Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Published: April 4, 2008
Section: Opinions

I was planning to use this week’s column to finish my series on H. Res. 888. However, as important as the battle against the resolution is, I feel compelled to devote this column to a recently deceased giant of the secular world.

During his 60-year career, Sir Arthur C. Clarke made his mark as an author, a scientist, a humanitarian, and a staunch secularist. He started his career writing for small science fiction magazines as a hobby; he didn’t receive a paycheck for his work for almost 10 years as a writer. His first novel, Prelude to Space, was released in 1951. Two years later, he published his first major work, the monumental Childhood’s End. Based on a short story, the novel describes the next great step in the evolution of mankind, from an imperfect, divided species to a communal, deeply connected single consciousness. Its psychological complexity and powerful realism led to a very positive reception, and its influence is still strong on the science fiction genre.

Eleven years later, a young, up-and-coming film director named Stanley Kubrick approached the already famous Clarke with an offer. Having been catapulted into the top tier of the film industry with his huge critical and financial success Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick wished to make what he hoped would be the definitive science fiction movie, and he sought out Clarke as a collaborator. Together, they began work on what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released as both a book and a movie, 2001 received immediate critical praise. It earned Clarke an Academy Award nomination and is still hailed as one of the greatest works of cinema ever released. However, Clarke was only entering the prime of his career. In 1972, Rendezvous with Rama was published to enormous acclaim. Set in 2131, the novel describes humanity’s first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of a giant, seemingly abandoned space cruiser. It eschewed cliched action scenes for a slow, measured plot of realistic scientific discovery, and it preferred to leave questions unanswered rather than providing forced, implausible answers. Clarke continued writing successful novels until his death; among his best known are The Fountains of Paradise, The Songs of Distant Earth, and continuations of the Space Odyssey and Rama series.

However, Sir Arthur Clarke’s legacy goes beyond his renowned works of fiction. Despite earning only a bachelor’s degree in physics, his contributions to the scientific world were very important and earned him great accolades. He fought for the Royal Air Force in World War II as a radar specialist, helping to design the ground-controlled approach radar, which is still in use today. He also became the first person to propose using geostationary satellites (satellites in orbit over a constant location on Earth) as a means of telecommunication; this idea became the foundation for our modern communication system. In The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke popularized the concept of a space elevator to make the notoriously expensive task of launching spacecraft into orbit far more cost effective; despite the technological advances that will be necessary to make building such a structure plausible, many scientists have latched onto it as a virtual necessity for the continued growth of the space program. Clarke served as the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, received two Nobel Prize nominations in different fields, and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989; eleven years later, he was knighted.

Clarke never made a secret of his strong atheistic beliefs, and his writing frequently expressed secular themes. In The Fountains of Paradise, he imagines the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence coming from a vast computer encased in an interstellar probe. The computer is advanced far beyond any terrestrial technology, and it provides answers to the questions humanity sends it about the nature of the universe. When the hypothesis of a God is proposed, it scoffs, calling such a idea completely implausible and pointing out the ways in which other civilizations have evolved beyond religious beliefs. Childhood’s End proposes that the ideas of a Hell and the Devil were impressed upon humanity by an alien race rather than from any theological truth.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s unique brand of realistic, worldly science fiction continues to inspire authors today, and he has earned his place in the pantheon of creative geniuses of the 20th century. His passing represents the end of the Golden Age of science fiction writing and the loss of one of the preeminent intellectuals of the atheist movement.