Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The City and the Stars

Science fiction novelist Sir Arthur C. Clarke died Tuesday in Ceylon, where he moved more than 50 years ago. (In the meantime, island renamed itself Sri Lanka). The various obits (such as the NYT and Wired) covered a lot of familiar ground (his RAF job), but also a few tidbits that I (as a 40+ year fan) didn’t know.

Everyone knows Clarke “invented” (or popularized) communications satellites, and certainly NASA gives him full credit. I did not know that in 1965 (as part of a collection of his essays), he published a book chapter called “A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time,” explaining why lawyers said it was too impractical to patent.

All the obits talked about his most successful novel, the one that created the first big-budget science fiction movie, 2001. As a kid, I recall seeing the week it came out, and being blown away by the special effects and the visual representation of an imagined future. Alas, when 2001 came around, a few ideas turned out to be dated — PanAm, AT&T, PicturePhones, ubiquitous space flight — but that’s the risk of any prediction. (I own a copy of the movie, which I should show my daughter, but I’m not impressed enough to pay $30 for the Blu-ray version).

However, nearly all of the obit writers had little understanding or appreciation of how Clarke changed the craft science fiction. Of the big four of his era — Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein — he was the best novelist and the only one able to carry a long and complex story through to conclusion. (Unless you want to clam that Asimov’s three part Foundation series of books was really one book).

My favorite childhood book was The City and the Stars, written a few years before I was born. The poignant story of Alvin winds through two highly detailed imaginary worlds — Alvin’s own time, set in a period of decay millennia in the future, and the past, more advanced society that Alvin discovers in his explorations. The main theme was the importance of curiosity and striving for achievement, but in retrospect it was also remarkable in its portrayal of the technology and social impacts of virtual reality.

The only place I saw his fully body of work (including his 1956 opus) mentioned was in the Telegraph obituary, which also gave his middle name (Charles), the date of moving to Ceylon (1956), and the delay in his knighthood due to false claims of sexual abuse.

The Telegraph reported that Clarke was hoping that resurrection comes some day: “cloning by highly advanced aliens being, predictably enough, his favoured method.” Not where I’d put my money, but I think also logically flawed.

If aliens did show up, and decided to resurrect some small fraction of the billions of dead humans, where would they start? I’d guess someone like Napoleon, Shakespeare, Einstein, Churchill or da Vinci. (Sure, there’s the issue of DNA availability, but for this thought experiment that’s not a dealbreaker). Clarke would have a hard time standing out from the clutter of 20th century novelists: in English alone, there’s Joyce, Steinbeck and Faulkner among others. There’s also a narrow time window: if the aliens show up In the Year 2525, then most of these 19th and 20th century novelists are going to be long forgotten, and I presume that the list will be more heavily weighted towards Chinese.

Perhaps if Virgin Galactic (or Sir Richard) names their spaceport after Sir Arthur, the aliens or humans of the 26th century will be curious enough to investigate who this Clarke character was. But I’m guessing that the British citizen is more likely to get that honor in the UK or Sri Lanka, should the opportunity present itself.

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