Notes from the Curator's Office
Three: Arthur C. Clarke
(left) and director Stanley Kubrick, pose for a publicity
still on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The conclusion in our series about the "Big Three"
Science fiction writers of the 20th century.
(11/07) Of the so-called "Big Three",
Arthur C. Clark is the only writer still with us. He turns ninety
years of age this December. Clark was already a huge figure in
science fiction when I was a kid and I remember being riveted
by his books: A Fall of Moon Dust, 2001: A Space Odyssey
and Earthlight. Although I have never met Mr. Clarke, I
admit I feel a special connection as we're both included as authors
in the anthology Stranger Than Fiction.
Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead,
Somerset, England. Despite being a bright student, Clarke was
unable to afford a university education and instead found a job
as an auditor. During this period he started writing amateur stories
for fanzines. His work as an auditor was interrupted by World
War II when he joined the Royal Airforce as a radar specialist.
He was involved in the famed "Battle of Britain" in which a small
number of Royal Airforce planes, aided by radar intelligence,
successfully defended the country from numerically superior German
After the war Clarke earned a degree in mathematics
and physics at King's College London. At the same time Clark became
involved with the British Interplanetary Society and actually
served as its chairman for a while. During this period Clarke
came up with the idea of the geosynchronous telecommunications
satellite which was to revolutionize global communications. Clarke
figured out that if you put a satellite in orbit 22,300 miles
above the earth's surface, it would go around the planet at exactly
the same speed the planet was turning. If you also placed it over
the earth's equator in a geostationary orbit, it wouldn't move
at all relative to earth's rotation. This meant that to an observer
on the earth's surface, the location of the satellite would remain
fixed in the sky. This permitted radio beams to be transmit to
the satellite, which could then retransmitted any messages to
locations beyond the reach of the initial earthbound transmitter.
With a few satellites working together, it would be possible to
have near instantaneous communications from anywhere to anywhere
around the globe. Today there are nearly 300 geosynchronous satellites
in earth's orbit. If you get your tv from an antenna dish (as
I do) you have Arthur C. Clarke to thank.
satellites follow an orbit first described by Clarke in
an paper for the British Interplanetary Society.
A Space Odyssey
In 1946 Clarke had his first professional stories
- Loophole and Rescue Party - published in Astounding
Science Fiction magazine. This was followed by The Sentinel
which was written for a BBC competition. Though he didn't win,
Clarke later showed the story to visionary director Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick and Clarke then worked together to develop The Sentinel
into a movie script that was finally titled 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A novel, written by Clarke, was also planned to precede the movie's
1968 release, but in the end it came out simultaneously.
In the movie, scientists find an alien artifact
buried on the moon. When exposed to sunlight for the first time
in millions of years it beams a powerful signal out to Jupiter.
The scientists realize they have just sprung an alarm and send
an exploration ship off to Jupiter to see just where the signal
went. Unfortunately the ship has onboard an intelligent computer
with homicidal tendencies that kills most of the crew. Only one
astronaut is left alive to discover a secret at Jupiter that leads
man to his next level of evolution.
At the time that it came out, 2001 was one
of the most striking films ever made. The story, which mainly
takes place on the surface of the moon and later on the exploratory
spaceship bound for Jupiter, was told with little explanatory
dialog, forcing the audience to piece together the plot for themselves.
At the time the movie was made, the space program was just starting
to provide the public with real images of the earth and spaceflight
hardware in orbit and Kubrick took great pains with his special
effects to make sure they looked authentic. While the movie got
mixed reviews when first released, over the years many critics
have named it as one of the best films ever made.
The theme of the film and book -- the human race
coming into contact with advanced alien intelligence - is echoed
in a number of Clark's most famous works: Childhood's End,
Rendezvous with Rama and Cradle (written with Gentry
Lee). Clarke also produced some good, "hard science-fiction" in
the form of straightforward adventures without intelligent aliens,
too. These include A Fall of Moondust (the rescue of a
group of lunar tourists), Earthlight (a short war between
Earth and the outer planetary colonies over resources on the moon),
A Meeting with Medusa (exploration of Jupiter) and The
Hammer of God (earth under threat of an asteroid impact).
Not all of Clarke's fiction is space based, either.
He has a strong interest in the sea and for many years was an
avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club.
He even owns a scuba diving school. The Ghost of the Grand
Banks (exploration of the sunken Titanic), Dolphin Island
and Cradle all take place for the most part beneath the
ground-breaking film 2001 was followed by three books
and another movie.
Clarke has written sequels to several of his books
effectively turning these into series. For example: 2001
was followed by 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three
and 3001: The Final Odyssey. (2010 was also made
into a movie). Rendezvous with Rama was followed by Rama
II, The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed (all
the sequels with author Gentry Lee).
Clarke has also written non-fiction too. Early on
he had a significant interest in the supernatural though he has
grown skeptical over the years (He admitted that he was once fooled
by pseudo-psychic Uri Geller). Still, many people were introduced
to the world of the unknown via television shows he was connected
with: Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World and Arthur
C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers.
Since the 50's Clarke has resided in Sri Lanka where
he is considered a bit of a national treasure. He maintains a
duel citizenship both there and in Great Britain, and the British,
in May of 2000, honored him with a knighthood. Not to be outdone
in 2005 Sri Lanka presented Clarke its highest civilian award
the Sri Lankabhimanya (translated as The Pride of Sri
Lanka) for his contributions to science.
His current tropical island home has also inspired
the supposed location for his book The Fountains of Paradise
which is the fictional history of the building of the first space
elevator. The idea of an elevator with one end anchored on the
ground and the other at a station in geostationary orbit in space
didn't originate with this novel but it has brought the idea to
the attention of many people. Clarke himself stated that if there
is a legacy to his work in technology he expects it not to be
the communications satellite, but the space
In my opinion, Clarke's finest work isn't 2001,
but Rendezvous with Rama. It is an adventure novel which
catches the reader's imagination and doesn't let go until the
very end. Rama is the story of the captain and crew of
an asteroid scouting ship that find themselves the only earth
vessel capable of intersecting and exploring a gigantic alien
spaceship as it hurtles through our solar system and on out into
deep space. The crew has barely two weeks to examine this strange
world and try to figure out who made it (and why) before they
have to depart and the opportunity is lost forever. The book was
been one of Clarke's most popular (it won both the Hugo and Nebula
awards) and was followed by three sequels which unfortunately
do not quite live up to the original.
with Rama received both Nebula and Hugo Awards.
Clarke suffered from polio as a child and as a result
has spent much of his time in a wheelchair since 1988. Still,
he continues to write, though often in conjunction with a junior
author. Most recently this has been Stephen Baxter, a well-known
science fiction writer in his own right. Together they have most
recently authored the series of Time Odyssey books.
I'll close this article with two quotes, the first
from Clarke himself because it is simply one of my favorites and
I think it illustrates Clarke's interest in both science and the
paranormal: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable
The second is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Clarke
from his sometime rival and fellow member in the exclusive Big
Three club, Isaac Asimov: Arthur
and I share similar views on science fiction, on science, on social
questions, and on politics. I have never had an occasion to disagree
with him on any of these things, which is a credit to his clear-thinking
Well, if Isaac Asimov thinks Clarke's a pretty smart
fellow, who am I to disagree?
Links to Isaac Asimov
and Robert Heinlein.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2007. All Rights Reserved.