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Aliens, androids and imaginary worlds: What made Arthur C Clarke so cool

The scientist, science fiction author, inventor and futurist would have turned 100 on December 16. Take a look at the many highlights of his incredible life.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 11, 2017 21:30 IST
Rachel Lopez
(HT illustration: Sudhir Shetty)

What you think of Arthur Charles Clarke, depends in large part on who you are.

To techies, he’s the man who, at 28, imagined a futuristic satellite technology so clearly, that NASA developed it in just 15 years. To futurists, he’s the brain behind some remarkably spot-on visions of the future. To film fans, he’s the one who dreamed up 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Stanley Kubrick.

To politicians, he’s the pacifist advocate of science and technology who remained fiercely critical of nuclear weapons. And to legions of sci-fi fans, he’s the English author whose breadth of imagination gave them parallel universes, deep-space voyages and alien forms with complex emotions and societies.

For most of his 90 years, Clarke — who would have turned 100 on December 16 — kept busy. He was a scientist, science fiction author, inventor and futurist. The son of a farmer and a post-office telegrapher, he showed an early interest in the sciences. He was a radar instructor and technician during World War II. He was even an undersea explorer, discovering the ruins of an ancient temple in Trincomalee – the closest he got to encountering a new world.

Clarke, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, dominated literary science fiction between the 1960s and 1980s, defining the genre of the age. For Arnab Bhattacharya, physicist and professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Clarke’s believably technical descriptions and “hard-on-the-science writing, without the gimmickry of faster-than-light travel or inter-species romance,” were “just what a budding scientist could look for in a hero.”

Lawyer Gautam Bhatia, who reviews sci-fi novels for Strange Horizons, the online speculative fiction magazine, sees Clarke as an important figure in the history of science fiction. “Sure his books follow a specific pattern and the writing doesn’t go beyond the comfort zone,” he says. “But his books had a good sense of plot and pacing, with the tension building beautifully.”

Clarke was great friends with Asimov, prompting the now-famous Clarke-Asimov Treaty in which each author would acknowledge the other as the greater sci-fi writer, swapping competiveness for fun.

Both writers have asteroids now named after them, but Clarke is a step ahead – there’s also a dinosaur named after him, the Serendipaceratops arthurcClarkei. Along the way, Clarke picked up a knighthood, a Nobel nomination, a Unesco Kalinga prize for popularising science, and countless sci-fi writers’ awards.

And through fact and fiction, he remained devoted to the religion of science often saying “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re sceptical”.

Here’s a look at his incredible life.

First, the rules
  • If Isaac Asimov has three laws of robotics – guidelines that set the template for actual robot development – Clarke has three laws on the nature of prediction. They’re a lot more fun:
  • 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.

Now, for the predictions

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation,” Clarke believed. “That is why the future is so endlessly fascinating. Because try as we can we can never outguess it.”

What Clarke got right

1. In 1945, at 28, Clarke wrote an article for the magazine Wireless World, suggesting a way to relay radio and TV signals via geostationary satellites. The satellites would match the planet’s rotation so they remained above the same spot on the ground. Clarke’s ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’ became a reality in 1960 with NASA’s communication’s satellite, Echo. The orbit is named after Clarke.

Geostationary satellites like this one, which make speedy communication possible, were first articulated clearly by Arthur C Clarke.

2. In 1954, Clarke described a design for igloo-shaped moon habitats. NASA is developing similar ones for its lunar outpost, to be in place by 2020.

3. In a BBC video from 1964, Clarke imagined a future with video calls, digital mail and where “we can be in instant contact with … our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location”.

4. In 1974, he imagined that home computers would hold “all the information you need over the course of living in a complex modern society”. Two years later, he spoke of communication via HD screens attached to keyboards – predicting the internet.

5. Clarke also saw the artificial intelligence revolution coming. He believed the most intelligent inhabitants of that future world would be machines. “Eventually they will completely out-think their makers.” It’s happening already.

...And what he got wrong
1. Clarke predicted that by 2014, “we may have doctors in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand,” that global communication meant people “wouldn’t have to travel for business anymore, only for pleasure” and that “the traditional role of the city as a meeting place for man” would fade. Cities are more important than ever, and remote surgeries are still a dream.

2. A discovery Clarke hoped he lived to see: suspended animation, a way to sleep for centuries and wake up to a future that has a cure for your disease, or a world not yet explored.

We’re still a long way away from Clarke’s dream of centuries-long hibernation, allowing us to visit distant planets, as depicted in the 2016 film, Passengers. (Columbia Pictures)

3. He expected humans to bio-engineer animals like apes and dolphins to serve us. “Eventually our super chimpanzees would start forming trade unions and we’d be right back where we started.”

4. Clarke’s 1986 book titled July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century, got much of it right – smart cars, 3D films, the Internet of Things. Some things are still far away: personalised dreams, customized sex-bots and being able to superimpose your own image on a TV character.

5. Even his predictions on CNN in 1999 haven’t held up. We don’t have cold-fusion energy, human clones, or closed coal mines in India. Clarke hoped the early 2000s would see all nuclear weapons dismantled, space energy generated and criminals extinct after electronic surveillance.

What we’re still holding out for

- Space elevators Clarke’s 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, described gigantic towers connecting land to space satellites so we wouldn’t need expensive rockets to fight gravity. He hoped this would be a greater legacy than his geostationary satellites.

Rockets are expensive, because they need large amounts of fuel to overcome Earth’s gravity. Clarke’ idea of cheaper space elevators, or long brides to the sky, haven’t yet materialised. (Image courtesy: Pexels)

- Replicators: Think of it as an invention to end all inventions, “simply a duplicating machine that can make an exact copy of anything”. A replicator would plunge society into “gluttonous barbarism because everyone would want unlimited quantities of everything”.

- Braincaps: Clarke expected, a few years before his death, that we’d soon have a way to feed impulses directly into the brain, bypassing the senses. We’d be able to learn a language overnight or erase bad memories.

- Moon homes: He estimated that 50 years from now, some humans will live on the moon and that we’d be able to modify the environments on some planets to be able to live there without space suits or airtight habitats.

- The end of money: He also assumed time would replace money as the global currency, with the megawatt-hour as the unit of exchange.

- The timeline: Clarke predicted that Man would conquer Mars in 2021. Dinosaurs would be cloned by 2023 (with mini-raptors replacing guard dogs). China would become the world’s largest economy by 2036 and, by 2095, human explorers would finally head to new solar systems. He also said a meteor would hit Earth in 2019, damaging Greenland and Canada, and that’s something we’re hoping he got wrong.

So many books... where to begin?

Clark’s own favourite, The Songs Of Distant Earth; a critics’ choice Childhood’s End; and one of his most popular novels, Rendezvous With Rama.

By the time he died, in 2008, Clarke had written almost 100 books – novels, nonfiction, short stories and screenplays.

Much of his early inspiration came from visits to Minehead, the English beach town full of rocky outcrops where his grandmother lived. As a boy, he famously built his own telescope with cardboard tubes and lenses, to better observe the moon. But it wasn’t until he was 13 – the year his father died – that he discovered a copy of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, a popular sci-fi magazine, and got hooked on to its adventure and science stories, soon writing some himself.

Clarke couldn’t afford higher education and never went to university, but he spent those years contributing stories to sci-fi magazines. His early novels and non-fiction works covered interplanetary flight, space exploration, colonising Mars and life on a space station.

Critics consider his best work Childhood’s End (1953). It imagines mankind’s first contact with aliens, a race of Overlords who arrive in massive spaceships and look like devils. They want Earth’s children to evolve to develop psychic powers, but it comes at a cost.

His other classics include The Nine Billion Names of God (1953), in which Tibetan monks tasked with compiling every possible name of God buy a computer, with surprising results; and Rendezvous with Rama (1973), another tale of first contact.

Arnab Bhattacharya recalls how a tiny plot detail Rendezvous with Rama has left a lasting impression. “When commander Norton and his colleague find the manual control to open the airlock to enter the spacecraft they can’t just get the control wheel to budge,” he says. They eventually figure that it may be a left-handed design, and needs to be unscrewed clockwise. “As a kid, it was an A-ha! moment for me. The tension built up at this critical point is solved by this simple device. When I learned about left handed threads in college, the first image in my mind was this story.”

Clarke’s own favourite: The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), set on a faraway planet that receives the last survivors from a destroyed Earth. “It’s got everything in it that I ever wanted to say,” Clarke said.

If you like Clarke…
  • Gautam Bhatia recommends Yoon Ha Lee and Tricia Sullivan.
  • Lee, an American writer, has written over 40 short stories, many of them collected in Conservation of Shadows. His first novel, Ninefox Gambit, features a disgraced captain Kel Cheris, who must recapture the formidable Fortress of Scattered Needles in order to redeem herself. It’s an impoosible war. She must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
  • UK-based writer Tricia Sullivan’s most popular work is last year’s Occupy Me. The mystery thriller follows Pearl, an angel who has no memory of landing on Earth, as she tracks down the man who put her here. He has her briefcase, which may just be a portal to hell. Somehow, there’s also a pterosaur involved.

If Clarke bores you...
  • Bhatia recommends Yoss and Nalo Hopkinson.
  • Yoss is the pen name of Cuban author José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, who is also the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. Super Extra Grande his 2016 novel has been translated into English and is the tale of Jan Amos Sangan Dongo a veterinarian in a galaxy full of talking reptiles, amoebas and more otherworldly creatures.
  • Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Midnight Robber is set is a time of interplanetary and alternate-dimension travel. The seven-year-old heroine Tan-Tan Habib, like others has been injected with nanomites that allow and Internet-like information system to access her mind.

The book that became a film classic

The two astronauts plotting to escape the sinister computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke co-wrote. (Stanley Kubrick Productions)

Outside sci-fi geekdom, Clarke will forever be the man who gave the world one of the greatest films of all time. The 1968 hit 2001: A Space Odyssey was the result of Clarke’s work with director Stanley Kubrick to adapt his 1951 short story, The Sentinel.

It’s an unsettling tale, released at the peak of the US-USSR space race. There’s an alien monolith on the moon, a spaceship dispatched to Jupiter and two astronauts fighting for their lives against HAL 9000, a computer gone rogue.

The screenplay won Clarke and Kubrick an Oscar. The story itself was published as a novel, with some changes, that spawned three sequels that end at the last years of our own millennium.

HAL, meanwhile, has inspired countless sinister-machine tropes in popular culture. His line, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave” is now shorthand for when things go very wrong with AI.

There’s an India connection

When India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Clarke issued this brief statement: “Hindustan should be proud of its scientists — but ashamed of its politicians.”

In 1956, Clarke moved to Sri Lanka, to pursue his passion for scuba diving. He quickly became friends with the subcontinent’s scientists: Indian space pioneers Vikram Sarabhai and Yash Pal, and Pakistani theoretical physicist Abdus Salam. In the early 1970s, he advised the Indian Space Research Organisation on launching satellites for TV broadcasting across rural India. In 1980 he spent three months at Ahmedabad’s Physical Research Laboratory, lecturing about peaceful uses of outer space.

Then in 1981, he was invited to New Delhi to deliver the 13th Nehru Memorial lecture. Clarke’s talk was called Star Wars and Star Peace, a reference to the US’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile system commonly called Star Wars.

When India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Clarke issued this brief statement: “Hindustan should be proud of its scientists — but ashamed of its politicians.”