Arthur C Clarke laid to rest

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.

Marceau

The world’s most famous mime artist (admittedly that isn’t exactly a field blossoming with well-kent names) Marcel Marceau has died at the age of 84. Or has he? How can you tell with an expert mime? What if he is just miming rigor mortis? I mean, he was (or is) really good, so what if it just a gag? Admittedly my main memories of Marceau are Kenny Everett taking the piss out of him with his mime sketches and Marcel’s own appearance in Mel Brook’s Silent Movie (where he is the only character who speaks, just one word, ‘non’).

Dead Director’s Society

Michelangelo Antonioni has died has died aged 94, right after another famous director, Ingmar Bergman lost his final game of chess on the beach with Death. Since famous folks like this normally go in threes, anyone care to bet on the next respected but aged director to vacate the Editing Room? I almost put Michael Winner on my Director’s Dead Pool, but since it is for respected elder directors he clearly isn’t eligible…

Sad news

One of my friends passed on some bad news this week, one of the publisher’s reps I dealt with for many years has been ill recently and sadly tests have shown cancer spreading. It’s inoperable and the only care that can be given is to try and make him comfortable as the inevitable bears down. It’s a horrid thought and I hate to imagine what his family are going through, because basically they are in pretty much the same situation my family was in this time last year, facing the Christmas period knowing someone we loved was slipping away from us and there was nothing anyone could do. He was offered a very good early retirment package just the other year (one other rep I’ve known for years observed yesterday how jealous he was of his good fortune at the time, it just makes it all the more bitter because he should be kicking back and relaxing).

For those who don’t know, the publisher’s reps are the primary contact between booksellers in the stores and the publishers. I’ve dealt with all sorts in my years in the book trade; a few were annoying or simply just doing a job of work, but most, like many booksellers, do it because they care about books and because they enjoy interacting with people. This particular rep (I won’t name him, it wouldn’t be fair) is one we all enjoyed seeing – nice guy, good booklist, heplful and always cheerful. Even when things descended into the soulless mediocrity of the Dilbert-style corporate mentality he was a bright spot when he came in; you’d do business, sure, but you’d enjoy it, have a chat, share jokes. He’s a guy people looked forward to seeing. This comes quite soon after hearing a former colleague, only a few years older than me, passed away after a serious illness. I hate, hate, hate bad things happening to good people. I know, it’s life and life and death are rarely fair, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it or accept it, even if we do, sadly, have to deal with it.