Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke: 1917-2008

Arthur C. Clarke has died. It was one of those "Aw crap" moments when you see the headline flash across the computer. This is the BBC story, the New York Times obit and here is his bio on Wikipedia.

Why "oh crap"? The man was 90 years old and was clearly in declining health. He'd led a remarkable life, the kind most people would be envious of. I suspect he would be pleased to have lived as long, done as much as he had and seen so many changes in the world.

Still, that's a real piece of history that passed away today. And a real piece of my childhood. I don't know if Clarke was the first "adult" author I ever read, but he was certainly one of the first and likely the one who had the biggest impact on me as a kid.

I imagine the first book I read by Clarke was "Childhood's End" a book I thought would be standard sci-fi, how the humans would realize the aliens were bad guys and gang up and overthrow them. Of course, the book is nothing like that. It goes in a direction that my 10 year old brain couldn't have imagined. And it must have had an impact, because I was hooked. I read every single Clarke book I could find at the local library. I checked out copies of the same books to reread them. And when that wasn't enough, I started prowling around used book stores to find copies of the books. Whenever I found a copy of one of his books that I'd never read before, it was a cause of much joy. Hell, I still have most of those books, with the price stamped in black ink on the inside cover from Afterwords Bookstore or Second Page.

And when there wasn't enough Clarke for me, it made me expand my horizons. I started reading other sci-fi authors. Isaac Asimov was the only one who grew to the same cult-like levels for me, but I tried lots.

I even remember being very excited when 2010, the movie, came out in 1984. Just because it was a movie based on a book by one of my favourite authors. A lot of my friends grumbled that it was boring because there was no action like Star Wars, but I loved it, even though it wasn't as good as the book. Dad suggested I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, but even though I had already read the book, I found the movie deeply weird and not nearly as entertaining as Clarke's book. Both cases were probably some of my earliest realizations that the book is always better than the movie.

My love of Clarke's writing faded at some point in my 20s. Perhaps it was when he began putting out books that said he co-wrote them, when it was obvious he only had the most basic dealing with the writing. The writing seemed flat compared to his earlier books. But then again, he was well into his 70s at that point. Let's see how well I'm writing when I'm in my 70s. But I certainly stopped buying everything he produced. I have a book shelf which has nothing but Clarke and Asimov books on it. Up until I moved to Iqaluit, it had been years since I read any of them. Cathy suggested that perhaps I might want to sell the books, but I could never find it in my heart to do it.

And, you know, I struggled with the allegations 10 years ago that he was a paedophile. It tarnished my opinion of him for a time. And part of me still wonders. He was cleared, the newspaper that printed the story retracted it and that should be the end of the matter. But it does linger a bit, like a faint, bad smell that's hard to get rid of.

But I really do wish I had some of those books here today, rather than in storage in St. John's. I'd like to crack one open and reread and relive what it was like to read something with a bit of wonder and awe. Perhaps "Childhood End" or "Tales from the White Hart" (a lesser known collection of short stories, but I always loved it a lot). Or "Rendezvous with Rama", probably his last great novel. It'd be nice to do that this evening.

I'm glad he made it to 2001, even if the world is a pale shadow of what he imagined it would be in that year. But I keep thinking how nice it would have been if he could have made it to 2010.

One final thing, Clarke's Third, and most famous, Law states: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To that I'll add "Any sufficiently advanced writing is indistinguishable from magic." And for years, that's what Clarke was for me every time I opened one of his books.

Last Five
1. Walk of life - Dire Straits
2. Haiti - The Arcade Fire
3. Mystify - INXS
4. Smoke it - The Dandy Warhols
5. Tougher than the rest - Bruce Springsteen*


TerriLynn said...

I did a presentation in my science fiction class a few weeks back on one of his short stories. His is, in my opinion, probably some of the best we've covered thus far in the course. Interesting, but not something that is so out there that it alienates the reader. I was delighted to see he was still alive when I did my research, as most of the authors from the "golden age" have long passed away. I'm sure my prof will have something to mention about this tomorrow.

dups said...

I will pronounce this law:

"Any sufficiently idiotic writing with a bunch of rules for human behaviour is indistinguishable from religion"