The Corner

Remembering Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the first adult authors I read with pleasure. As a child I was often sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in another town. They had no kids. They lived in a quiet back street, and there was a library nearby. I spent my whole time with them just reading, which was the main thing I liked to do at that point.

My uncle was a science fiction fan. This, through the early and middle 1950s, was the Golden Age of sci-fi. I caught the bug from my uncle, around age eight, and read everything he had. The Science Fiction Book Club had just started up. Their first three offerings were Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, and Clarke’s Prelude to Space. Stapledon I found unreadable (and I think still would), but I pretty much inhaled Clarke and Bradbury. I joined the Club myself somewhat later. The monthly selections were 6s. 9d. each, I recall — ninety cents at the then rate of exchange. This swallowed up most of my allowance.

My uncle had Clarke’s nonfiction Exploration of Space, too, a wonderfully mind-opening speculation on what might be possible, written years before Sputnik 1. For an imaginative eight-year-old with no developed literary tastes, this was very strong brew.

I think I read everything Clarke wrote from then up to Fountains of Paradise (1979). Science fiction, like opera, is a thing not everybody “gets.” To those who “get” it, though, Clarke was a great grand-master. He wrote “hard” sci-fi: no magic, fantasy, or weirdness, nothing that contradicted what is known. He scoffed at UFOs and other popular delusions of the time. He had a true scientist’s respect for the evidence, yoked to a wonderful gift for speculating within the evidence. His feet were always planted firmly in known fact, while his mind soared through infinite space and time. (One of his novels takes place a billion years in the future.)

Clarke’s unwavering respect for evidence showed up in his famous 1984 falling-out with Robert Heinlein over the Strategic Defense Initiative. Heinlein was for SDI, Clarke was against, and there was an ugly spat, with both men standing their ground. Later Clarke went over the evidence carefully, saw flaws in his math, changed his mind, and did his best to make up with Heinlein. (Making up with Heinlein unfortunately required extraterrestrial powers.)

It is plain from his life and his work that Clarke was deeply in love with the idea of space. In 1956 he went to live in Sri Lanka so that he could spend his spare time scuba diving, the nearest he could get to the silence, weightlessness, and mystery of space. That profound imaginative connection with the great void is one of the things that separates science fiction writers and fans from the unimaginative plodding mass of humanity — the Muggles. Clarke had it in spades. The other thing he dreamt of, and wrote about, constantly was alien civilizations: how incomprehensibly magical they will appear to us when we encounter them, and how they will deal with us.

I never met Clarke, but a friend who knew him well, and who is a sound judge of men, tells me that Clarke was a very nice man indeed. His only oddity was gynephobia. He just didn’t like women, and didn’t want to be around them. Of his private life beyond that, there is nothing but speculation, and so let it remain. I always thought of him as a “confirmed bachelor” in the old prewar style, a type further beyond the imaginings of our prurient age than any space alien. If Clarke was anything other than that, I’d much rather not know.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the English are a very peculiar race of people indeed. We may in fact be space aliens; I wouldn’t be surprised. Neither would Clarke, I think. He actually once made some speculations along these general lines. At any rate, he was very English in his enthusiasms. He had that strange combination of mysticism and matter-of-fact practicality that is the gift of the English — the yogi who works as an auto mechanic. There has never been anything like this strange race of engineer-dreamers; and now that they have decided to extinguish themselves and hand over their country to foreigners, there never again will be. It’s a loss, though Clarke would have said there’s likely some cosmic purpose to it, and everything.

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