Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A TRIBUTE TO ARTHUR CLARKE

Arthur C. Clarke (who called me a colleague and friend, despite our only having met by mail) passed on today, after ninety years of a life that only could have happened in the century and civilization that he helped to shape.

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.

2001aspaceodysseyAnd 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.

childhoods-endBut 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 Brin
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18 comments:

praxcelis said...

That he could have lived so long, and dreamed so large, and yet failed to see us fulfill even the smallest part of his vision of a spacefaring humanity--that to me is a tragedy. The first story of his that I read while in middle school was Breaking Strain. That vision of very real, very human struggle in the midst of crisis opened my eyes to "adult" SF.

IAmMonkeyBoy said...

I think his own words express it best: There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.

In response to praxcelis, I'd say that while he surely would have loved to live to see us fulfill his vision I'm sure he took heart in knowing it was his own hand that gave us a mighty shove in the right direction.

Jester said...

He kept growing.

He always had very interesting ideas, and the science he presented was always fascinating, but the amazing thing about him as an author was how his character and plot development continued to show an ever greater understanding of his fellow human beings.

Today, I'm making a pot of joe and re-reading Songs of a Distant Earth.

Thomas Nackid said...

Praxcelis, Clarke himself once said that he had not realistically expected humans to land on the moon much before the year 2000 and that Apollo was an anomaly brought about by political rivalry not practical science and engineering. When asked about space travel not living up to his predictions he said that back in the 40s and 50s it was easier for him and his fellow authors and engineers to imagine rockets to the moon than radios that could operate for weeks at a time without human intervention--hence the need for humans on everything from com sats to planetary probes. We are still saddled with this "pre-electroncis revolution" vision of space flight. On the other hand advances in communications (Clarke's main area of interest) exceeded even his wildest imaginings. Remember that in _2001_ the Discovery mission was supposed to be the first mission to Jupiter and required a multi-billion dollar, gigantic, nuclear powered crewed spacecraft that (according to the story) wouldn't even set out until the turn of the century. In reality the exploration of the Jovian system began within 5 years of the movie's opening with Pioneer 10, followed up by Voyager and Galileo. I don't think that as a young man Clarke ever imagined he would see detailed views of Jupiter's clouds, the composition of Saturn's rings, or the methane lakes of Titan within his lifetime. Much less see robots on Mars that are so reliable that they have exceeded their life expectancy many time over.

All in all I don't think Mr. Clarke was very disappointed by our technological progress. Maybe our social progress, but as David pointed out he never gave into despair and cynicism.

Matt DeBlass said...

Thomas, very true. It's easy to forget what a world of technological marvels we live in now. Of course, that world has come to be in no small part because of the ideas and inspiration of the late Mr. Clarke and those like him.

Goodby and Godspeed Sir Arthur.

Anders Brink said...

As a SF writer, teacher and scientist from Singapore, I must personally say thank you to Arthur C Clarke for being a great influence in my childhood. Together with Isaac Asimov , those stories and books of yours were the single most uplifting works a boy of 10 could read. It was a form of education outside of the classroom, pass one's peers and beyond one's parents. Reading you was like
talking to a distant uncle who was had a wisdom and vision the authority of the adults could not give. Thank you also for the warnings against the excesses of organized religion.

darkdroid said...

For the man's own 90th Birthday reflections on the sum of his life, please watch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qLdeEjdbWE

matthew said...

It was 'Fountains of Paradise,' which I read at 15 years old that led me to become a materials engineer. Not the first account of a beanstalk, but the best and most moving.
Thanks, Sir, for my career and 20 years of engineering.

David Brin said...

Over on Kos, I am getting the hugest response ever... not from any of my deep-insightful political riffs... but from my tribute to Clarke! Turns out there's bunches of dems who are fans!

Go see:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/3/18/221819/813?new=true

zorgon the malevolent said...

Arthur C. Clarke quotes:

Clarke's Laws:
1. "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
2. "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
3. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

"New ideas pass through three periods:
1 - It can't be done.
2 - It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing.
3 - I knew it was a good idea all along!"

"Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal."

"As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior orals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying."

"For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert."

"Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all."

"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think
we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."

Concerning UFOs: "They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe, but they do prove how rare it is on Earth."

"We are just tenants on this world. We have just been given a new lease, and a warning from the landlord."

"Somewhere in me is a curiosity sensor. I want to know what's over the next hill. You know, people can live longer without food than without information. Without information, you'd go crazy."

"We should always be prepared for future technologies, because otherwise they will come along and clobber us."

"It has yet to be proven that ntelligence has any survival value."

"There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum."

"At the present rate of progress, it is almost impossible to imagine any technical feat that cannot be achieved - if it can be achieved at all - within the next few hundred years."

"I'm sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it. I'm rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books."

"It may be that the old astrologers had the truth exactly reversed, when they believed that the stars controlled the destinies of men. The time may come when men control the destinies of stars."

"The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars... A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space."

"If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run - and often in the short one - the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative."

When asked what he considered the one event in the 20th century he never would have predicted: "That we would have gone to the Moon and stopped."

Robert said...

You know, whenever I hear this one statement: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" I'm just left with the thought "This means there is such a thing as magic. And that it is not based on technology."

Just a whimsical musing from a wandering tangent. ;)

Rob H., Tangents Reviews

darkdroid said...

David, one of your cover-artists made this, some time ago -- Donato Giancola:

http://www.donatoart.com/sf/2001b.jpg

Appropriate, I thought.

Sidereus said...

Sir Arthur would appreciate these news tidbits from today:

Evidence for Ocean Found at Saturn's Moon Titan

http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/080320-titan-ocean.html

Newly Found Martian Salt Deposits Suggest Ancient Life

http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/080320-mars-salt-deposits.html

Athena said...

The last of the Golden Age, and the last of the romantic optimists. Oddly, I enjoyed his aphorisms and predictions more than his novels... and this still makes my throat tighten, both as a scientist and a human: "All these worlds are yours -- except Europa."

CodeTalker said...

"A powerful stellar explosion that has shattered the record for the most distant object visible to the naked eye was detected by NASA's Swift satellite on Wednesday."
"The explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst, also ranks as the most intrinsically bright object in the universe ever observed by humans."
"The burst was detected by Swift at 2:12 EDT on March 19 and was one of five gamma-ray bursts detected that day, the same day that famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died."
"Coincidentally, the passing of Arthur C. Clarke seems to have set the universe ablaze with gamma-ray bursts," said Swift science team member Judith Racusin, a Penn State graduate student."
-----------------------------
As for me, I cannot think of a better tribute! How eerily, utterly, impossibly fitting! So amazingly perfect... ONLY ACC could have pulled THAT off, and with such panache! My hat, Sir, is off to you - even the universe marks your passing...

Thank you so much for this fine piece, David.
(Also posted at DailyKos)

David J. Williams said...

So glad he made it to 2001. Even the lethargy of the space program since Apollo couldn't damp his optimism: he took the long view, and his whole life was dedicated to helping all of us to do the same. RIP.

Andrew Maynard said...

David,

Appreciate the piece. Like many, I was inspired as a youth by Clarke, and ended up in a career in science. From my own tribute:

"Clarke excelled in increasing people’s interest in and understanding of science, and laying the grounds for informed science engagement—demonstrating unequivocally that fiction is a powerful illuminator of truths in the world of facts. He will be sorely missed in a society that is increasingly reliant on technologies to solve new and old challenges—including nanotechnology. Who now will inspire us to fully engage in the opportunities and challenges that twenty first century science and technology promises?"

http://community.safenano.org/blogs/andrew_maynard/archive/2008/03/19/the-passing-of-a-science-hero.aspx

Pedro said...

Arthur C. Clark will be miss!
It was one of my first and more important writers that i read and took me to go to science and Engineering.
Pedro Mota