Celebrating the centenary of the birth of sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, Nick Spall looks at how the Space Age prophet's writings helped shaped mid-20 century thinking
Arthur C Clarke was more than just a sci-fi writer; as a futurist, his prescience for the evolution of space exploration is unmatched.
Few science-fiction writers have had such a powerful impact on space matters as Arthur C Clarke. From conceiving geostationary comsats in a 1945 article in Wireless World magazine to providing uncanny prophesies in his novels and non-fiction books, Clarke combined scientific accuracy with an extraordinary imagination for future worlds and advanced technology.
He followed in the footsteps of HG Wells, Olaf Stapledon and Konstantin Tsiolkovski, using strong science as the foundation of his speculation. He was a trained physicist and mathematician who had cut his teeth working on early radar and ground-controlled approach technology while serving in the RAF during World War II.
In the early 1930s, Clarke had been one of the founding ‘space cadets’ of the British Interplanetary Society. This group of enthusiasts suggested that orbital satellites, crewed space stations, Moon landings and interplanetary flight would soon be possible. When powerful German V2 rockets began raining down on London from heights of over 100km in 1944, spaceflight suddenly became more of a reality and the society was taken seriously.
Clarke had a deep belief that humanity was destined to be a spacefaring species. He was strongly impressed by reading Olaf Stapledon’s prophetic book in 1930.
Following the story of early hominid development uncovered by paleoanthropologists like Louis Leakey, Clarke used his interest in human evolution and transcendence as the basis for many of his successful novels, including Earthlight, The City
and the Stars and Childhood’s End. For many, his ultimate story was 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It was in 2001, developed as a movie with director Stanley Kubrick and published as a novel after its release, that Clarke revealed his fascination with deep mysteries, including metaphysical ideas and the strange world of quantum physics and cosmology. The subsequent stories 2010, 2061 and 3001 included ghost appearances, telekinesis and telepathy, though all within a scientifically reasonable framework.
Clarke’s technical work focussed on opening up minds to the practical benefits of space exploration and the search for new worlds, both in the Solar System and beyond. His prophetic book
The Exploration of Space (1951) is reported to have been shown by NASA’s Wernher von Braun to US President John F Kennedy in 1962, helping inspire the US Apollo programme commitment to go to the Moon and back within the decade.
Clarke continually came up with new space exploration ideas, many of which are
being genuinely considered today: > terraforming another planet in The Sands of Mars (1951), space tourism in A Fall of Moondust (1961), interstellar world ships
in Rendezvous with Rama (1973), space elevators in The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and near-Earth object protection in Hammer of God (1993). His sci-fi work inspired many of the big names in space exploration and science fiction, people like Carl Sagan, James Cameron and Buzz Aldrin.
Clarke’s technology forecasts also extended to earthbound matters. As part of the hi-tech futurist movement of the 1960s, Clarke always emphasised the benefits of science and technology, including artificial intelligence, famously portrayed by the paranoid spaceship computer HAL in 2001; human cloning; the world wide web, thought to be inspired by his short story Dial F
for Frankenstein (1961); personal computers; and even 3D printing, which he predicted as a ‘replicator’ in his 1962 book Profiles of the Future. Clarke firmly believed in the probability of life existing elsewhere in the cosmos. His early writings speculated about primitive alien life on Mars. In later years he also focussed on the icy moon Europa as being the possible location of basic life forms in oceans beneath its ice crust, as described vividly in the novel 2010. He followed the exobiology ‘panspermia’ research of Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe and projected the idea that Halley’s Comet might have basic life forms in its icy dust surface. While he deeply yearned for results in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and believed in the probability of biology throwing up life across the Universe wherever it had the chance, Clarke appreciated the JBS Haldane thought that perhaps “the Universe is queerer than we can suppose”. Speculating on the possibilities of never finding intelligent extraterrestrial life across the Galaxy, Clarke famously quipped: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. Indeed, Clarke was very fond of one-line quotes. His
famous ‘three Laws’ included the powerful: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The magic of the future fired his imagination to speculate and wonder at the Universe that was slowly being uncovered by space exploration.
Life imitates art
Clarke liked nothing better than to see the uncanny happen, including Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert’s now famous line “we’ve had a problem” having been previously spoken almost identically by his fictional HAL computer in the book
2001. Ironically Apollo 13’s orbiter was also called Odyssey. Seeing the NASA Skylab 2 astronauts running around the central ring interior of their station made him subsequently recall that he had already imagined that and, indeed, Kubrick had included it as part of the spacecraft in the 2001 movie.
Clarke was always optimistic about human progress. He believed that war and intolerance could be removed and technology could solve most Earthly problems. Human destiny, he was convinced, was in space. “I have often thought, especially when scuba diving, that we don’t really belong here on land, dragged down by gravity every moment of our lives – our future belongs to space,” he said.
All who knew Clarke well recognised what a genuinely positive and rounded person he was. His grave epitaph seemed to say it all: “He never grew up, but he never stopped growing”. As a space seer, Clarke has yet to be rivalled.
“Clarke was always optimistic about human progress. He believed that war and intolerance could be removed and technology could solve most Earthly problems”
Clarke wrote of alien life under Europa’s crust in 1984 in 2010: Odyssey Two
Clarke was an early proponent of the idea that Halley’s Comet could carry life
Clarke’s Exploration of Space is said to have been an inspiration for the Apollo programme
The iconic scene in 2001 of Gary Lockwood running around the space station was unintentionally re-enacted by NASA Skylab astronauts