Was Arthur C. Clarke the Greatest Science Fiction Writer?

Clarke in 2005
Clarke in 2005
Communications satellite
Communications satellite
Artist's depiction of the space elevator
Artist's depiction of the space elevator
Enthroned Isaac Asimov
Enthroned Isaac Asimov
Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells
Jules Verne
Jules Verne
Clarke with his telescope in Sri Lanka
Clarke with his telescope in Sri Lanka

Check out some of Clarke's books

Clarke's best novels are without equal in science fiction



Arthur C. Clarke was certainly one of the greatest science-fiction writers of all time, since his ideas, presented both in fact and fiction, have influenced the best scientific intellects in the world, as well as captivated the minds of countless sci-fi enthusiasts looking for a fabulous read.

Perhaps Clarke’s greatest claim to fame was co-writing with director Stanley Kubrick the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on the short story, The Sentinel, written by Clarke in 1948, this epic is perhaps the best science fiction movie of all time. The movie’s production values, artful direction and special effects still look very good by present standards, and its enigmatic ending may never be equaled. I’m still trying to figure it out! What do you think happened? When you enter a star gate, a space baby pops out at the other end. Seems accurate to me. Clarke wrote that if everybody understood the movie, then we (he and Kubrick) failed. The movie was supposed to raise more questions than answer them.

(Beginning as early as 1964, Clarke also wrote a novel based on the screenplay for 2001, and continued working on it during and after the production of the movie in 1968.)

If Clarke wrote a better science-fiction story than 2001: A Space Odyssey, it might be Childhood’s End, published in 1953. This novel, considered by many readers and critics to be his best, is about the so-called Overlords, an alien race, who come from interstellar space and take control of the world, saving it from itself perhaps. But it’s not until the end of the book that the Overlords allow the people of earth to see them as they are, because they know the reaction won’t be favorable - as the Overlords resemble devils! The theory behind the book is that there is no past, present or future; everything is happening now. People of the past grew to fear devils, because they eventually saw them in the future!

As a writer of any genre, Clarke would be considered prolific indeed, having written and/or co-written some 70 novels, books of essays and short story collections in a career that began in the late 1940s and ended with his death on March 19, 2008. (From 1956 until his death at the age of 90, Clarke lived on the tropical isle of Sri Lanka.) Clarke also won numerous awards and honors, including the Heinlein Award for outstanding achievement in hard or science-oriented science fiction in 2004. Clarke even had a ceratopsian dinosaur named after him – Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei.

Clarke’s brand of science fiction wasn’t the weird, sexually explicit or gory stuff that many authors pump out. Clarke’s fiction was more about ideas that rest firmly on scientific grounds, many of them profoundly futuristic, if not prophetic. In his novel, The Fountains of Paradise, published in 1979, Clarke writes about the construction of a space elevator - essentially a very long wire projecting hundreds of miles into space - an idea which many astronomers think is viable, particularly with the modern availability of carbon fiber materials, as well as nanotechnology, which could be used in its construction. (This, however, was not Clarke’s idea alone. Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky thought of it in 1895.)

A pioneer in the use of radar during World War Two, Clarke wrote a paper in 1945 hypothesizing the use of geostationary satellites, calling them “extra-terrestrial relays,” which could be used in worldwide communications. Then in 1960, about the time when such satellites were first being launched, Clarke wrote a short story entitled “I Remember Babylon,” in which he hears that a company will soon launch into orbit a satellite that could be used to beam sexually explicit broadcasts and other uncensored material anywhere in the world. Understandably, this story first appeared in Playboy.

Clarke also wrote non-fiction books about the technical aspects and societal ramifications of space flight in The Exploration of Space (1951) and The Promise of Space (1968). Also, in the 1980s, Clarke was the presenter for the TV programs, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and World of Strange Powers.


Not content to rest on his laurels regarding 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke wrote a series of sequels: 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), later made into a movie; 2061: Odyssey Three (1987); and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). In the Final Odyssey, the future descendants of planet earth search for Frank Poole, the Discovery astronaut killed by the Hal 9000 computer during the first odyssey. They find Poole drifting in space and as frozen as a comet. Poole is long dead, of course, but he is soon resurrected with future technology and shown what marvels exist in the next millennium.

Another multi-award winning novel written by Clarke is Rendezvous with Rama, published in 1972. In this grand tale, a moon-sized extraterrestrial spacecraft enters the solar system, where astronauts from earth investigate the vessel and interact with its various machines and robotic entities. This is stunning sci-fi fare! Later, Clarke and Gentry Lee wrote a series of sequels: Rama II (1990), The Garden of Rama (1992) and Rama Revealed (1995). The ideas expressed in these books are enlightening, engrossing and thought-provoking, particularly as they relate to the evolution of the human species as it moves into interstellar space. However, people who expect Star Wars-like battles and spectacular space creatures, may not appreciate what these books have to offer.

Clarke also had a friendship and genial rivalry with a fellow dean of science fiction, that quintessential Mr. Know-It-All and one of the most prolific writers of all time, Isaac Asimov, who died in 1992. The two of them exchanged correspondence for many years, swapping good-natured barbs about who was the better writer, for both men had an excellent sense of humor. Incidentally, both Clarke and Asimov, essentially atheists, believed that science was primarily responsible for civilization’s advancement.

With the current hysteria about the end of the world, particularly as it relates to the year 2012, Clarke’s novel, The Hammer of God (1993),would probably seem fascinating to many contemporary doomsayers. Set about 100 years in the future, an asteroid hundreds of miles across barrels toward the unprotected earth, and only the space shuttle crew of the Goliath can stop it. The hard science Clarke presents for this possible catastrophe is absorbing and the finale charged with excitement.

During Clarke’s twilight years, he wrote some novels with British author Stephen Baxter. Their first book was The Light of Other Days (2000), a story about the production and use of a so-called wormhole camera, which can see anything or anybody in the past, present or future – in any possible universe. Now this is an astonishing idea! Clarke had written a short story foreshadowing this book titled, “The Parasite,” appearing in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2000). In the foreword to the story, Clarke called it “the subconscious basis for the novel.”

Clarke’s last novel, The Last Theorem, was co-written with fellow Grand Master of Science Fiction, Frederik Pohl. The story is about a young man from Sri Lanka named Ranjit Subramanian, who, a mathematics wunderkind, solves Fermat’s Last Theorem, an equation similar to the Pythagorean Theorem. While this happens, the Grand Galactics from the Centaurus star system fly to earth, hoping to snuff out the human race, which recently wielded the ultimate WMD, an EMP bomb named Silent Thunder that destroys circuitry without killing anyone. But when the aliens get to earth they decide the human race is worth saving, partly because of the interaction of Ranjit and his family, and instead settle some of their multi-tentacled "people" in the desert of North Africa. And lastly, Ranjit, who, after his body dies, utilizes alien technology by having his essence transmuted into electronic form, living in that state presumably forever.

Theorem is not Clarke’s best but, since it is his last, all fans of his should read it. The book is filled with echoes and clichés of much of Clarke’s excellent work.

Some readers and critics of science fiction complain that one sci-fi book or another lacks interesting characters. Overall, science fiction seems more about ideas than characters; at least this is certainly the case with Clarke’s novels. Clarke nevertheless produced one of the most interesting characters of the genre - the HAL 9000 computer. Poor HAL only turned murderous because his creators had implanted a contradiction – or bug - in his programming. Who could blame HAL, who merely acted according to his silicon-based behavior? At any rate, HAL seemed much more engaging than those boring, stoic crewmembers. HAL, in comparison, was always friendly, ready to talk or play chess. With whom would YOU rather go to dinner?

Since there have been so many excellent writers of science fiction throughout the years, it’s very hard to identify one as the best. Going back to writers such as Voltaire, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and then, of course Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the genre, though usually not considered literature, has attracted some of the best writing talent ever. Moving well into the twentieth century there have been many more such authors – Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Leguin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert and perhaps William Gibson, any one of whom could quality as the best ever. (The reader could probably name many others as well.)

Even though the talent of all these illustrious men and women is undeniable, how do we rate their accomplishments? Should we add up the number of their books, awards and honors? And if we do, should we also subtract the clunkers? To a certain extent, this seems the fair and smart thing to do. So if one wants to do that, then break out the calculator. To a certain extent this is what I’ve done, minus the calculator. I admit it.

Adding, subtracting books or whatever, in the mind of Kosmo, none of the aforementioned writers exceeds Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the past, present and future, as it relates to humankind’s possibilities in this vast, unfathomable universe. For this, I once considered Clarke to be a kind of god, though not God himself (or however God is to be described). I felt content knowing that Mr. Clarke resided on some island in the Indian Ocean, this Serendip, an idyllic tropical locale from which he could watch over me and the rest of the world. And if there was a calamity to deal with, surely Arthur would save us all, utilizing his intelligence, intellect, science-based rationality – and a very good sense of humor as well. The world lost a great deal more than a science-fiction author when he died.

Arthur C. Clarke is truly the best science-fiction writer of them all!

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lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 7 years ago from Alberta and Florida

I discovered Clarke's writing as a teenager (eons ago) and remember the impact of 2001 when it first hit the theatres. You're right -- a great mind for ideas and scientific theory, but, as you mention, not a great developer of characters, which is an unhappy shortcoming.

Thanks for bringing this all to mind, Kosmo.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 7 years ago from California Author

Thanks, Immartin, you seem to be my greatest fan! Yes, indeed, Arthur C. Clarke was certainly a man of grand ideas. Later!


Sufidreamer profile image

Sufidreamer 6 years ago from Sparti, Greece

Good hub - I enjoyed that one!

I grew up with his books and read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. An awesome writer and I hope to reread his work at some point in the future.

For me, Asimov just shades it, but they were both masters of their craft.


Terminus profile image

Terminus 6 years ago

A loving tribute to a magnificent human who has had a profound influence on countless others. It was thru him that I encountered Olaf Stapledon. Mr. Stapledon's works, 'Last and First Men' and the even more profound 'Star Maker' are not to be missed. Each page of Star Maker is 20 science fiction novels.

Unfortunately, most never study science fiction/speculative fiction, thus they never discover the true progenitors of the works held in high regard. I would strongly recommend reading Gene Wolfe and discovering a different type of writer; a writer's writer.

The same goes for Tolkien. I love him just like any of his countless fans. However, before him there were many. Does anyone remember Lord Dunsany, William Morris, E.R. Eddison or James Branch Cabell? How about Clark Ashton Smith or William Hope Hodgson. How about Robert E. Howard? I promise you that J.R.R. Tolkien would not have been able to write 'The Hobbit' without them. Just like Clarke gained a higher sense of wonder via Stapledon.

All great writers have influences. They often build upon the ideas of others and sometimes arrive at original or creative interpretations. The problem is that there are so many books and so little time. This is why it is critical to discover who the best writers are so we don't waste time reading tripe.

Kosmo, I thank you for writing this hub as it awakens something in me. I invite you to make a top 10 Horror writers, or Science Fiction writers, or Fantasy authors. I am supremely prepared to respond.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Hey, Terminus, I didn't know you cared about sci-fi! Yes, by all means, let's avoid the tripe in all fields of endeavor.

Anyway, you speak of many writers of whom I am not acquainted. (I'll have to check out some of Stapledon's work. Can you recommend a title?) Most of the sci-fi I've read came from the deans of such, of which Clarke was certainly a member. These days, I must admit, I read little of it, though I'll watch just about any sci-fi movie on cable, when I get the chance. As far as fantasy goes, I've read Tolkien's major works, of course, and Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. (What a great writer!) Don't miss that series! Regarding lists, let's see yours first. I've done plenty of 'em. Later!


Terminus profile image

Terminus 6 years ago

Definitely read anything you can get your hands on regarding Stapledon. His writing style is a bit dry, but his imagination was incredible. 'Star Maker' is a must read for anyone interested in the philosophical implication of science fiction.

The rest of the names I mentioned should lead to google searches and wikipedia explorations. If I do create a hub, I will go into all of this in great detail. Some of books by these "first water" authors are very difficult to obtain, as many are forgotten and out of print.

Obviously, I love science fiction films and collect them on DVD/Blu-Ray. The best thing is that special effects techniques have caught up to these wondrous visions over the past 40+ yrs. That being said, when the movies have great stories to accompany the visuals, we can readily suspend our disbelief.


dansimonewrites profile image

dansimonewrites 5 years ago

Indee, Clarke was quite the novelist. My preference as the all time greatest though, is Truman Capote.

All the best,

Daniel Simone


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Truman Capote may have been a great author - but he didn't write sci-fi, and that's what this list is all about. Later!


marwan asmar profile image

marwan asmar 5 years ago from Amman, Jordan

Great article..........


lone77star profile image

lone77star 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Childhood's End was brilliant. And I particularly liked his Hugo-award-winning short from 1956, "The Star."

Best? Not in my opinion. I like Asimov for Foundation Trilogy. I like Niven for Ringworld. I love Niven and Pournelle for The Mote in God's Eye. And I love a great deal of Heinlein's work, too. Heinlein not only had a sense of science (stretching the bounds of current science, that's true), but imaginative extrapolations and great characters.

Your articles is a great tribute to one of the best. And I agree, humanity has lost one of its greatest thinkers. I remember seeing him when he visited Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, about the time of the release of 2010, the movie.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, lone77star. You mentioned quite a few great sci-fi writers. That bunch has certainly written lots of classics. I'd forgotten about "The Mote in God's Eye." It was a good one. Later!


somethgblue profile image

somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

Perhaps for best pure science fiction Clarke could be considered as the best of all time, however during the time he was writing his best so were a lot of others and you mentioned all of them but Alfred Bester and later Philip K. Dick.

My favorite was the City and the Stars, just for it simple and lonely plot of humanity at the end of time. Of course Childhood's End was superb and the Rama series was good too.

Well written hub perhaps you could give us your top ten all time sci-fi novels!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, somethgblue. It's always a pleasure to meet another fan of Arthur C. Clarke and sci-fi in general. And thanks for the suggestion that I write a hub about the ten best sci-fi novels of all time. But since I don't read much of it these days, I don't think I'm qualified to compile such a list. Hey, why don't you do it? Later!


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

Clarke and Asimov are practically tied in first place for me. I was a sci-fi addict when I was younger and would read everything I could find. Those two were my most read authors. Clarke's Childhoods End is a huge favourite. And I loved Asimov's Foundation series.

Historically I would say Herbert George Wells is the greatest science fiction author of them all. He practically invented the genre and look at the topics - alien invasion, time travel, space travel, Earth's future, mad scientists it's all there written over a hundred years ago. :)

Voted up and interesting.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Steve Lensman. You're definitely right for voting up H.G. Wells, but Clarke's ideas were much more advanced because - if for no other reason - he was born somewhat later. Jules Verne's ideas were revolutionary as well. Let's be happy we had all of them. Later!


htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

He is ..I think


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, htodd. I also think Arthur C. Clarke was the greatest. But who's the best alive today? Later!


theframjak profile image

theframjak 4 years ago from East Coast

Clarke is the best. Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama are two of my favorite sci-fi books and 2001 is my favorite sci-fi movie. I like that Clarke is a very visual writer and at his best he captures the mystery and wonder of the universe like no other. Great hub.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, theframjak. Clarke is definitely my favorite sci-fi writer as well, and I love all the three classics you mentioned. Later!


TheIxian 2 years ago

I don't know.

You can call him one of the most imaginative. Asimov is for instance more prolific... and Dick's writing style for example is far far superior to his

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