ARTHUR’S ODYSSEY

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

Sky at Night Magazine - - CONTENTS - ABOUT THE WRITER Nick Spall is a free­lance space writer. He’s in­ter­viewed as­tro­nauts and ex­pe­ri­enced zero-G and par­a­bolic flights

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.

On­go­ing 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.

Am­ple op­ti­mism

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

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