Arthur C. Clarke Clarke, Arthur C(harles) (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clarke, Arthur C(harles) 1917–

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

Peter Brigg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur C. Clarke's extensive corpus of science fiction writing is an expression of his varied interests in the limits of man's knowledge as it is approached through the scientific method. Three principal types of work can be traced in his writing….

Clarke's best known approach is precise scientific extrapolation that depends upon detailed scientific knowledge carefully explained to the reader to communicate Clarke's fascination with the possibilities at the frontiers of scientific thinking. (p. 15)

Within [his] carefully chosen, clear, straightforward plots Clarke holds character development to an absolute minimum, employing melodramatic types to focus attention on the ideas. A number of the short stories have heroes whose principal emotion is sheer fear for their lives that can only be relieved by the scientific point upon which the story is premised. (pp. 17-18)

One of Clarke's most striking hard extrapolations is "A Meeting with Medusa" (1962), and here the intense concentration on Howard Falcon … could have provided a detailed characterization. But Clarke is concentrating upon the creations of technology and speculating on the possible life forms of Jupiter…. The starting point is the events of the story, the end point is character and motivation. This approach is the reverse of modern literary custom, but it is admirably suited to the hard extrapolations in which it is employed.

The concrete projections in this type of story are set forth in matter-of-fact narrative tone, and Clarke writes briskly in stories of this type, producing either very short stories or novels covering enormous amounts of material very quickly. (p. 19)

Verbal action moves as quickly as physical action in this type of factual story…. Clarke usually frames segments of dialogue so that the reader knows their importance and the feelings of the speakers. This makes for a quick, methodical dialogue without verbal frills or subtleties. (pp. 20-1)

In dialogue as in plot, characterization, and narrative tone, Clarke is moving quickly and efficiently to build the bones upon which the real flesh of the hard extrapolation can rest: the scientific explanation of the story and the vivid and haunting descriptions of strange futures and places.

The stratagems used to explain the scientific content of these stories involve variations in narrative voice. Clarke has tried a variety of methods, seeking to combine narrative ease with a clear statement of scientific premise. One direct form has a narrator who reasons out the story as it progresses, mixing narrative with explanation…. [Clarke's] tight mixture of narrative and explanation is most effective. It is modeled not only on detective fiction, with its sudden assembly of information into a complete picture, but on the scientific experiment, where an event is viewed and then explained in retrospect. (pp. 21-2)

The dominant way of presenting this type of story has always been the team of questioning listener and scientifically competent explainer. In its early form this type of narrative began with "Tell me, Professor" but of course Clarke works sophisticated variations on this. The reader is put at ease when the question he wants to ask is asked by the "straight man" and answered in terms of the events of the narrative…. This very practical form of exposition is extremely spare, for the characters are mouthpieces from a familiar mold.

Another easy and natural format for the hard extrapolations is the omniscient narrator who can tell the story and explain the scientific events at the same time. (p. 23)

On several occasions Clarke has gone beyond the omniscient narrator to speak as Arthur C. Clarke. This applies to...

(The entire section is 8,871 words.)