April 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

For there were giants in those days

I never met Arthur C. Clarke. Though there was a time when I was in fairly regular receipt of his update letters, which seem to have been his default response to anyone who had been in touch with him on any topic. These letters would consist, almost in their entirety, of a list of new books published, interviews undertaken, pieces commissioned or delivered, meetings and talks and television appearances and projects, projects, projects. And all this from a man already approaching 70, already in ill health, already using the wheelchair to which he would all too soon be permanently confined. Here was a man who seemed to relish having too much to do, who seemed to get energy from being overworked.

He directed that energy in an incredible variety of directions (when I was involved in running the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction I was astounded to discover how many other Arthur C. Clarke Awards there are, for a wide range of often esoteric disciplines). Nevertheless, despite the fact that he came up with the idea of using satellites in geosynchronous orbits for communications, despite his often pioneering work on underwater exploration, despite his role as a TV pundit for the moon landings, despite his “Mysterious World” television programs, it was science fiction that benefited most from his energy. He changed the genre. We are diminished by his passing.

Science fiction has a habit of bestowing grand names on things that are never very clearly defined, perhaps as a way of avoiding definition. “The Golden Age” is one such. Like the Golden Age of Greek myth it can only ever be seen in retrospect, the Golden Age has to have been tarnished into bronze before we can get an inkling that it was there in the first place. But no two sf fans will ever agree on when exactly it was or how it should be characterised. Mostly it refers to that period, roughly, for the sake of argument, between the late-30s and mid-50s, that saw the rise to prominence of the Big Three (another of those names). Who makes the list -- is it Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke? or is it Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke? or is it, well you get the idea -- is another of those things we can argue about ad nauseam. But Clarke is on the list more often than not, and he’s certainly the only non-American who makes the grade.

Which may suggest a very American style of science fiction. On the surface, that makes sense. He addressed big ideas with élan, wrote about the further reaches of space and the distant future, was at ease with the physics and the technology of his creations. To that extent his work fits right in with contemporary American sf. But read closer and the picture becomes less clear. This was the age of the competent man as hero, whose can-do attitude and native ingenuity would extricate him from the most outlandish threats the universe might throw at him and lead on to a glorious future. Yet for Clarke competence wasn’t always enough for survival, and indeed a competent man wasn’t necessarily an heroic man, nor was the future always glorious.

Look at two of the finest short stories that any science fiction writer has produced. In “The Nine Billion Names of God” the cheerful competence of our two heroes just speeds up the end of the universe, while in “The Star” competence is irrelevant when it comes to the faith-testing revelation of what the Star of Bethlehem had wrought. Oh, Clarke had plenty of competent heroes, but they were still likely to fail despite their competence, or to discover that survival depended on other, more personal qualities.

What comes across to me most strongly in Clarke’s fiction is an elegiac quality, as if he is already mourning a future that hasn’t happened yet. He believed, vividly and fervently, in the wonder of tomorrow, in the power of technology, in the rightness of taking our place among the stars. Yet when he wrote about the future he would, as often as not, look back upon it from a time when it has already grown dusty and prone to failure. The lone city in its abandoned future in The City and the Stars is an exemplar of the mood he evokes so often in his fiction. As is the way the end point of time and space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is represented by a room furnished and decorated like something out of the Belle Epoque.

So, in The Sands of Mars, he would prepare us in clear, direct fashion, to move out beyond this world; then, in perhaps his finest novel, Childhood’s End, he would tell us it wasn’t all as simple and straightforward as that might suggest. In fact, humanity might have to change if it is to move on, literally as well as figuratively facing its demons. The idea that we might change is pretty commonplace now with all our posthumanity, but when I first encountered the novel in the early '70s it wasn’t, and I doubt that it was when first published, twenty years before that.

But Clarke had been inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, which he first read while he was still in his teens. It taught him, among other things, the long view, the notion that change isn’t just inevitable, it’s essential. That perspective informs all of his best work, from Childhood’s End to the starchild at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the absence of aliens in Rendezvous with Rama. (This last is one of the best novels science fiction has produced to deal with the mystery of the alien precisely because the aliens themselves are entirely absent: as soon as funny creatures start to appear in the interminable co-authored sequels the strength of the work goes rapidly downhill.)

Clarke was not a great writer. His prose was, at best, plain (he would have taken that as a great compliment); his characterisation was generally weak; and over the last thirty years he has produced a string of work (often co-authored) much of which is frankly embarrassing. But he understood the reach, the ambition, the impulse of science fiction better than perhaps anyone else. And in striving, energetically, to achieve that, he produced some of the most significant works of science fiction from the last century: The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, not to mention the solid core of work that lies at the heart of his Collected Stories (a book I believe should be required reading for everyone who pretends to any knowledge of science fiction). More than that, he inspired others. Even today you can see his direct influence in the work of writers as varied as Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds.

He was, in short, the most important writer of British science fiction since Wells. And now, at the grand old age of 90, he is gone. The response, the obituaries and celebrations, has been phenomenal, but that was because he transcended science fiction. And the appreciations have all tended to see him as a prophet, assessing his work by how accurately he predicted the future. I suspect he would have been flattered at the attention (his nickname, after all, was “Ego”), but rather irritated by its character, not least because he knew better than most that science fiction has nothing to do with prediction. Once, late in life, he was asked, given all his achievements in so many fields, how he would choose to be remembered, and he said: “As a writer.” And it is as a writer, as a science fiction writer, that we should remember him, because he put so much into the genre.

Here’s to Arthur C. Clarke, who found science fiction brick and left it marble.