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Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction and the Hazards of Prophecy

by Amal Siriwardena

(March 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I met Arthur C. Clarke briefly when I was about ten years old. My father, Regi Siriwardena, then features editor of the ‘Daily News’ was interviewing Clarke. We met at Clarke’s residence at Gregory’s Road, where he was living with his then diving partner Mike Wilson (who produced the first Sinhala Colour film ‘Ran Muthu Duwa’) and Mike’s wife Elizabeth. Both of us were then avidly interested in Astronomy, and I tagged along to look through Clarke’s telescope. We had a telescope ourselves but we envied the compactness of the little ‘Questar’ instrument. After we had done with looking at the moon, I was asked to sit and be quiet while the interview was being recorded. I vaguely recall one question which was on the lines of ‘what would you say if someone asked whether all the money being spent on space exploration couldn’t be put to a better use on Earth?’ I cannot recall what answer Clarke gave at the time but I have come across a reply he has given elsewhere. We certainly have problems at home, he said, but so had Queen Isabella when she supported Columbus’s voyage.

In my adolescence I read many of Clarke’s early fiction and non-fiction writings. Although Clarke has written many fine Science Fiction novels, on the whole I like his short stories better. His story ‘The Star’ tells of the discovery of the ruins of a civilization that was destroyed when its sun exploded in what is called a supernova. When the explosion is dated it turns out that the sun was what is known to us as the star of Bethlehem. ‘The Star’ was once selected to be included in a school textbook in the seventies but was later dropped for fear it would offend the Catholic Church.

In my favourite story, ( possibly the best sci-fic short story ever written)‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, the monks in a Tibetan monastery hire a computer company to help them rapidly complete a three thousand year old project. The task is to arrive at all the names of god, which are to be derived from the possible combinations of letters of a special alphabet after eliminating nonsense combinations. The monks’ belief is that when the task is completed the universe will come to an end, as god’s purpose in creating it will have been achieved. The computer engineers become fearful of the reaction of the monks when they find that all their work has come to naught. On the last day, leaving the computer to finish its run, they secretly leave the monastery. On their way back to the airfield the story comes to its stunning climax.

Another short story ‘The Sentinel’, which is about the discovery of an artifact on the moon left by an alien intelligence, provided the germ for the remarkable film Clarke co-directed with Stanley Kubrick, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The filming of some of the zero gravity scenes presented some unprecedented technological challenges. The counterpart novel, with the other books ‘2010’ ‘2061’ and ‘3001’ culminated in the four part Odyssey series. A unique feature of the Odyssey books is that though there is a common thread running through them, they are not linear successors to each other. In the novel ‘2001’ the destination of the spaceship discovery is the planet Saturn; but in the subsequent books it appears to have been, as it was in the film, Jupiter. Clarke skillfully weaves the ideas he has discussed in his popular science writing into his fiction. In his non-fiction he once stated that it is a fallacy that a human being exposed to a vacuum will instantly die. In the most dramatic moment of the film 2001, the Astronaut David Bowman, having been refused re-entry into his spaceship by the mutinous computer HAL, manually opens an airlock and crosses space without a space suit.

Clarke was a man of many facets who could bridge the two cultures. In a couple of his novels he has referred to the power of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to soothe those who are in traumatic situations. In ‘2001’, David Bowman is left alone in his spaceship when all his comrades are dead. Finding that Beethoven and other romantic composers shattered his nerves, he finds solace in the abstract architecture of the music of Bach.

I find an echo of this in my father’s poem ‘Insanity and the Goldberg Variations’:

Thank you Bach, How often I’ve blessed you on sleepless nights.

Later in the poem he continues:

You Johann Sebastian are absent from the music

You take no pride in your emotions- unlike the deaf one …….

Clarke was also versatile with language. Once asked whether he was gay, he deftly side stepped the question saying ‘ no, just moderately cheerful’.

Clarke’s reputation as a prophet has mainly been built on his prediction of the telecommunication satellite. In the February 1945 issue of ‘Wireless word’ he explained how a system of satellites in the geostationary orbit over the equator, which rotate in exactly in one day so that they appear stationary, could provide global TV coverage. At the time he could not expect to see his idea realised in his lifetime. What is less well known is that, in a letter written in 1956, he predicted a ‘world wide person –to –person radio’, in effect a mobile phone. He continued ‘I’m still thinking of the social consequences of this’. Think of the consequences it has had here in Sri Lanka on courting couples and 3-wheeler drivers!

Yet, Clarke’s successful prophecies have obscured the fact that he has had a mixed record as a prophet. He once had great expectations for the hovercraft, a vehicle which can travel over any kind of surface on a cushion of air, and believed that it would replace ships. He also once opined that the automobile would soon disappear from urban areas to be replaced by some kind of mass transportation system such as conveyor belts. A prediction one would wish had come true but which unfortunately hasn’t.!.

In, the late fifties and sixties, the first flush of space exploration, there were over-optimistic expectations of it’s progress. These were also decades of optimism in the west, before oil crises, stagflation and the defeat in Vietnam; they were also an era of great faith in science and technology. Clarke naturally shared the mood of the times. His book ‘Profiles of the Future’,devoted entirely to scientific and technological futurism, was first published in 1962 and went through a number of revised editions. At the end of each book he gave a timeline of future developments, which to be fair, he himself said is not to be taken too seriously. In the 1962 edition he placed the first planetary landings in the eighties and envisaged colonising planets by 2010. Although he revised his timelines in subsequent predictions he still remained an incurable optimist. In a round of predictions made in 2001, he still hoped for an orbiting Hilton Hotel by 2017 and a Mars landing by 2021.

Clarke was also an optimist about the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe. Even when the Viking Mars Lander gave a barren picture of the planet he still maintained that the planet had a varied topography, that there was evidence that it had running water at some period, and there could still be oases which could support life. He was also a passionate believer in the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. ‘There is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe’ he said not entirely in jest ‘it is simply too intelligent to come here’.

In was in ‘Profiles of the future ‘ that Clarke first proposed the following three laws of prophecy:

Law 1: 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 probably wrong.

Law 2: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Law 3: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

The laws of course are open to criticism. Science writer Isaac Asimov added a corollary to the first law stating; "When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion — the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right".

One of Clarke’s most intriguing predictions is the ‘universal replicator’; a device which would enable any object, from gourmet meals to diamonds to the Mona Lisa to be automatically created given the necessary raw materials. It would make most agriculture and industry obsolete, indeed it would end most of ‘work’ as we know it. On the other hand it could lead to an explosion in the creative arts, entertainment and education. It would be indistinguishable from magic indeed!

Science fiction, by its conception of what a future is, is inherently political. Though in the past I would have considered Clarke a somewhat right- wing writer, in the light of what has happened since I would no longer hold this opinion. Clarke certainly did not anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union; something for which he could hardly be blamed since the army of Sovietologists in the White House and the State Department failed to do so. He foresaw the kind of future where the two systems would converge. In several of his fiction writings he has visualized joint Soviet- American space Projects. In ‘2010’ he shows empathy with the Russian people when the commander of the Soviet spaceship ‘ Leonov’ tells her American shipmate," all your grandparents died in bed Woody; three of mine died in the Great Patriotic War ".

Several of his novels and short stories written during the height of the Apartheid period have referred to a revolution in South Africa which overthrew the white supremacist regime. Though history finally resolved the problem differently, Clarke at least understood that men should walk upright in the land in which they were born. In ‘ 2010’ however he has added a twist. The revolution still happens, but it is bloodless. The Afrikaners, mindful of the omnipresent TV cameras, choose to flee taking their money with them, rather than have a massacre which will be watched by the whole world. This shows Clarke’s belief in the socio-political power of Television. It also gives some food for thought in the light of recent events. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia was not bloodless, but how much worse could it have been if not for the cameras ?. During the first Gulf War Clarke cited the fact that Saddam Hussein allowed CNN to broadcast from Baghdad as demonstrating the pervasive power of .Television.

While researching for this article I came across a searing indictment by Clarke on the American capitalist system. After observing that the structure of American society may be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands he continued, "No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into essentially non-creative and occasionally parasitic occupations such as law, insurance and banking". He also referred to a photograph in Life Magazine showing 7,000 engineers massed behind a new model car they had produced as ‘a horrifying social document’. He was appalled by the squandering of technical manpower it represented. All this indeed makes one wonder whether he really was a closet socialist.

Clarke first came to Sri Lanka in 1956. Seduced by its climate and natural beauty and fascinated by its history and cultural diversity, he soon opted to make it his home. He relished waking up all year round with the sun streaming into his bedroom and missed nothing except Devon Clotted Cream. The island also gave him ample opportunity to pursue his other passionate interest, that of deep sea diving. He pointed out that being underwater is the closest one can get to weightlessness while remaining on the planet. His book ‘Treasures of the Great Reef’ describes how, with Mike Wilson, he recovered some old coins from a sunken ship. Clarke seems to have been a shrewd observer of the Sri Lankan social scene. In his novel ‘ Fountains of Paradise’, largely set in twenty-second century Sri Lanka, there is a conversation between the retired international bureaucrat Rajasinghe, and his female domestic servant Though the whole exchange is given in English it is implicit that the two are switching languages, showing that Clarke had observed the linguistic nuances of bi-lingual Sri Lankans.

‘Fountains of Paradise’ is about the construction of a ‘space elevator’, a cable suspended from the geostationary orbit. This idea however was not originated by Clarke; it was first conceived by the Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov in the same decade that the first earth satellite was launched. The elevator, which will enable payloads to be raised to orbit without having to use rockets, is built out of super-strong materials manufactured in orbiting factories under zero gravity conditions. The earth end of the elevator is at the summit of a mountain which Clarke calls Srikanda, but is clearly Siripada. ..

Clarke’s later novels were all co-authored with other writers with the other doing the bulk of the writing. But the difference in style shows up. As one critic said ‘they do not have the feel of a Clarke novel’. I was also surprised to find that in one of his last novels ‘Time’s Eye’ he has borrowed a theme used earlier by Fred Hoyle in his novel ‘October the first is too late’. The earth is fragmented in time, with people from different eras occupying different parts of the globe. There is nothing essentially wrong about borrowing an idea, but it makes one wonder whether Clarke was coming to the end of his creativity.

Clarke was never publicity-shy. He was known to have requested himself to be interviewed on important occasions. He was also very conscious of his standing vis-à-vis other writers. Clarke and fellow science writer Isaac Asimov once entered into the ‘Clarke-Asimov treaty’ while in a taxi cab in New York. According to the terms of the ‘treaty’ Asimov was the second best science-fiction writer in the world (leaving the first place for Clarke) while Clarke was the second best popular science writer in the world (leaving the first place for Asimov).

Arthur C. Clarke was someone who enriched the intellectual lives of all of us who took an interest in science in the latter half of the twentieth century. We are the poorer for not having him around. As for the errors he made, they were the occupational hazards for anyone who ventures to look into the crystal ball.

The writer may be reached at amal_siri@yahoo.com

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