“Any sufficiently advanced writer is indistinguishable from magic”
Many of you will recognise the above header as a paraphrase of a famous comment by an even more famous man, Sir Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I make no apologies for adapting Clarke’s Law because in my mind books, like science, draw on both the rational and the imaginative sides of our brain; when they combine correctly magic is as good a term as any for the result. Arthur, who has just passed away at the age of 90 in his long-adopted home of Sri Lanka, many miles from his beginnings as the son of a farmer in rural Somerset, was one of those rare writers who became iconic beyond the science fiction genre, sparking the imagination of millions and inspiring countless others to think of how the future could be. Between his many short stories and novels, non-fiction work, scientific talks, the famous collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the groundbreaking 2001: a Space Odyssey and his Mysterious Worlds programmes (many of us of a certain age automatically thought of those programmes as soon as we heard the new Indy movie was called the Crystal Skull) he became arguably the most famous science fiction writer on the planet; ask most people who never read the genre and you’ll find they know who he is. He crossed national and political and cultural boundaries in a way given to very few.
(Sir Arthur C Clarke, borrowed from the Clarke Foundation website)
I’ve been reading Arthur’s tales since I was a small boy; his books have accompanied me through more than three of my four decades and today I feel a loss for a man I never met and yet who I feel I have known for most of my life. In his nine decades Arthur went from a boy reading imported American pulp SF to working on radar for the RAF during the Second World War before gaining a first in physics and maths at King’s College, London after being demobbed. He theorised that a satellite in geo-stationary orbit above our little world could be used to create near instantaneous communications around the globe; this was not only long before the advent of satellite television, mobile phones and GPS, it was years before Sputnik was launched and then Gagarain’s heroic flight ushered in the era of the Space Age. Much later he would champion the idea of the Space Elevator, basically an incredibly strong tower structure leading from the surface of the planet right up out of the atmosphere and into space, bypassing the need for expensive and dangerous rocket flights to reach orbit; unlike the communications satellite it hasn’t come true – yet. More than a few scientists are convinced that with the correct materials it is a feasible idea; perhaps in a few decades we may see the Clarke Space Tower.
(the space station from the now legendary sequence which fused state-of-the-art special effects to classical music to create a beautiful cinematic sequence; space exploration as ballet)
Reading a collection of his non-fiction essays, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, several years ago I was struck with just how iconic Arthur had become – not just in the way he had inspired so many from NASA scientists to Gene Rodenberry, not just because he had met everyone from film stars to Nobel winners to Ginsberg to kings and presidents, but for the fact that at the height of the Cold War here was a man as respected and well received in the then USSR as he was in the USA, one of the very few who got to shake hands with NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. But mostly Arthur will be remembered for his stories of imagination mixed with a strong touch of realism, putting some real science into science fiction.
(cover to the first edition of Childhood’s End, published by Ballantine)
I think the single aspect of his many books which has touched me most over the years is the near-constant optimism; that things will get better, that humanity will evolve, will use its powers of reason and a more evolved sense of morality to make the world better. Imagine a man who was born as the carnage of the First World War – the War to End All Wars – raged, who then served in the global war which followed and who has lived long enough to see more troubles, wars, terrorism and yet still that kernel of optimism glowed bright. Not saying that everything would be alright in the long run but that it could be, if we really wanted to try and make it so. It seems to me that’s a precious quality in this day and age and something to treasure; simple, human hope. Arthur has lived on into the 21st century – the science fiction century – which, while bearing some of the technological advances he predicted, is sadly poorer than the fictional 21st century he imagined for us. I think I preferred his version. He leaves us just a few weeks before the prestigious annual literary awards for science fiction which bear his name, but he leaves us with a range of remarkable tales, from The City and the Stars to Rama, A Fall of Moondust to the 2001 quartet and countless other tales written by newer authors directly inspired by him. Let’s end with Clarke’s Three Laws:
“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.”
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”