Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Other Side of the Sky

I first discovered Arthur C. Clarke the summer before seventh grade, when I stumbled upon two massive Clarke anthologies in the junior high library. They were laid out like 60s vintage malls, with novels at each end like anchor stores and collections of short stories in between. Between them they were comprehensive, including his most famous novel, Childhood's End, never a favorite of mine, and The City and the Stars, which is. (A billion years in the future, an epic journey of discovery begins with a subway ride - what's not to love?) Among short stories they had "The Sentinal," the germ of 2001; the classic "Superiority;" and several Tales from the White Hart.

Clarke was one of the SF trinity of the 1960s, along with Heinlein and Asimov, and he shares with Heinlein and Willy Ley the chief credit for the rocketpunk vision. Thanks to 2001 he gave the rocketpunk vision its final form: There it was, up there on the the vastness of the screen, a huge spinning space station, hundreds of meters across, and a Pan Am shuttle doing its elegant docking waltz.

Socially, if Heinlein's rocketpunk was retro America even when he wrote it - the 1890s in space, steampunk with rocketpunk tech - Clarke's was more contemporary to the mid 20th century, and utterly and crisply English. Clarke's spacemen sounded like David Niven, not John Wayne. His picture of space operations and space crews strikes me as eminently practical - neither the RAF in space nor the RN in space, but small teams of experts whose relations were more professional than quasi-military. Clarke was also post-imperial. He occasionally wrote about space warfare, but always with irony, "Superiority" as good an example as any. (For my non-SF readers, "Superiority"describes an instance of technological superiority in space warfare being too clever by half, but requires no technical training to understand.)

In the real world, Clarke discovered the properties of the geosychronous orbit, which is why your satellite dish can point in one direction instead of slewing all over the sky chasing satellites. He popularized the communications satellite itself; indeed to the best of my knowledge he created the whole idea of geosats - the realization that looking back at Earth from the other side of the sky (and not just military spying) would be one of the most useful things we could do in space.

Clarke was well ahead of his time in this. Of course he failed to foresee comsats and geosats as we know them today - like everyone else back then he never imagined satellites as we know them today. He assumed that complex orbital relay stations would be large structures with crews. In his classical arrangement there would be three of them forming an equalateral triangle around the equator, enough to give full coverage to the inhabited surface of the planet. The one over the South Atlantic was assumed to be the main one - serving as not merely relay but origin point for global news broadcasts, as well as presumably all the other classical functions of a space station.

Instead we have hundreds of satellites of all sorts (and hundreds more defunct ones). Instead of a single global Third Programme we have scores of satellite broadcasts, satellite phones, GPS, and so on and so forth. In deep space we have explored as much as Clarke in his early days might have expected by this time; we have merely done it vicariously.

Clarke's hard SF was as hard as it gets - never bogged down by the technology, but even more than Heinlein there was always a sense that he'd done all his homework. He had another side as well, semimystical or outright mystical. In The City and the Stars he took on the sheer, immense sweep of time, a billion years, and made you feel it. Sometimes his mysticism - which led him, in part, to live the second half or more of his life in Sri Lanka - also led him astray. Am I the only one who finds Diaspar, the city at the end of time, more appealing than hippie dippie Lys? Perhaps, though, Clarke sensed this; it is Alvin, from Diaspar, who reopens the way to the stars, not anyone from Lys.

Now Clarke himself goes before us, beyond the beckoning stars.


Kedamono said...

My first encounter with Sir Arthur was in grade school. One of the reading books assigned to the class had a short story by him that took place on a space station. It used as it's gimmick a canary that tried to fly in zero G. However, it turned into the canary in a mine shaft story, as the bird responded to a problem with the station's life support and alerted the crew to that problem by nearly dying. :-)

And that was my very first Science Fiction story I ever read. I soon devoured the school's library, reading nearly every SF book they had. I still have a fondness for his stories and one of my faves was A fall of Moondust. Unfortunately, vacuum welding made that story impossible in the real world, but it was a great read anyway.

Sad to see him go, but the last time I saw him on a TV program, he looked really ragged and ancient. The BBC gave him a balanced obituary, not only mentioning his writing and contributions to science, but the allegations that had darkened his reputation.

As a friend of mine said, "There was a reason why he moved to Shri Lanka, and it wasn't for the diving."

Still, take care Sir Arthur, pave the way for the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

Just a day or two before the news broke of his death I recalled his story _Maelstrom II_ & re-read it. A lovely use of orbital mechanics for an ending that comes as a surprise but which is totally inevitable.

I've read a reprint of Clarke's original 1945 paper on comsats. It always amused me that he assumed manned satellites since there would have to be someone to replace the burnt out vacuum tubes.

Anonymous said...

Sir Arthur Clarke had a grand vision and a way of sharing that vision that allowed the rest of us to gain a glimpse of a vast and wonderous universe. While I didn't like many of his stories, (they left me feeling distured), I never once would have said that any of them were "bad" stories. They all allowed me to build a picture in my mind of what the story was about. Not all stories can do that for me.

The one thing that his stories did was to depict aliens as nearly, or even totally, uncomprehensable; this has always rang true to me, as real aliens would have little or no commen frame of reference with us. In my own writings, I've always tried to depict aliens as alien, and not just as funny looking humans. I'm still working on them and have a long ways to go before I get them as beleivable as Clarke's aliens are.

Sir Arthur Clarke enriched us and expanded the human race's place in the universe.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

As with so many others, I discovered Clarke when I was young - during the lower Paleolithic as memory serves. When I was about 6 or maybe 7, my mother explained to me what a light year was. As we used to say back then, it blew my mind. I had to know more. As luck would have it, the local library just got in The Exploration of Space - what a read. I probably only understood a fraction of it, but it fired my imagination ... "All These Worlds Are Yours ...."

I don't think Clarke went mystical over Lys. The City and the Stars was published in 1956, the same year he moved to Sri Lanka. I believe he was channeling many other English scribblers from Old Bill to Tolkien; he was romanticizing country life.

As for where to live: Diaspar, but vacation in Lys. One of the saddest things about humanity's last and greatest city -- the only animals living there were people.

And of course Alvin was designed to
break the terrible trap of no death, no change, no curiosity.

Rest in peace, Sir Arthur and thank you.

"My God, it's full of stars."

Rick said...

I drifted away from Clarke's later writing - unlike many writers the great Golden Age SF writers mostly seemed to do their best work when young and fresh to it all. Rather like musicians. I never got the impression that late Clarke was unreadably bad, like late Heinlein, or even a mere lame ripoff of himself, like late Asimov.

Vacuum tubes - There again is the great irony of the space age, that space tech itself killed the rocketpunk vision.

Clarke destroyed the conventional vision of aliens for me - see my entry on aliens in the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy. "Apes or angels" seems pretty dispositive to me. After all, if a race is just 130,000 years ahead of us - 1/1000th of one percent - that is still 130,000 years ahead of us.

When I was about 7 or 8, I remember doing a thought experiment. I drew the Solar System on a little slip of notebook paper. Then I drew Alpha Centauri on another slip of notebook paper (a couple of stars with planets), and walked it to the other end of the block.

But you are right about Lys and Diaspar - silly of me, 'tis the good old English country-life thing. I don't remember when it finally struck me as odd that the Lysians knew all about Diaspar but never even went there for a night on the town.

Anonymous said...

"that is still 130,000 years ahead of us."

Another thought vis-a-vis, on this rock we have people still living the hunter-gatherer life and others building space stations. Image the galactic spread sheet.

"....but never went there for a night on the town."

They would stealth visit and obverse, but yeah strange that in a billion years none would want to party down at least once in awhile.

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