20 March 2008

Death of a Science Fiction Writer

Arthur C. Clarke is dead.

There's so much I could talk about. He wrote so many wonderful books, great, classic science fiction that will stand the test of time -- I don't even blame him for winning the 1974 Nebula over Gravity's Rainbow I love Rendezvous with Rama so much. He spent years researching psychic and other paranormal phenomena before declaring it to be bunk, he invented the geosynchronous satellite, the list of his brilliant short stories includes "The Star", "The Nine Billion Names of God", "The Sentinel", the wonderful-but-underrated "Death of a Senator"... and that's just off the top of my head.

I could spend hours talking about his wonderful novels. Aside from the aforementioned Rendezvous with Rama and the three amazing sequels co-authored with Gentry Lee, apart from the early promise of Childhood's End with that amazingly unexpected ending, not counting the first examination of the Y2K problem that I ever saw in a non-technical publication in The Ghost in the Grand Banks... I have a personal story. Not that I ever met Arthur C. Clarke. But I was touched by him all the same.

I was in sixth grade. Eleven years old. 1991. I used to prowl the school library looking for good books, but I had read basically everything of any interest already. I was growing past these cheesy kid's books with the young protagonists and the rocket ships on the cover and the completely implausible science. (Yes, even at eleven I was a bit of a science purist.) I was looking through the shelves one day when I saw it. It was a blue-and-black hardcover without the dust jacket. And on the spine was a title which I had seen elsewhere in the monthly Disney channel guide as a good space movie that had something to do with spaceships and space stations.

You're way ahead of me. It was 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I checked it out and started reading it that day, probably during my spare time in class. (I always finished all my assignments early.) I loved it. I loved the story of Moon-Watcher, the proto-human who with his tribe nearly starved to death before a crystal alien monolith visited and taught his tribe to use tools. (Yes, in the book it was a crystal monolith -- it was changed to black in the movie for technical reasons.) I loved the way that section ended, telling us that when the Ice Ages returned that Moon-Watcher's species died out, but left another species in their place, with enhanced intelligence and social structure. Us. I loved Heywood Floyd's trip to the moon, with the zero-gee toilet, and the discovery of TMA-1 on the moon. I loved the space ship Discovery, on its slow trip to Saturn, with most of its crew in hibernation. I loved the trip through the asteroid belt, the quick flyby analysis of the composition of an asteroid. And the repair of the AE-35 communication unit, with all of the emphasis on the need to work slowly and carefully while in space.

And HAL. Oh, HAL. In a book filled with two-dimensional characters (no knock on Clarke -- that was de rigeur for SF at the time) HAL comes alive. The descent into madness and, eventually, murder by this shipwide computer, by this thing that is the very definition of the inanimate made animate, is heartbreaking. The image of HAL singing "Daisy, daisy" as his memory blocks and power are cut is a justifiably famous one -- it still maintains its power to haunt the imagination, forty years later.

And then Bowman's long journey alone in the darkness of space. Clarke's description of the loneliness on-board the lifeless Discovery is pitch-perfect, and Bowman's solitude is at once haunting and poetic. When Bowman finally reaches the monolith in orbit around Iapetus and goes into the wormhole it is the culmination of a brilliant novel, one that has subtly explored what it is to be human from the steppes of Africa to the stars and beyond.

I remember finishing the last line of 2001: "But he would think of something." I closed the book and just stared into the distance. I've read many books since then, but few that I can say were as affecting and ultimately transformative as that one. It was my introduction into books meant for adults, and it was quite a way to begin -- I would never again approach a novel in the same way again. Years later, when I had heart surgery to correct tachacardia, it was the newly-published sequel 3001 that my parents bought for my convalescence. It was largely because of that novel that I discovered a love of science, real science like astronomy and physics, and it was because of Arthur C. Clarke that I wanted to work in the space program, to be part of the future progress of the human race. It was ultimately because I read 2001 when I was eleven that I moved to Huntsville for college when I was eighteen, and while my life's path hasn't moved in the direction I thought it would, Arthur C. Clarke has a great deal to do with the man I have become since.

Sure, his later books don't hold up to the early ones. And yes, my adult eyes can find faults even in my beloved 2001. But subjectively speaking that was one of the great reading experiences of my life, and it is for that reason that I always wanted to have the opportunity to tell Sir Arthur how much he meant to me. There are few celebrities whose birthday I know, but I always tried to note December 17th, even though I knew that as an old man his time was coming sooner rather than later.

Goodbye. You'll be missed.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...


Wonderful post. I have actually read *no* Clarke - and before you start bitching at me, remember, I was only late in life really introduced to SF and most of my reading in the last 5 years has been Baen stuff - but of course I've seen the movie, and have seen a bit of his tv work. I knew his reputation - the big 3, with Asimov and Heinlein - and I suppose I've intended to read more in the future. Definitely a requirement now.

Touching review, too, of 2001. I don't think I've ever had a book so transformative - LOTR moved me profoundly but did not ultimately change the direction of my life. Perhaps Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach comes closest, but even that book did not influence how I chose to live so much as introduce me to one of my most passionate loves.

Sorry I haven't been reading your blog in a bit. It's been a hectic time for me. Hope to catch you later.