novel and the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick, combined with never-used “outtake” chapters he wrote for the novel. These were fully developed alternative scenarios written and discarded as Clarke’s and Kubrick’s ideas clashed and evolved. Interesting reading still today.

I heard him speak in person only twice, in my Washington days, once at the Smithsonian Institution (where he inscribed my copy of Profiles of the Future to my wife and me) and once at the National Geographic Society. But his novels and nonfiction works were all freely available, and with new books coming out regularly, we didn’t have to talk with him to benefit from his inspiration. Shortly after becoming editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, I was delighted one day to receive a humorous letter to the editor from him intriguingly titled “Martian Technology,” inspired by our Viking landings on Mars and whimsically suggesting we must have found a way to camouflage the Martian canals (I published it in our Winter 1978 issue; I’m sure you all still have your copies!).

Over the ensuing years, we corresponded congenially from time to time. He was such a firm exemplar of reason and rationality, we could always count him as a friend and colleague.

In my 2000 review of Carbon-Based Bipeds, I took appreciative note of his included essay “Credo,” which stated his decidedly skeptical views about religion, and lamented that I hadn’t known of it to include in our then most recent Science and Religion issue, in 1999. We rectified that. With Sir Arthur’s kind permission, it appeared in our September/October 2001 Science and Religion special issue.

In his later years he was quite ill and friends didn’t want to bother him too often. But my one regret is that I didn’t try to engage him in discussion of a question that I think is important to our times: How disillusioned was he that we hadn’t maintained the promise and momentum of the Apollo years in pushing outward into space? The first moon landing of 1969 came almost as early as anyone could possibly have envisioned. But Clarke and most other enthusiasts thought that would be just the beginning. The year 2001 was still a long way off, and routine manned trips to the moon and beyond by the early twenty-first century seemed fully credible. How disappointing that since Apollo 17 in 1972 we haven’t even ventured beyond Earth’s orbit.

Yes, cheaper and safer unmanned spacecraft have been doing the exploring for us to wonderful effect, but no one back then thought the manned space program, once it got going, would soon become so circumscribed. Instead, it was the microelectronics revolution that took off geometrically, with Moore’s law accurately describing its enormous growth and progress. That’s what Clarke and others thought would happen with human spaceflight. What happened?

Clarke’s innate technological optimism may have gone out of style in these more cynical and economically challenged times (I hope that optimism someday will return in a more sustainable form), and his full life of ninety years has now concluded. But he will live on in our memories forever. His work will certainly endure, continually being rediscovered by new generations of inquirers, and in that way he will continue to influence and shape the future.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.