It would be remiss of me not to write a quick post about Arthur C. Clarke on the sixth anniversary of his death. I was in the Perth underground station on the morning of 19 March 2008, when a friend texted me to say that Clarke had passed away. Within minutes, it was all over the news. I can still remember my sense of loss – not only was Clarke my favourite author, but his novels had introduced me to the genre of science fiction. He was, in many aspects, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
My last post about Clarke explored the paradox of mysticism in his Hard SF. Today I’d like to focus on his status as a “prophet” of SF. Normally I try to avoid the insinuation that SF is based on prescience. Any prestige that the genre has garnered because of this is based on a fallacy. Most authors in the genre have failed miserably to predict the future. I have long maintained that the charter of science fiction should not be to foresee the future, but to reflect the present. Perhaps Ray Bradbury summed it up best when he said, “I don’t try to predict the future – I try to prevent it.”
Yet there is no denying that Arthur C. Clarke was remarkably astute in his visions of the future. His most influential paper was published in Wireless World in 1945, where he outlined the idea of using geosynchronous satellites as telecommunication relays. He was just twenty-seven years old. Today, telecommunication satellites form the backbone of our international communications system. This is one of the best examples of science-fictionality, as the dreams of a SF author have so indelibly shaped reality. We are all living in a world that Clarke created.
His early novels, written almost like propaganda for the British Interplanetary Society, explore the trajectory of early space flight (yes, pun intended). It was his intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics which gives these novels their credibility. Clarke realised the importance of space stations and geosynchronous satellites. He wrote about the difficulties of working in space and how these problems may be overcome.
Other things that he predicted include the internet and mobile phones, although – like many of his peers – he had no way of foreseeing how both these technologies would fundamentally alter the way humans communicate with each other.
Clarke’s ultimate legacy may yet to be realised. Even more than communications satellites, he believed his greatest contribution to science would be the concept of the space elevator, which would connect humanity to the stars. It is great to see that the scientific community has taken this idea seriously.
I’ll end with one of my favourite Clarke quotes from Profiles of the Future. It is not only a majestic view of the cosmos, but a haunting elegy to our civilisation. And it truly befits a prophet of SF:
Whether Freeman Dyson’s vision (some would say nightmare) of eternity is true or not, one thing seems certain. Our galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life—a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own Sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.
It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infrareds of dully glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the somber hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of color and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions.
They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the universe when it was young.