By Ryder W. Miller
From the heights of San Francisco on the west side of the city, one can look far out over the Pacific and, like others who have been caught up by this muse and the night sky, dream. Having been shipwrecked here after moving from New York City, I had to learn a new ocean. Out there in the west were Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, Russia, and Sri Lanka. Part of connecting with this new ocean was the knowledge that Arthur C. Clarke, also an oceanographer, lived out there somewhere. Luckily, I was to get the assignment at Mercury Magazine to write about him that would lead to a book about his correspondence with C. S. Lewis, which I edited, called From Narnia to a Space Odyssey. Clarke has since passed away. Having lived the high and low of the literary life, it is interesting to think about how he will be remembered.
Born in 1917 in Minehead Beach in Somerset, England, Clarke lived to the age of 90, dying in 2008 in Columbo, Sri Lanka, as a knight of England, even though he had left there half a century earlier. He can be remembered in many ways. He was an ocean aficionado who owned a diving company. He wrote that in an earlier age, he would have wanted to explore the ocean, but because space beckoned, his interest was “deflected” into space. He won awards for his writings in science. He was an academic administrator, as well as a television personality and commentator on developments in science and space exploration. From personal correspondence, he sought to communicate to me that he wished to be remembered first as a writer. He has left for posterity many books in both science and science fiction, many of which have been widely read, so that one can start a conversation with other fans.
Many have been his fans and followers, despite the literary controversy that plagued him towards the end of his life. Clarke would admit to being a gay man. His last years also plagued him with post-polio syndrome, which left him wheelchair-bound. He can be remembered as one of the most important literary men of the century. He was considered, with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, to be one of the top three science fiction writers of the century. The movie 2001: A Space Odessy is considered to be one of the best movies of the century, as well. I, personally, prefer 2010 and am saddened by the fact that there are not more movies in the works. We should be on our way for a Rendezvous with Rama, arguably his best book, a triple science fiction award winner, that has been optioned for a film, but there has been no commitment to make it yet.
Clarke was different from Heinlein, an impressive writer who would take the bull by the horns. Asimov was an encyclopedia who could impress the reader on a variety of subjects. His works were arguably the best of the “big three.” Clarke, however, took the daring route of writing about the near-future rather than the far-future. He usually wrote about the exploration of the nearby solar system, rather than far distances of space and the future. Recent discoveries have dated some of his work, but Clarke helped guide us into the solar system. He also explored and investigated, rather than seeking conflict. One would not consider him naïve, but rather a sometimes-optimistic guide who hoped that we would encounter others who were motivated to learn. His fictional extraterrestrials were often scientists from the stars. The Monoliths explored intelligence. The Overlords in Childhood’s End sought to prepare us for an evolutionary change and a communion with a vast cosmic mind. The Raman invited us to their home planet so they could study us.
There is some conflict in these works—Clarke having been a soldier in WW II. But if one was going to travel all the distances to meet other galactic societies, more could be gained from co-operation and mutual understanding. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you see in a lot of the sci-fi summer blockbusters, which in their surly way, retell The War of the Worlds every summer—a point to be made, but there are also other possible scenarios that are believable. Clarke actually vouched for astronomers, pointing out before the middle of the last century that they would be idealistic.
From my somewhat limited correspondence with Clarke for From Narnia to a Space Odyssey, I remember him being upbeat, pithy, topical, and witty. Clarke was a big thinker who challenged the interviewer. He also started his fair share of contention. He was deeply saddened that things had not worked out better, maybe to the point of disillusionment [what things??]. Clarke did believe that there were worthwhile possibilities on the table. He seemed contradictory at times, but he was writing in different fields for different audiences.
It is sad to see, though, that he did not get the big send-off that he deserved. In some sense he was a victim of his own success. He was one of the few science fiction writers who could write for a living, whereas others needed side jobs. He had to contend with jealousy and competition. But a lack of a send-off may suggest that he is not really gone. He has played an historical role in the field and has left classics that will remain available.
There is also a new great anthology that includes writing by many of his friends, followers, colleagues, and contemporaries, which is worthwhile even though it is hard to obtain anywhere else than on the Internet.
Sentinels In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke, edited by Gregory Benford & George Zebrowski, may be the fitting tribute to a writer who helped to fill science fiction with success and ideas. Clarke will also be remembered for arguing that we could use solar winds rather than plutonium. One can find in Sentinels the acknowledgment of Clarke’s depth of knowledge of science, his winning and entertaining personality, his friendships, and the admiration of his peers. There are also the words of his collaborators and some tales he helped inspired.
Maybe more effort was not necessary to remember him, because Clarke has not left us. Looking out over the sea at night, one can remember that Clarke is out there with us in the stars, as well as the deeps of the sea. He was there exploring before us and has left sentinels to guide us. Maybe he has already been contacted by the Ramans as well.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.