Clarke, Arthur C.

Clarke, Arthur C.
Dec. 16, 1917-Mar. 19, 2008
English science fiction writer


Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his many science-fiction novels. Working with the director Stanley Kubrick, he expanded one of his short stories into a screenplay for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Most critics consider 2001, which follows the voyage of a doomed mission to investigate a mysterious alien object near the planet Jupiter, one of the greatest films of all time and the best science-fiction film ever made. Less known, however, are Clarke's contributions to science and communications. In 1945, while serving in the Royal Air Force and before attending college, Clarke published a technical paper outlining a plan to place a network of communications satellites in space. The satellites would orbit the earth, transmitting radio signals around the planet. By the end of the next decade, Clarke's vision had become a reality as the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries launched satellites into space that eventually transmitted telephone, radio, and television signals. The satellites have also been used for studying space, tracking weather patterns, and spying. As his reputation grew, Clarke became a frequent promoter of space exploration and technological innovations to improve people's lives. His fiction, nonfiction, articles, lectures, and talks inspired the imaginations of millions of people around the globe. In a lecture published in Discover (July 1985), Clarke wrote that "a future of infinite promise lies ahead of us in space. We may yet have a splendid and inspiring role to play, on a stage wider and more marvelous than ever dreamed of by any poet or dramatist."

Arthur Charles Clarke was born on December 16, 1917 in the small coastal town of Minehead, in England. His father, a farmer and postal worker, helped spark his interest in science. In an article published in the New York Times Book Review (March 7, 1983), Clarke recalled that his father gave him a card that came with a pack of cigarettes. The card had information about prehistoric animals, and young Arthur developed an immediate fascination with dinosaurs. He collected other cards about dinosaurs and also began making up adventure stories, which he told to his classmates at school.

During his teen years Clarke turned his attention upward. "In an earlier age I would probably have written stories about the sea," he wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "However, I was born at the time when men were first thinking seriously of escaping from their planetary cradle, and so my imagination was deflected into space." His imagination was also fueled by his discovery, in 1929, of Amazing Stories, a science-fiction magazine. The first issue he saw, from November 1928, depicted a spaceship exploring the planet Jupiter. During his school lunch hour, he went to the local store and bought all the science-fiction magazines he could find. At age 13, around the same time his father died, Clarke built his own telescope to explore the sky. He drew detailed maps of the moon based on his observations.

In 1930 Clarke discovered at his local library the book Last and First Men (1930), by W. Olaf Stapledon. In the New York Times Book Review, Clarke recalled that "the Stapledonian vistas of millions and hundreds of millions of years, the rise and fall of civilizations and entire races of men, changed my whole outlook on the universe and has influenced much of my writing ever since." Another book, The Conquest of Space (1931), by David Lasser, also influenced Clarke. Lasser discusses early rocket experiments and the possibilities of space travel, particularly of a trip to the moon.

Unable to afford college, Clarke went to work for the government at the Exchequer and Audit Department, in 1936. He also joined a science-fiction club called the British Interplanetary Society, whose members were often regarded as eccentrics.

During World War II, Clarke volunteered for military service, joining the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1941. He operated radar systems and, as the war progressed, was placed in charge of a revolutionary new radar system, the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) unit. The GCA enabled operators to guide approaching aircraft in landing safely. This system helped pilots who couldn't see during bad weather. While serving in the RAF, Clarke published his first science-fiction stories and technical papers. His military experience also sparked an interest in communications.

In 1945 Clarke published an article in Wireless World, a scientific journal. He theorized that "extra-terrestrial relays," or satellites, could be launched into space and remain in a fixed orbit about 25,000 miles above the earth. Such satellites, Clarke theorized, could transmit radio waves and thus make international communication much faster and easier. The notion of an artificial satellite was first suggested by Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th-century physicist and mathematician, who wrote in his book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), that an object shot at a sufficient velocity and height would enter an orbit around Earth. Nearly three centuries later, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite-Sputnik-which circled the earth every 96 minutes and emitted a simple radio signal. The United States followed three months later with Explorer 1, which was used to detect space radiation.

Clarke's theory of a communications satellite network got closer to reality in December 1958, when NASA launched the Project SCORE satellite. During its 13-day elliptical orbit around Earth, SCORE successfully transmitted President Eisenhower's Christmas message-the first voice beamed in from space. In 1960 NASA launched Echo 1, a satellite in the form of an aluminum-coated Mylar balloon, which reflected radio waves back to earth and provided further viability of the radio transmission system. Over the next 10 years, both the United States and the Soviet Union launched many communications satellites into space, creating the global communications system that Clarke had sketched out in 1945. Although he is widely considered the "father of the communications satellite," Clarke never received any financial compensation for his idea, apart from the standard fee for publishing his article. In an interview with Marcia Gauger for People (December 20, 1982), Clarke noted that a lawyer had once told him that he "couldn't have obtained a patent in 1945 as the idea [for a communications satellite] was too farfetched," and that, even if he had, "it would have expired about the time the first communication satellite was launched." "So that," Clarke said, "was the end of my yacht." Clarke has frequently downplayed his contribution, saying that someone else would have eventually thought of the idea, and that the real credit belongs to the engineers who actually constructed the satellites.

After he was discharged from the RAF, Clarke enrolled at King's College, at the University of London. He graduated in 1948, receiving his B.Sc. degree with first-class honors, in physics and mathematics. In 1949 he became an assistant editor for the journal Science Abstracts. "All of the world's leading scientific journals passed over my desk, and I had to mark the ones that appeared important," he explained to Frank Houston for the on-line magazine Salon (March 7, 2000).

By 1950 Clarke had written many stories, articles, and his first book, and yet he still considered his writing to be "a pleasant and occasionally profitable hobby" rather than a profession, as he wrote in the New York Times Book Review. In his first book, Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (1951), he detailed the scientific and mathematical concepts that would make space travel possible. In doing so, he made complex scientific ideas and concepts understandable to the average person-a skill that would serve him as both a nonfiction and fiction writer. Interplanetary Flight received favorable reviews.

Encouraged by this reception, Clarke in 1952 published Exploration of Space, an expansion of the ideas he had discussed in his first book. That year, Exploration of Space was a selection of the Book of the Month Club, thereby introducing Clarke's work to thousands of readers. In a review for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review (July 13, 1952), H. H. Holmes wrote that the book "is precisely calculated to bring our present knowledge of space travel before a whole new public which has hitherto known only the distortions of comics and television." With the commercial and critical success of his first two books, Clarke was encouraged to quit his job with Scientific Abstracts and become a full-time writer. His first two science-fiction novels, Prelude to Space (1951) and The Sands of Mars (1952), were also praised by most reviewers. Reviewing Sands of Mars for the New York Times (September 14, 1952), J. F. McComas remarked that the novel "[reads] like true history more than fiction."

Clarke was prolific, publishing books almost on a yearly basis. Although he continued to write nonfiction books about scientific topics and his new passion of undersea exploration, he focused on science fiction. His fifth novel, Childhood's End (1953), established him as one of the preeminent science-fiction authors in the world. In the novel, Clarke introduces the Overlords, an alien race that takes over the earth and abolishes disease, poverty, and other ills. The Overlords create a utopia for human beings, who gradually accept their rule after some resistance. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the Overlords have other plans for humankind. Most critics consider Childhood's End to be Clarke's best novel.

In 1956 Clarke left the United Kingdom to become a permanent resident of the island nation of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India. He had visited the nation previously to explore its underwater reefs, and was immediately captivated by the island's beauty. According to Andrew Robinson in the Times Higher Education Supplement (October 10, 1997), the nation's warm climate, endless opportunities to scuba dive, and the prospect of keeping a little distance between himself and his growing legion of fans also appealed to Clarke. Most Sri Lankans were happy to have him stay as a permanent guest, and the government granted him tax-free status in the 1970s. In 1979 Clarke was named chancellor of Moratuwa University, which subsequently opened the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technology. Clarke lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, and his home is equipped with a satellite dish, television, VCR, fax machine, telephone, and a personal computer, all of which keep him in touch with the rest of the world.

In 1964 the director Stanley Kubrick, who won international acclaim for such films as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), approached Clarke about collaborating on a science-fiction film. After reading some of Clarke's fiction, Kubrick had become intrigued by Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" (1951). Clarke agreed to co-write a screenplay based on this story with Kubrick, and he also expanded the story into a novel. The film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released in 1968, and the novel of the same name was also published that year. In 2001, a mysterious black monolith is discovered on the moon. Scientists and government officials are completely baffled by the monolith's origin and purpose, but are certain that it was created and placed there by an alien intelligence. A far larger monolith is also detected in space, near the planet Jupiter. Eager for answers, the government dispatches a team of astronauts to investigate. As the spaceship Discovery approaches Jupiter, HAL 9000, the ship's interactive computer that talks and thinks like a human being, malfunctions, endangering the mission and even the lives of the crew.

The fact that the film, especially the ending, confused and puzzled many people did not detract from its popularity at the box office. Clarke and Kubrick shared an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. In retrospect, both the book and film contributed to the image of Arthur C. Clarke as a prophet. He anticipated several technologically advanced tools that have since become a common part of people's everyday lives. In one scene, for example, a man uses a laptop computer that has an operating system similar to Windows. He uses the computer to read several electronic newspapers and to send electronic messages. In his interview with Gauger, Clarke said, "I am a hard-core science-fiction writer-I have seldom written anything that I thought could not happen."

2001 brought Clarke substantial media attention. In addition to writing books, he also became a vocal proponent of space exploration and technology. Clarke told Frank Houston that members of the Apollo 8 space capsule, which orbited the moon in December 1968, had confessed to Clarke that they were "tempted to radio back the discovery of a large black monolith" on the moon's dark side. In July 1969, Clarke provided commentary for CBS television during the moon landing.

Since then, Arthur C. Clarke has continued to write both fiction and nonfiction, publishing more than 80 books. He has also delivered lectures on different topics relating to space on many occasions. Clarke's novels include Rendezvous with Rama (1973), The Fountains of Paradise (1979), 2010: Space Odyssey II (1982), 2061: Odyssey III (1988), Rama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991), The Hammer of God (1993), Rama Revealed (1993) with Gentry Lee, and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). In 1984 the director Peter Hyams adapted 2010 into a film of the same name. Although it wasn't proclaimed to be the visual masterpiece that 2001 had been, many of Clarke's fans were pleased that 2010 answered questions left unresolved in the previous film. (In one scene, there is a brief glimpse of a Time magazine cover, with illustrations of the president of the United States and the Soviet premier. The illustrations are actually modeled on Clarke and Kubrick.)

Clarke's nonfiction includes The Challenge of a Spaceship (1960), Profiles of the Future (1962), The Promise of Space (1968), The View from Serendip (1977), Ascent to Orbit: The Technical Writings of Arthur C. Clarke (1984), How the World Was One (1992), and Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds! (1999).

During an interview for U.S. News and World Report (January 10, 1983), Clarke envisioned computers helping to educate a future generation of students and allowing more people to work from home. "I think one of the reasons I became a writer is that it takes me approximately 10 steps to get from my bedroom to my office," he said.

Over the decades, Arthur C. Clarke's work as an author and his contributions to science have been recognized many times. For his theory of communications satellites, he has been honored with the Aerospace Communications Award (1974) and a Marconi International Fellowship (1982). His fiction has earned him three Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America (1972, 1974, and 1979), two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Convention (1974 and 1980), and the John Campbell Award (1974). He is also the recipient of the Kalinga Award (1961) from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the von Karman Award (1996) from the the International Academy of Astronautics. Clarke was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.

In recent years, Arthur C. Clarke has been confined to a wheelchair due to the progression of postpolio syndrome. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1964. He spends his time playing table tennis, answering the many e-mails he receives each day, and studying the data he receives from NASA and other space research centers.

In an interview with Tim McGirk, a reporter for London's Independent (January 23, 1994), Clarke said he had only two regrets in life: "I wish I could stay alive long enough to see man landing on Mars. And I'd like to be around when we make contact with extraterrestrials. But I've seen so much already."

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