Arthur has long and deservedly been called one of the finest “hard” science fiction authors, for good reason. From the beginning of his career as a writer, he explored frontiers of human knowledge, pondering the implications of everything from cetacean intelligence to planetology. From the logic of John Von Neuman’s universal self-replicator to the possible motives of beings far in advance of ourselves.
And yet, what most intrigues me about Arthur’s work is something else -- his ongoing fascination with human destiny -- a term seemingly at-odds with the scientific worldview.
True, a great many of his stories focused on problem-solving, in the face of some intractable riddle. His characters, confronted with something mysterious, are never daunted. They gather resources, pool knowledge, argue, experiment, and then -- often -- transform the enigmatic into something that’s wondrously known.
This part of the human adventure has always shown us at our best. Peeling away layers. Penetrating darkness. Looking back at the wizard, standing behind the curtain.
But there was another Arthur C. Clarke. The one who sent David Bowman careening through the monolith, helplessly bound for transformation and deification. The author who gave us CHILDHOOD’S END and 2001 A Space Odyssey. One who frets that we may not be wise enough to survive the next few generations of tense immaturity, let alone worthy of joining more advanced communities of mind.
And so, we have a recurring theme of intervention -- quasi-divine -- receiving outside help to achieve our potential. (And wasn’t Clarke’s law that a sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic?)
In this mix of both fizzing optimism and dour worry, Arthur always struck me as similar to two other giants, both Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who also surveyed very wide horizons, from alluring to disquieting.
What none of them ever did -- and especially not Arthur -- was give in to despair. The notion of change never lost its fascination. His works appeared always to say "what was will not always be, so get ready." Yes, the past deserves honor -- it got us here -- but the future is what draws us forward.
As it always drew Arthur C. Clarke.
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Footnote: Recently, I've been involved in starting the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego.
"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." --Arthur C. Clarke
David BrinTwitter Facebook