Arthur C. Clarke Essay - Critical Essays

Clarke, Arthur


Arthur C. Clarke 1917–-

(Full name Arthur Charles Clarke; has also written under pseudonyms E. G. O'Brien and Charles Willis.) English scientist, novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Clarke's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 13, 18, and 35.

Clarke is one of the best known and most highly regarded twentieth-century science fiction writers. Hailed as a pioneering force in the genre, Clarke is known for accessible and dynamic portrayals of the scientific aspects of astronomy and physics in his fiction. In addition, he is noted for his optimistic views regarding the uses of technology, which contrast sharply with the prevailing mood of distrust and uneasiness found in much of the science fiction genre. Many of his novels, including Childhood’s End (1953) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973), have earned critical acclaim, but he is perhaps best known for his screenplay and subsequent novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Biographical Information

Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead, Somersetshire, England, to Charles Wright and Norah Willis Clarke. He began to read science fiction around the age of twelve and quickly became enamored with the genre. He wrote for his school publication until economic circumstances forced him to secure a position as an auditor for the British government. While in London, Clarke joined the British Interplanetary Society, a science fiction and space enthusiasts club, where he was introduced to other science fiction writers and editors. Soon after he began to publish short stories as well as scientific articles addressing the feasibility of space travel. In 1941 Clarke enlisted in the Royal Air Force, serving as a radar instructor. During this period Clarke published an article in Wireless World advocating the use of synchronous satellites for communication, a revolutionary idea at the time. After the war, Clarke earned degrees in physics and in pure and applied mathematics from King's College University of London. Clarke won critical acclaim for his non-fiction book The Exploration of Space (1952) which reviewers contend is one of the first books to present an accurate scientific discussion in a manner accessible to the public. After the success of his novel Childhood's End, Clarke was able to pursue writing full-time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Clarke continued to build on his reputation and developed an avid following, and he published a novel almost every year. Clarke and famed director Stanley Kubrick united to write the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. The movie was nominated for an Oscar and is now regarded as a pioneering effort in cinema. Clarke followed the film with a novel of the same name which expands upon events in the movie. His 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama earned him four of the highest honors for science fiction: the Nebula, Hugo, John W. Campbell Memorial, and Jupiter Awards. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Clarke continued his “Odyssey” series with three additional novels, concluding with 3001: A Space Odyssey in 1997. Clarke is also noted for his involvement in television, beginning with his co-broadcast of the Apollo space missions and for his work on several space exploration documentaries. In addition, he has published numerous nonfiction books about deep sea diving and he operates a diving school in Sri Lanka, where he has resided since the 1950s. He was knighted in 1999.

Major Works

Throughout his lengthy career, Clarke has been a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction. In his nonfiction writing, Clarke is admired for his lucid, dynamic prose, and his ability to explain complicated scientific ideas. The same skill carries over into his fiction, which is based upon factual scientific information culled from the fields of astronomy and physics, prompting Clarke to incorporate new ideas and theories into his books as time progresses. His early works can be divided into two categories: works in which he concentrates on technology and space adventure; and novels in which he focuses on metaphysical themes. One of his most highly regarded novels, Childhood's End, falls into the second category. In the book Clarke describes an alien life force which creates utopia on earth, only to destroy the planet before abducting all the children. The novel treats the potentially negative consequences of human contact with aliens, and examines transcendental philosophy and the nature of utopias. 2001 is based upon Clarke's earlier short story “The Sentinel.” In the story, aliens place giant black monoliths on the earth and moon to aid humans in their development. While traveling through space to investigate the forces responsible for the monoliths, super computer HAL 9000 attempts to take control of its spacecraft in order to sabotage the mission. Only astronaut Dave Bowman survives. This work focuses on the relationship of man to technology, illuminating the dangers of total human dependence upon machines, and also focuses on the tenuous uncertainty of human life in the universe. Clarke's later work includes the novels Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise (1979). The former centers upon human exploration of an alien spacecraft and the resulting unexpected impact of aliens on humans. In The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke depicts a Godlike man who combines intelligence with technological developments. In the subsequent novels of the “Odyssey” series, Clarke advances his story through generations of astronauts, exploring their difficulties in comprehending the galaxy. In the last novel of the series, 3001: The Final Odyssey, Clarke introduces the idea that the aliens who created the monoliths in the first novel were not acting for the good of humanity, but were working toward the sinister purpose of controlling humans.

Critical Reception

Critics are generally less enthusiastic about the work Clarke has published since the 1970s, but he is still largely regarded as among the most influential science fiction writers of all time—one who helped set the parameters of the science fiction genre and who consistently introduced new concepts and ideas in his work. Critics note his strong interest in technology and his accurate depiction of new developments in space exploration. In addition, reviewers argue that in his fiction Clarke depicts an unusually varied and complex portrayal of alien life. Instead of using the stereotypical threat of alien life forms that are vastly different from humans and bent on destruction, Clarke chooses to illuminate the nature of humanity through a juxtaposition of human and alien life forms. Scholars note that in novels such as Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke scrutinizes problems facing humankind as heavily as he analyzes issues of technology and alien encounters. Although critics almost universally criticize the later “Odyssey” novels, several note that while the books do not measure up to Clarke's earlier works, the later fiction still surpasses the efforts of many contemporary science fiction authors.

Principal Works

The Sands of Mars (novel) 1951

The Exploration of Space (nonfiction) 1952

Childhood's End (novel) 1953

2001: A Space Odyssey (novel) 1968

Rendezvous with Rama (novel) 1973

The Fountains of Paradise (novel) 1979

2010: Odyssey Two (novel) 1982

2061: Odyssey Three (novel) 1988

3001: The Final Odyssey (novel) 1997

The Trigger (novel) 1999

(The entire section is 39 words.)


Nicholas Ruddick (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: “The World Turned Inside Out: Decoding Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 42-50.

[In the following essay, Ruddick counters the arguments of other critics who hold that Rendezvous with Ramareflects cosmic indifference. Ruddick argues that properly interpreted, the text becomes a mirror in which the reader can glimpse a transcendent future for humanity.]

From the unprecedented number of awards that Rendezvous with Rama received on its publication in 1973, we might suppose that the book would be, in the words of William H. Hardesty, “one of those novels obviously destined to...

(The entire section is 4432 words.)

Andrew Robinson (essay date Summer 1985)

SOURCE: “Clarke's Law,” in Sight & Sound, Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 184-85.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses aspects of Clarke's life in Sri Lanka and his connection with the movie industry there.]

Arthur C. Clarke, Sri Lanka’s most celebrated resident, enjoys controversy, though not about the troubled politics of his adopted country where he is, so far, the sole beneficiary of an Act known unofficially as the Clarke Act which allows very rich foreigners to reside in the island but pay tax only on their Sri Lankan income—considerable in Clarke's case, because of the underwater exploration school he has run for many years. To the Act may...

(The entire section is 1353 words.)

David Brin (review date 6 December 1987)

SOURCE: “The View from Halley’s Comet,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 6, 1987, pp. 1, 16.

[In the following review of 2061: Odyssey Three, Brin states that while the volume is not as memorable as prior Clarke novels, the book is definitely worthy for its espousal of hope.]

Some years ago, the publisher of Del Rey/Ballantine Books handed over the smallest advance payment ever for a book by a best-selling author—a $1 check made out to Arthur C. Clarke for an unwritten work tentatively titled “20,001: The Final Odyssey.”

Few science fiction sagas have been as popular as the exploration of mankind’s destiny that Clarke...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Gerald Jonas (review date 20 December 1987)

SOURCE: A review of 2061: Odyssey Three, in New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1987, p. 18.

[In the following excerpt, Jonas argues that 2061: Odyssey Three lacks the quality of earlier Odyssey works but is still pleasurable to read.]

Arthur C. Clarke's 2061: Odyssey Three is a pallid sequel to 2010: Odyssey Two, which was a pallid sequel to Mr. Clarke's splendid 2001. The new novel has no characters of interest, generates virtually no narrative tension and barely touches on the enigmatic monoliths that figured so prominently in the previous books; rather than resolving anything, the ending is a shameless come-on for “Odyssey...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Tom Easton (review date September 1988)

SOURCE: A review of 2061: Odyssey Three, in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. CVIII, No. 9, September, 1988, p. 183.

[In the following excerpt, Easton writes that although 2061 is too weak of a novel to stand on its own, it does function well within the series.]

Arthur C. Clarke keeps on truckin’. Now he gives us 2061: Odyssey Three as—of course—a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two. And there seems likely to be another sequel, though it will probably be set sometime in the 3000s (at least, this one’s final segment is dated 3001).

What’s happening in 2061? Technology has...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Merritt Abrash (essay date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: “Utopia Subverted: Unstated Messages in Childhood’s End,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 372-79.

[In the essay below, Abrash discusses Childhood’s End, arguing that Clarke transcends Western concepts of utopia.]

Science fiction, dealing as it frequently does with societies removed in space or time from our own, includes portrayals of many utopias. The great majority of these, however, are incomplete in scope and superficial in content, for the simple reason that their raison d’etre is to serve as setting or plot device rather than present a serious utopian vision. A science fiction story which chances to take place...

(The entire section is 3310 words.)

Bruce A. Beatie (essay date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: “Arthur C. Clarke and the Alien Encounter: The Background of Childhood’s End,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 53-69.

[In the essay below, Beatie surveys Clarke's portrayal of aliens throughout his writings.]

“If one believes that life is a characteristic phenomenon in the Universe, and not a rare disease that has attacked a handful of unimportant worlds, then the conclusion is unavoidable that there must be at least some races far older and presumably far more advanced than our own.”

—Arthur C. Clarke, The Exploration of Space...

(The entire section is 7782 words.)

Robert H. Waugh (essay date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: “The Lament of the Midwives: Arthur C. Clarke and the Tradition,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 36-53.

[In the following essay, Waugh examines the underlying structure that unifies Childhood’s End.]

In the nearly forty years since its publication the popularity of Childhood’s End shows little sign of diminishing. The variety of its subplots and the fascination of its main character Karellen may offer a partial reason for that popularity, as may the peculiar élan of its climax; but the coherence of the subplots, the import of Karellen, and the significance of the climax remain disputed. Yet the subplots parallel one another...

(The entire section is 8022 words.)

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: “Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 15-33.

[In the essay below, Malmgren analyzes the nature of alien encounters in a diverse range of science fiction, including Clarke's Childhood’s End.]


When science fiction uses its limitless range of symbol and metaphor novelistically, with the subject at the center, it can show us who we are, and where we are, and what choices face us, with unsurpassed clarity, and with a great and troubling beauty.

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Language of the...

(The entire section is 9354 words.)

Eric Korn (review date 21 March 1997)

SOURCE: “Ithaca,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4903, March 21, 1997, p. 22.

[In the following review of 3001: The Final Odyssey, Korn discusses Clarke's importance as a science fiction writer.]

3001 appears to close that door into the future which opened twenty-one years ago, in 2001 (or, if you prefer, when the first hominid threw that first bone skywards and stopped the breath of a million cinemasful), that door which opened wider in 2010 and 2061; but, if you inspect the text closely, there is a little chink of light around the shining black doorframe, enough for, say, a celebratory or admonitory 4002, in four...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Economist (review date 12 April 1997)

Economist (review date 12 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Out of Space,” in Economist, Vol. 343, No. 8012, April 12, 1997, pp. 85-6.

[In the following review of 3001: The Final Odyssey, the critic argues that the novel fails next to the high standard Clarke established with 2001: A Space Odyssey.]

Opposite the opening page of Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke's first major novel, there is an odd disclaimer: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” That book told of powerful, benign aliens arriving on earth and taking over the planet. Though barred from conquering space, humanity in the novel...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

Tom Easton (review date September 1997)

SOURCE: A review of 3001: The Final Odyssey, in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Vol. CXVII, No. 9, September, 1997, pp. 150-51.

[In the review below, Easton argues that the ending of 3001: The Final Odyssey is contrived.]

Is this the end of the saga that began with 2001: A Space Odyssey? If so, it seems fitting for it to appear just before the eponymous year rolls up on the calendar for real.

Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey begins when the frozen body of Frank Poole, killed and left to drift away in 2001, is found in the Kuiper Belt. Retrieved, he is awakened to discover that the world has changed drastically while he napped. Yet despite Jupiter as a sun, vacuum power, space elevators, and brain caps, much remains recognizable. For instance, the famous Monoliths are still there, including the giant that blockades Europa and its native species.

When Poole learns that Dave Bowman apparently survived the 2001 debacle, merged with the Monoliths, and may yet remain in some sense, he leaps to the conclusion that he must visit Europa despite the very effective barrier. He succeeds, he finds Dave, and he learns that there may be a very serious threat to humanity, based on the distance to the nearest of the Monoliths’ “supervisors”—just about 500 light-years.

So far the tale is a fairly conventional “Sleeper Wakes” story that shines by virtue of the master who wrote it and of the decades of history that give the overall saga an air almost of history (though note that Clarke insists that he has made changes to keep up with the advance of scientific knowledge; the various Odyssey books are not quite consistent with each other). However, to my mind much of that shine is tarnished by a contrived ending that insists the omnipotent Monoliths are really no better than the supercomputers of 1930s SF that could be stymied by recursive conundrums along the lines of “Whatever I say is false.”

Oh, well. The Clarkean imagination is still a wondrous thing, and it has left its mark on an age of science fiction, film, and even science (see below).

To mark the birthday of HAL, the computer Arthur C. Clarke created for 2001 (January 12, 1997), computer scientist David G. Stork has assembled a beautiful package of essays on just how close computers have come to Clarke's vision over the last three decades.

Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality considers artificial intelligence and the ethical questions it arouses, computer emotions and common sense, progress in computer chess, speech synthesis, and vision (including lip-reading), reliability, and more. It all comes out as something of a paean to the power of science fiction to imagine and even shape the future, and certainly as a paean to one of SF’s most towering imaginations.

MIT Press has also set up an “unusually informative as well as elegant” Internet site that offers text, graphics, and links related to the text (eight of the book’s chapters are there in full.

Bill White (review date February 1998)

SOURCE: “Believing the Strangest Things, Loving the Alien,” in VOYA, Vol. 20, No. 6, February, 1998, pp. 382-83.

[In the following review of 3001: The Final Odyssey, White criticizes the book as uninteresting and for focusing too much on Clarke's personal views and opinions.]

To begin, there is Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey. This is the fourth novel in the “series” that begins with Clarke's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (Buccaneer, 1968). 2001 began at the dawn of time and wound up in deep space, with portents of galactic mysteries and cosmic revelations. 3001 starts off in deep space and, though it spends a...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

AB Bookman’s Weekly (review date 4 January 1999)

AB Bookman’s Weekly (review date 4 January 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Arthur C. Clarke & Lord Dunsany: A Correspondence, in AB Bookman’s Weekly, Vol. 103, No. 1, January 4, 1999, pp. 16-7.

[In the review below, the critic discusses the importance of the letters exchanged between Clark and author Lord Dunsany.]

This volume gathers more than 40 letters exchanged between the young British scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and the Anglo-Irish author Lord Dunsany over a 12-year period from 1944 to 1956. Dunsany (who was profiled in the October 19, 1998, issue of AB) was one of the most notable imaginative...

(The entire section is 665 words.)