Happy birthday, Arthur
Today would have been the one hundredth birthday of one of the most influentual figures in science fiction, Sir Arthur C Clarke. Born on December 16th, 1917 in Minehead in Somerset, Arthur would grow to become a hug4ly influential figure, from his notions of using orbiting satellites to connect our global communications (then science fiction, now science fact that millions of us rely on daily) to his championing of science and his desire to explain its importance and relevance to all (Arthur is up there with his friend Carl Sagan as one of the great explainers and popularisers of scientific knowledge) to the number of people he met and introduced to others (this was a man who, at the height of the Cold War, was able to shake hands and be counted a friend by both USSR cosmonauts and NASA astronauts, who could chat to fellow scientists as easily as other writers, poets, presidents…).
And of course, there was his fiction, decades and decades of thought-provoking science fiction, short stories and novels, most usually giving us imaginary technology but often based on solid scientific ideas. Others are better qualified to write at length about his books, and with this centenary I am sure they will be doing just that; here I thought I’d rather say what Arthur’s work meant to me, as a reader. As a very young reader, to begin with. I think I was around ten or eleven when I read my first Arthur C Clarke, a collection of short stories, and more followed over the next few decades. I grew up from childhood through teens to adulthood reading Clarke (and Bradbury and Silverberg and Moorcock and other wonderful writers), and they laid a groundwork for my appreciation of so many other SF&F writers in later years (and in turn many of those writers were inspired by those authors).
It wasn’t just the stories though, much as I enjoyed them, there were two other qualities in many of Arthur’s tales which I loved dearly. The first was a quality I think science fiction does better than any other genre – the sense of wonder. That moment where the idea of what you are contemplating is so vast and wonderful it transcends everything, becomes almost magical, makes you see the world and the universe in a different, and better way. The other quality was the actual science – Arthur often would add an afterword to some works, commenting on current research and theories which he had used as inspiration for that particular novel. With friends in every area of science he had plenty of material to draw on, and it enriched my thinking enormously. That the most prestigious literary science fiction prize in the UK is named in his honour is a mark of how highly Arthur is regarded, and that he would happily lend his name to an award designed to celebrate and nurture bright new talent in our beloved genre.
The idea of a solar sailing ship, dancing on light itself? I read about that as a proper scientific idea in various science journals, but I read about it first in one of Arthur’s short stories, and I bet when Deep Space Nine had Sisko build a replica of an early Bajoran light-sail vessel, the writers had read that same story. A vast, liquid ocean beneath the frozen surface of Europa? Possibly a home to extraterrestrial life in our own solar system? A common discussion point in modern astronomy, but again I first came across that idea in Arthur’s sequels to 2001, then had the delight of seeing serious discussions in journals and documentaries years later and thinking, I know about this, Arthur not only used it as a narrative idea, he included some notes from current scientific theories in his post-book endnotes. There’s something rewarding and satisfying about that. It’s mind-expanding reading, as a lot of the best science fiction is, and Arthur’s work is very often suffused with an optimism that I still find warming.
(Arthur with Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: a Space Odyssey)
This was a man born during the slaughter of the Great War, who as a young man saw the world plunged again into global conflict, ending with the atomic furnance of Hiroshima, then the decades of Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War. And yet his writings of the future usually maintain an optimistic slant, despite all the warfare and horror he had seen the world go through in his own lifetime, his stories frequently speak of humans overcoming these failings, being better people, using their knowledge and technology not for selfish gain but for advancing humanity. In this new Dark Age in which we seem to be living the light of that optimism, that we can make a better future for all, is a warm fire to which I cling all the more.
Thank you, Arthur, for the stories, for the inspiration, for encouraging me to read further about the facts behind the fiction (the best kind of reading is the reading which makes you want to read more), thank you for the gift of that optimism in a possible, better future that we could achieve, and thank you most of all for that simple, magical gift of the sense of wonder. Happy birthday, Arthur.
I’ll leave you with this vintage TV piece, the late Magnus Magnusson chairing a discussion on God, The Universe and Everything between Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: