Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Captain's Log: R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke died on March 18 at the age of 90. Here's his New York Times obit, another evaluation in the Times, a tribute by science fiction writer David Brin, and a tribute page about Clarke's influence on Star Trek and appreciation for it, at the Star Trek: Of Gods and Men site.

In his best fiction, Clarke combined a perceptiveness about science and technology with a broader vision that allowed for what we clumsily define as a spiritual or mystical dimension. Someone asked me if I thought he was the best science fiction writer of the 20th century, and I had to say, in my not terribly well informed opinion, not even close. But at his best, as in Childhood's End, he created classics.

Ironically, he became most famous for 2001, a novel that owed as least as much to the vision of director Stanley Kubrick as it did to his imagination. Personally, I read more of his nonfiction than his fiction. It was his nonfiction book, Profiles of the Future, that first got Gene Roddenberry interested in him. I'm a big fan of his collections of short pieces, like 1984: Spring, A Choice of Futures and Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds.

Ironically, there was a lot of news that week and since that would have interested him enormously: the carbon-containing compound, methane, was discovered on a planet outside the solar system for the first time; the light from a star that exploded when the universe was half its present size, in a galaxy so far that it hadn't been known, reached the earth--and was so bright it was visible to the naked eye. But the item that probably would have excited him the most was the new evidence scientists announced that Saturn's moon Titan may have an ocean of liquid water hidden beneath its surface. Clarke was fascinated with Jupiter and Saturn, and the potential for life on some of their moons, which he wrote about in the 2001/2010 series.

Clarke wasn't perceptive only about technology and other planets. He was a dedicated ecologist, and he saw the Earth's climate crisis coming as early as the 1960s (and he told a friend about it who lived in his apartment building in Manhattan at the time--playwright Arthur Miller.)

The length and breadth of Clarke's long, active life made him a global treasure. But assuming he was still a member of the British Interplanetary Society, he would not be its oldest member in history, not even at 90. That member would have been the playwright George Bernard Shaw, a contemporary (and friend) of H.G. Wells, who didn't even join until after he was 90, in 1946--recruited by Arthur C. Clarke.

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