Was Arthur C. Clarke the Greatest Science Fiction Writer?
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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