Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2844
In his introduction to Time Probe: The Sciences in Science Fiction (1966), an anthology of science-fiction stories he edited, Clarke explains his views on what science fiction should be. In the first place, it must incorporate some principles of science and technology. He strongly emphasizes, however, that “the prime function of a story is to entertain—not to instruct or to preach.” In addition, the story must contain some intellectual substance if it is to have lasting value. All of these qualities are evident in his own fiction.
Clarke was educated as a scientist and writes about the future in a remarkably detailed, believable manner. He became a staunch advocate of space travel; books such as Prelude to Space (1951) are mostly propaganda with many scientific details to show how some technical accomplishment might be possible. Clarke sees space travel as opening new horizons for human civilization, similar to the exploration of the Western Hemisphere several centuries ago.
Other stories show his skill as a storyteller, often including some surprising revelation that changes the readers’ perspective. In Childhood’s End, the extraterrestrial creatures that seem to be acting as humankind’s guardian angels turn out to look like devils. Another example is “The Star.” It tells about a Jesuit priest who, while traveling on a starship, discovers the ruins of an ancient civilization that was destroyed when its sun became a supernova. By calculating the time when the light from this star would have reached Earth, he determines that this civilization was destroyed to create the star of Bethlehem.
Clarke’s writing can be a combination of the mundane with the lyrical and mystical; 2001: A Space Odyssey includes both. On the one hand, readers learn about the details of space travel, including how toilets work in zero gravity. On the other hand, the ending describes astronaut David Bowman traveling through time and space to some other type of existence in what is a truly transcendental experience.
Most of Clarke’s writings deal with two main themes: the belief that human beings are not alone in the universe and the outcome of human evolution. Clarke is convinced that life has evolved on many other planets and that it is merely a matter of time before contact is made. In stories such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the extraterrestrial being plays a key role in the development of the human race; in others, such as Rendezvous with Rama (1973), the aliens are indifferent. In all cases, the first contact with another race shows that humans are members of a galactic community.
The question of what will become of humans has troubled writers since Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Some authors, such as H. G. Wells in The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), have taken a pessimistic position, predicting that the human race will simply expire. Others, such as Olaf Stapledon in Star Maker (1937), suggest that human beings may eventually evolve into new, superior creatures. Clarke belongs to the latter group.
Clarke sees the evolution of humans as something they cannot control, but he also sees the possibility of some type of transcendent mutation, one in which the mind is freed from matter—and therefore from decay and death. That is certainly the case of Vanamonde in Against the Fall of Night (1953), of the children in Childhood’s End, and of David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Even if humans cannot be sure of their evolutionary future, Clarke thinks that change and potential progress are preferable to stagnation. In Imperial Earth (1975), Duncan Makenzie is the latest in a long line of clones. Because of an inherited genetic defect, cloning is the only way the family can perpetuate itself. Makenzie has the resources to make one clone and is expected to make a genetic duplicate of himself. Instead, he decides to have his dead friend cloned because the friend had intellectual gifts and because that clone would be able to have children and thus contribute to the genetic pool; thus the potential for change would exist.
Clarke takes a mostly optimistic view of the future. Although humans cannot know what lies ahead and cannot to a large extent control it, they should trust their potential.
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
While Earth is being supervised by extraterrestrial Overlords, humans suddenly evolve into a new type of creature.
Childhood’s End begins with this unusual statement: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Although Clarke’s books usually promote space exploration, this one shows that humans are not ready to travel to the stars.
Many writers have speculated about the first encounter between the human race and extraterrestrial beings and what the relationship between those two races will be. Childhood’s End begins with a description of just such an encounter. Some thirty years after the end of World War II, just as the Americans and the Russians are both about to launch their first rockets to the Moon, spaceships appear over every major city on Earth. The Overlords, as the extraterrestrials come to be called, are intellectually and technologically superior to humans and quickly assert their authority.
The directives of the Overlords result in an improved standard of living for all the creatures on Earth. Some object to their domination, mostly because the Overlords are secretive and have never explained why they have come to Earth. No one has ever seen one, and only Rikki Stormgren, the secretary general of the United Nations, ever speaks to them. Karellen, the head Overlord, explains to Stormgren that he is not a dictator but “only a civil servant trying to administer a colonial policy in whose shaping I had no hand.” He does not say who sent him. After fifty-five years, the Overlords finally show themselves to humans. Although their actions make them seem like the guardian angels of humankind, they look exactly like the ancient legends of devils with horns, barbed tails, and leathery wings.
The Overlords have prohibited space travel, and people such as Jan Rodricks resent this because they want to learn what is out there. Rodricks is a stowaway inside a whale model that is being shipped to the Overlords’ home planet and becomes the first and last of his species to travel in space. He learns, however, just how vast and unknowable the universe is and how paltry humans are in comparison. He understands why the Overlords have said, “The stars are not for Man.”
The Overlords represent science and reason and spend much time learning about humans. One of them, Rashaverak, attends a party because the host owns one of the best libraries on paranormal phenomena. When the last few guests experiment with a sophisticated Ouija board, Rashaverak does not participate but sits outside the circle and observes. One of the guests wonders if Rashaverak is like an anthropologist watching a primitive religious rite he does not understand. Apparently, the Overlords are not omniscient.
When the children of the planet begin their transformation into a new type of creature, Karellen finally announces the Overlords’ true purpose: They were sent to Earth by some superior force called the Overmind to help humans through the transition from their present form to a new type of existence. They can help with the birth of a new species and can observe it, but they themselves lack the potential to evolve any further.
A major question in Childhood’s End is what will be the next step in human evolution. The Overlords engineer the first stage by creating a utopia in which humans learn to live in a cooperative society. All the major problems, such as war and famine, have been solved, but no more real progress occurs; no more major scientific breakthroughs are made and no notable works of art are created.
When the final change occurs, it is triggered not by the humans’ intellectual or technological advances but by their paranormal powers. All the children are soon affected by the “Total Breakthough,” and a new species evolves. They lose their individual personalities; each becomes like a single cell in a larger brain. Eventually, they lose their need to exist in material form and join with other races from other planets in the Overmind, free to roam the universe.
The species known as Homo sapiens comes to an end as Jan Rodricks, the last man on Earth, watches the final joining take place. He expresses a sense of achievement and fulfillment and sends a message to the Overlords, now on their way home: “I am sorry for you. Though I cannot understand it, I’ve seen what my race became. Everything we ever achieved has gone up there into the stars.”
The Overlords, who seemed so powerful in the beginning, do not have the potential to evolve. Humans do not possess their great intellectual powers, but they do have paranormal powers and therefore can evolve into a new species. The stars are not for the present race but rather for its descendants.
2001: A Space Odyssey
First published: 1968
Type of work: Novel
A team of astronauts is sent to discover the destination of a strange signal emitted by a monolith excavated on the Moon.
2001: A Space Odyssey is Clarke’s best-known work, partly because of the popularity of the 1968 film version. From 1964 to 1968, Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick collaborated on the novel and the screenplay, with Kubrick having control over the film and Clarke being responsible for the novel. Both works were extensively revised, and Clarke later published some material cut from the novel in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972).
In the epilogue to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke says the book “was concerned with the next stage of human evolution.” The beginning of the book describes creatures not yet human, the middle shows modern humankind, and the ending speculates on what humanity might become. Black monoliths appear in each section and provide connections between each section.
When the book opens, three million years in the past, man-apes have reached a crucial point in their development. Unable to obtain enough food, they will perish if they do not learn to use tools to hunt. Space-traveling extraterrestrials recognize their potential and teach them how to use bones as weapons. The first monolith is a teaching device, but it also transforms Moon-Watcher, one of the smarter apes; the structure of his brain is altered and the change will be passed on to his descendants. Without this almost divine intervention, the human race would not have evolved. Moon-Watcher also discovers, on his own, that the weapons can kill others of his own species.
In the next section, humans have developed a sophisticated technology that enables them to travel to the Moon—and also to create increasingly lethal weapons. They also are at a crucial point in their history: Will they continue to progress or will they destroy themselves and the planet?
Clarke sees technology as a necessary step forward. In “The Sentinel,” the short story on which 2001: A Space Odyssey is based, a scientist discovers an ancient device on the surface of the Moon. When disturbed, it emits a signal. The scientist speculates, “They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to survive—by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle.”
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, scientists discover a similar device, this time another black monolith. When uncovered after three million years, it emits a powerful signal toward Saturn. Humankind now knows that it is no longer alone in the universe.
Undaunted, not waiting for the extraterrestrials to come to Earth, the humans launch a mission to Saturn. David Bowman, the one astronaut to survive that trip, discovers a third monolith on Japetus, one of the moons of Saturn. This one is a “star gate,” an extremely advanced machine that shuttles him through time and space to a distant part of the universe. In this odyssey, he discovers that the beings that left the monoliths have themselves evolved, first into mechanical bodies that could last forever, and finally into creatures of energy no longer dependent on matter for their existence.
Bowman undergoes a transformation, first aging rapidly, then dying and being reborn as the infant Star Child. He is the first human to make this evolutionary jump. Again the extraterrestrials have intervened to make it possible.
Whether this evolutionary jump has resulted in a better creature, or whether humankind will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, is not clearly answered. At the very end, Star Child completes his journey back to Earth, where he discerns some atomic bombs in orbit and detonates them. Does he merely destroy the bombs, making the world a safer place, or does he destroy humankind in the process? The description of Star Child discovering his new powers is almost identical to the description of Moon-Watcher discovering his new power: Both are like children who learn through play.
The people in 2001: A Space Odyssey tend to be detached, unemotional men of science. HAL, the computer, seems more human than the humans. HAL may represent another evolutionary path to intelligent life. Although he is a machine, his electronic brain can reproduce most of the mental activities of which a human brain is capable. He becomes “neurotic” and “dies” when Bowman disconnects his higher mental functions. In the sequel 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), the extraterrestrials permit the lonely Star Child Bowman to choose a companion. He chooses the revived HAL, who is then transformed into a creature of mental energy like Bowman. Once again the extraterrestrials are controlling the evolutionary process.
Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!
First published: 1999
Type of work: Nonfiction
This book is a collection of Clarke’s nonfiction writings arranged in chronological order and grouped by decades; Clarke provides introductions in which he explains the background behind his writing of each selection and his reflections on it at the time the anthology was being compiled.
Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays, 1934-1998 includes a large number of essays on diverse subjects. The essay from which the title is taken, “Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!” explores the reasons why humans search for evidence of intelligent life on other planets: The search is important because “It represents the highest possible form of exploration; and when we cease to explore, we will cease to be human.” This collection documents Clarke’s explorations of science fiction, of science and technology, and of the impact of science and technology on humans.
The selections that deal with science fiction reveal Clarke’s perspective on the genre. “Aspects of Science Fiction” is his attempt to define science fiction and to differentiate it from fantasy, while “Writing to Sell” expresses his frustrations with the pressure to produce works that will appeal to a wide audience. His reviews of science-fiction books and films are included. Some of the tributes to other science-fiction and fantasy authors, usually written at the times of their deaths, include “Dunsany, Lord of Fantasy,” “Tribute to Robert A. Heinlein,” “Good-Bye, Isaac” (Isaac Asimov), and “Gene Roddenberry.” His prefaces to The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon also show his engagement with other writers of the genre.
Some pieces discuss his own work. “The Birth of HAL,” for example, explains the origin of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and “Son of Dr. Strangelove” explains his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the production of the film version of that book.
Trained in the technical disciplines, Clarke has also published technical and scientific papers. In “Extraterrestrial Relays,” first published in an engineering journal in 1945, Clarke describes the problems of providing telephone service to all areas of the globe using the system of transmitters and wires that was currently in use. Then he proposes that worldwide telecommunications could be facilitated by means of satellites placed in geosynchronous orbits above the earth. Highly theoretical (it appeared before any rockets capable of achieving orbit had been launched), this paper predicts the type of telecommunications system now in use. In “The Star of Bethlehem,” he relies on his knowledge of astronomy as he speculates that the star was actually a supernova. His scientific speculation on this event was the basis for his short story “The Star.” The final selection, “The Twenty-First Century: A (Very) Brief History,” attempts to prophesize the technological advances that will take place in this century.
Clarke also includes many commentaries on the development of technology and its impact on humans and on society. In “The Uses of the Moon,” which first appeared in 1965, he argues for colonization of the Moon based on economic benefits; however, in “Space and the Spirit of Man,” published the same year, he makes the claim that space exploration is necessary for human spiritual growth. “The Obsolescence of Man” speculates that humans might eventually be replaced by machines.
Clarke’s nonfiction work provides much insight into his knowledge of science and technology and his views on how they affect human societies, as well as his views on the genre of science fiction.
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