While I was off the air last week we lost Sir Arthur C Clarke, one of the few authors to cross out of his genre to become a cultural icon recognised by millions, including those who never picked up a science fiction book in their life. Sadly he passed away at the age of 90 just weeks before the annual Arthur C Clarke awards are due to be announced. I’ve been reading Arthur’s books and short tales since before my voice broke; basically I have been picking up books of his for over thirty of my forty years on Planet Earth and apart from some wonderfully imaginative fiction (which still usually remained grounded in some real science) I think the quality I most loved in his work over the decades was the optimism. Here was a man born as the slaughter of the War to End All Wars was being fought and who played his part working in radar in the war that came after that, who saw the many atrocities that marked the last century and yet still his stories had this optimism, this belief not that the future would turn out alright but that we could make it better if we tried, if we really wanted to make it that way, to evolve our minds and our morality both. While darker edged fiction often satisfies me more dramatically I need that does of hope and optimism sometimes.
And like many best writers his books made me want to go and read more books; I’d read the story then need to investigate some of the actual science which was used in the tale (my favourite reading is always the book which makes me want to read more, learn more; good books are like brain cells, they work best when creating more links). Reading his collection of non fiction essays a few years back, Greetings, Carbon-based Lifeforms, was also fascinating – because of the reputation he earned worldwide Arthur met just about everyone, from hanging out with Ginsberg at the Hotel Chelsea to presidents and kings, working with Kubrick of course and even during the animosity of the Cold War he was so respected by both superpowers he was one of the few men who shook hands with both Soviet cosmonauts and NASA astronauts. Its not been the best of recent weeks for book people – we just lost Arthur, Terry Pratchett is facing the spectre of Alzheimer’s, Steve Gerber left us… At least we always have the books. Sadly we’re all mortal, but the printed word, that magical, alchemical fusion of human imagination, paper, ink and technology is immortal.
Arthur’s final interview, recorded for IEEE Spectrum in January from his hospital bed, can be found online here. I leave you with Clarke’s 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.”
You know, of the three I think I am most fond of the second; I like to think the impossible rarely remains impossible forever. Perhaps some of his optimism has rubbed off on my cynical mind over the years… The people of Sri Lanka, where this Somerset-born lad had made his home for decades, showed their respect for their adopted son with a national moment’s silence to coincide with the funeral service. His gravestone will read “Here lies Arthur C Clarke. He never grew up and did not stop growing,” in line with his own wishes. I’ve met a lot of brilliant science fiction writers over my career in books (including two of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Awards nominees), but I never met Arthur. And yet I feel as if I have known him most of my life and I’m going to miss him, especially that wonderful human quality of hope he always seemed to summon forth.