Revisiting the ACC Paradox

It’s no secret that Arthur C. Clarke is my favourite SF author. The first SF novel I ever read was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and few books I’ve read since then have come close to matching its sublime visions of humanity’s destiny among the stars. I’ve read most of his novels over the years and I even wrote my Honours dissertation on Clarke’s mythopoeic visions of science and religion. After a long break, I’ve returned to reading Clarke in the last few weeks as part of my PhD research–a return that coincided with the third anniversary of his death (19 March). It’s got me thinking about him again. And why I love his books.

I began by reading Earthlight (1955), one of the few Clarke novels that I haven’t read previously. Clarke himself admitted that his early novels were written almost as propaganda for the fledgling British Interplanetary Society, trying to convince a sceptical public that space flight was possible. Earthlight definitely falls into this category. Remove the rather pulpish main plot (about a war between Earth and her colonies) and you’re left with typical Clarkean descriptions of the technological challenges of living on the Moon.

The technological challenges of rescuing people on the Moon formed the basis of the plot for the second of his novels I read recently, A Fall of Moondust (1961). It’s one of my old favourites. Again, this novel lacks the mysticism or religious inquiry that would define his best works, but it’s a very decent example of Hard SF. And the science behind the novel–seas of dust on the lunar surface–was a very real concern at the time of publication. The fact that those theories are now obsolete in no way reduces the impact of the novel.

And now I am reading The City and the Stars (1956), the novel which, according to academic John Clute, epitomises the Arthur C. Clarke Paradox. So what is the ACC paradox? In Clute’s words, “the man who of all sf writers is most closely identified with knowledgeable, technological Hard sf is strongly attracted to the metaphysical, even to the mystical…” And that’s what makes Clarke stand apart from other authors. That’s why he’s my favourite. While constructing his visions of science and society, of futures where technology has given us dominion over the solar system, he imbues his text with the metaphysical beliefs that underpin our world. He fuses our mystical past with a scientific future. And he recognises that we’re still irrevocably human. It’s this poignancy that guarantees Clarke’s novels will still be read even when the rest of his contemporaries have been long forgotten.

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