Arthur C. Clarke Essay - Clarke, Arthur C(harles) (Vol. 4)

Clarke, Arthur C(harles) (Vol. 4)

Clarke, Arthur C(harles) 1917–

An English astronomer, science fiction novelist, and short story writer, Clarke is best known for his novel Childhood's End and for his screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

It is interesting that one of the best-known science fiction writers, long a prophet of space travel and its implications, should espouse a fundamentally negative conception of nature, insofar as nature can be identified with matter. But such seems to be the case with Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End, and a spate of other fascinating inquiries into the world of science and the future. In Childhood's End, alien space creatures establish a benevolent dictatorship on earth, just as man is about to penetrate outer space. Poverty, war, ignorance, and disease are eliminated; there is even an attempt to erase the resulting boredom by the development of universal education and participation in the arts. Only one basic restriction is placed on man: He is barred from research in the field of parapsychology.

The golden age is disrupted when a young child begins having dreams during which his mind leaves his body and travels to distant planets. Other children begin to have similar experiences. The wandering child-minds develop the capacity to manipulate matter. Then, as more children are affected, the minds begin to merge beyond the bodies. After a period of playing with their/its newfound power, the common mind leaves the earth, destroying it in the process. It ascends into the heavens to merge with an "overmind" which has infinite capacities to travel and manipulate matter. Man has ceased to exist. The creatures who arrived to rule the earth turn out to be the midwives of the "overmind," sent to earth to save man from self-destruction before the "birth" of the new form, and to keep him from aborting the birth of the children's common mind by stemming his advances in parapsychology. Salvation is attained in Clarke's novel by an elaborate process by which man is delivered from the tyranny of matter.

In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey—which Clarke published after his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of the film—Clarke again introduces a free-floating mind. It is the power which intervenes at various points of human history and which lies behind the release of the astronaut at the book's end. In 2001, the released mind seems to retain units of individual consciousness, but otherwise there is no change in Clarke's attitude toward matter….

[Clarke's] objectification of evil in matter can lead to a disregard of the natural environment, the consequent increase of sickness, and the encouragement of escapism and a distortion of truth in our perception of reality….

Another problem with Childhood's End and 2001, if taken as possible sources of metaphysical speculation, is that individual freedom and self-consciousness are components which are devalued, and man is made subject to forces which he can neither comprehend nor control. Mind is all; it functions in a predetermined manner; it is finally a mere atom in the vague mass of "overmind."

Lois and Stephen Rose, in their The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (© 1970 by M. E. Bratcher; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1970, pp. 48-53.

Mr. Clarke's fantasy [in 2001] shows us that science fictionists cannot escape a compulsion toward metaphysics even while they have to express it in a style conducive to their own habit of thinking in terms of gadgets….

Clarke, an inveterate and hardheaded despiser of philosophers, seems to stammer in amazement as he finds himself caught up—one suspects greatly to his surprise—in the ancient dreams some philosophers have harbored about "Spirit … and even beyond." "If there was anything beyond that, its name could only be God."…

There is something gratifying in seeing a fanatic of technology like Clarke become converted to the mysticism of Father Teilhard de Chardin. His conversion would be more satisfying, however, if this advance toward the spiritual were understood as something more and other than an increased skill with computers and information machines. And we notice too that obsessive habit of technological utopians, to which E. M. Forster has called our attention in "The Machine Stops," to debase the poor archaic vessel of the body until here, in this most advanced technological phase, it is simply shed like an inefficient and worthless husk.

William Barrett, in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 357-58.

Clarke particularly likes to set forth apparently complex, threatening situations and then resolve them with simple common sense….

The Hermian attempt to destroy Rama [in Rendezvous with Rama] is the most dramatic illustration of Clarke's belief that man is his own greatest enemy. Rama is "an element of total uncertainty" in the universe. Man cannot tolerate uncertainty, and in his desire for knowledge, his destructive impulses rear their heads….

Perhaps Clarke's disinterest in characterization results from [his] view that the universe is indifferent to man. All the characters are one-dimensional—either defined by their scientific theories and specialties or stereotyped to fit a particular role in space exploration.

Melody Hardy, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1973, p. 291.

Although it lacks some of the metaphysical fireworks and haunting visionary poetry of "Childhood's End" or "The City and the Stars," this thoughtful scientific romance [Rendezvous with Rama] is happily representative of the man who is both our most distinguished writer of speculative fiction and one of the important literary figures of our time. Clarke handles his generic stocks-in-trade—the strange creatures and hallucinatory landscapes—with splendid imagination, but "Rendezvous with Rama," like all of his work, is essentially an expression of wonder in the presence of Mystery, for this excellent scientist and entertainer has remained above all a moralist, preoccupied with the transformations of man, the infinite possibilities of time, the reverence for life, and the transcendental destiny of the human spirit. One customarily praises a science-fiction by remarking that it is original or ingenious, but Clarke's books inspire a search for more ambitious adjectives. Try "lofty" or "noble"—or even "saintly."

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. viii, x.