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Arthur C. Clarke: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted June 19, 2001, with later edits

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Born in England, but a resident of Sri Lanka since 1956. He moved to London in 1936 and worked as a civil service auditor with HM Exchecquer, at the same time beginning his association with several SF fan organizations. Several of his stories from this period appeared in fanzines, but were reprinted in various collections later in his career. During WW 2 he served as a radar instructor with the RAF, advancing to the rank of flight-lieutenant. Following the war he entered King's College, London, receiving a BSc in physics and mathematics in 1948.

In 1946, he began in earnest his two-phase writing career. His strong interest in the frontiers of science brought him to the chairmanship of the British Interplanetary Society for two different terms,1946-47 and again from 1950-53. His first professional SF fiction appearance also came in '46, with "Loophole" in the April issue of Astounding, although he had previously sold another, "Rescue Party," which was printed in the same periodical the following month. The majority of his early stories were typical genre pieces, usually dealing in fictional terms with scientific speculations he was also exploring in his non-fiction articles.

He is generally regarded to be the first to suggest the feasibility of communications satellites, in a 1945 article entitled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" in Wireless World magazine. In his honor the 22,300 mile-high geo-synchronous orbit utilized by today's satellites is sometimes referred to as the Clarke orbit, although this term is usually limited to use by SF fans. To be fair, it has to be pointed out that both Hugo Gernsback and George O. Smith proposed similar ideas years and even decades earlier, but Clarke was the first to propose three separate satellites spaced 120 degrees apart in an equatorial orbit which would help them maintain a position over the same point on Earth, thus enabling them to cover the majority of the Earth's surface for instantaneous communications relay.

Other than Isaac Asimov there is probably no other SF author who has had as much direct influence on the scientific community. The two were good friends and supposedly had formulated an accord known as the "Clarke-Asimov Treaty," in which Clarke would thereafter refer to Asimov as the best science-fact writer, reserving second-best honors for himself, and Asimov would acknowledge that he was second-best to Clarke as a science-fiction writer. Almost all of Clarke's stories and novels deal with an optimistic approach to human problems set against a backdrop of scientific discovery. At the same time, many of them also exhibit a distinct spiritual sense, with humanity seemingly as children facing the inscrutable and ancient wisdom of alien races. One other British author to have such a spiritual focus in his work, and one who must have been a direct influence on Clarke, was Olaf Stapledon.

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His first two novels, Prelude to Space and The Sands of Mars both appeared in 1951, with Islands in the Sky, a juvenile dealing with a young man living in an orbiting space colony, being released the following year. 1953 saw the publication of the story collection Expedition to Earth, which included "The Sentinel" (originally "Sentinel of Eternity" in 10 Story Fantasy of 1951). Concerning the discovery of an ancient alien artifact on the Moon, this story would later be credited as the genesis for the screenplay of the landmark SF film 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Clarke collaborated on that script with Kubrick, while at the same time he was also writing the novel version. This story has been reprinted more than any other by Clarke, including in The Lost Worlds of 2001, which detailed many of the production problems on the film which necessitated changes in the script. One of the most obvious is that in the film the spaceship Discovery voyages to Jupiter, whereas Saturn was the destination in the novel.

This same basic theme was explored in greater depth, and in my opinion with much greater success, in two other works from 1953. The City and the Stars - which is a revised and expanded version of the earlier novella "Against the Fall of Night" from 1948 - involves an inhabitant of a technologically advanced but culturally stagnant city of the future Earth. His journey of discovery takes him from his sheltered existence in the domed city of Diaspar, to another such utopian enclave, known as Lys, in which the emphasis is on a closeness to nature. He also discovers an ancient, alien spaceship abandoned millennia before, which he is successful in reactivating for a stellar journey of further discoveries. Childhood's End is another work which deals with the transcendance of man to another plane of existence, again guided by a more advanced alien race. Even though Clarke has continued to dazzle us with ever more sophisticated speculations, a good case could be made that these two works are the best of his career. Childhood's End has been optioned for film or TV several times over the years, but it seems it might actually happen in 2015, as it is scheduled as a six hour mini-series on Syfy in December. I have recently re-read the book in anticipation of this, and you can read my review of it HERE. [EDIT: And now I've reviewed the mini-series.]

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He published frequently, if not prolifically, throughout the remainder of the 50s and 60s, with a combination of short non-fiction articles, short stories, and novels. The majority of this work is competent but unspectacular with just a few exceptions, his main handicap being a stiffness of prose and wooden characters, along with a penchant for mostly unsuccessful wry humor. The best of his work during this period can be found in the lunar exploration novels Earthlight (1955) and A Fall of Moondust (1961), and the story collections Reach for Tomorrow (1956), Tales from the White Hart (1957), The Other Side of the Sky (1958), and Tales of Ten Worlds (1962). He also produced at least one non-SF novel, Glide Path (1963), which concerned the development of radar. His love for the sea and scuba-diving, which eventually led to his moving to Sri Lanka, has also produced several books detailing undersea exploration, among them The Deep Range (1954), an evocative account of undersea farming colonies of the near future. His fiction output dwindled considerably by the mid-60s, but 1971 saw his return with the excellent (and award-winning) "A Meeting with Medusa," concerning a cyborg explorer of the dense atmosphere of Jupiter.

A good argument could be made that Clarke is just as good, if not better, as a popularizer of science fact as he is a science fiction writer. His best work in this vein can be found in the books The Exploration of Space (1951), The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959), Voices from the Sky (1965), The Promise of Space (1968), and his most recent collection of essays, Greetings Carbon-Based Bipeds (1999). Certainly the response to his non-fiction work has been more wide-ranging than any of his fiction. He won the UNESCO Kalinga Prize in 1962 for his efforts, and in recent years has also been honored with a Gold Medal Award from the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, the Lindbergh Award, a Marconi International Fellowship, and a Fellowship at King's College, London. The success of 2001 : A Space Odyssey made him one of the most popular and recognized of the SF figures, which led to his being invited to provide commentary along-side CBS's Walter Cronkite during three separate Apollo moon missions. This popularity and exposure was most likely responsible for his signing a contract, for an advance sum unprecedented in SF publishing, for the production of three novels from Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovich.

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The first, Rendezvous with Rama (1973), is the most successful novel of his career, winning not only the Hugo and Nebula, but also the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award, among others. It echoes some of the themes of his earlier works, with a manned expedition dispatched to explore an enormous and enigmatic alien spacecraft which unexpectedly enters our solar system. [EDIT: Recently re-read and reviewed.] This book stands on its own merits, but later spawned three sequels written primarily by Gentry Lee (Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed). Film options on Rama have come and gone over the years, there's no telling if that will ever happen, and maybe that's a good thing. The second novel in the fulfillment of his contract was less successful, both commercially and critically. Imperial Earth (1976) was somewhat of a gimmicky story; being commissioned as a commemoration of America's Bicentennial celebration, it concerns a man's return from Saturn's moon Titan to Earth in 2276, during the nation's Quincentennial. Clarke again won both the Hugo and Nebula for 1979's The Fountains of Paradise, which combined the recurring themes of mankind's apotheosis and technological evolution. Set on a fictitious island nation (a stand in for Sri Lanka), it tells of the construction of a space elevator whose height matches the geo-synchronous orbit of today's satellites, and contains an epilogue set hundreds of years after the main action of the novel, when the original elevator is but a small part of a continuous structure ringing the entire planet. [EDIT: Another I have recently re-read and reviewed.]

I am not positive of the accuracy of the source, but I had once read a comment by Clarke that Fountains was to be the last work of fiction in his career, the remainder of his days to be devoted to the desemination of science fact. Whether this was actually his intention, it is fortunate that it was incorrect. Not only did he collaborate with Gentry Lee on the previously mentioned sequels to the Rama saga, along with another unrelated novel, Cradle (1988), he also returned to expand on the story begun in 2001 : A Space Odyssey. The first of the sequels, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), was also adapted into a film, this time less successfully by Peter Hyams. The sequence continued with 2061: Odyssey Three (1987), and came to an apparent conclusion with 1997's 3001: The Final Odyssey. Another novel of this period that I have a great admiration for is 1986's The Songs of Distant Earth, which concerns the meeting of a far-future space exploration party with a colony established hundreds of years earlier by emigrants from Earth. It was an expanded version of a story published in 1958 in Worlds of If magazine.

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In 1989, Clarke released Astounding Days, a reminiscence of his experiences as a young writer under the tutelage of John Campbell. Other solo works of the last portion of his career have been The Ghost of the Grand Banks (1990), concerning an attempt to raise the Titanic, and The Hammer of God (1993), about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Other works appearing in the last decade have been collaborative efforts, primarily due to the debilitating effects Clarke has suffered from a degenerative nervous system disorder similar to polio. His mind still retains its keen edge though, as witnessed by the specualtions explored in the novels The Trigger (with Michael P. Kube-McDowell), Richter 10 (with Mike McQuay), and The Light of Other Days (with Stephen Baxter). The latest release from this giant of the Golden Age is the mammoth The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, which brings together the cream of his short fiction from throughout his career.

For an author of Clarke's stature (he was named a Nebula Grand Master in 1986) I was initially disappointed that many of his works were out of print. This is a situation that discourages me greatly, since I feel it is exceedingly important for all current fans of SF to be aware of the history of the genre. Clarke has to be regarded as at least the third most important writer from the Golden Age, following Heinlein and Asimov. Quite a few of their titles are still being reprinted regularly, and I felt there was no legitimate reason the same situation shouldn't apply for Clarke. Thankfully, someone else in publishing must have been thinking the same thing, since quite a few of Clarke's books have recently been reissued, more than doubling the list I originally posted on the Books at Amazon page.

"For many readers ACC is the very personification of sf. Never a "literary" author, he nonetheless writes always with lucidity and candour, often with grace, sometimes with a cold, sharp evocativeness that has produced some of the most memorable images in sf." [Peter Nicholls, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]

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Related Links:
"On Arthur C. Clarke" by Robert J. Sawyer
Clarke's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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December 16, 1917
Minehead, Somerset, England

March 19, 2008

Official Website

3 Hugos
3 Nebulas
SFWA Grand Master (1986)
SF Hall of Fame (1997)
John W. Campbell Memorial (Rendezvous With Rama)