Arthur C. Clarke Biography

Arthur C. Clarke, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, is considered one of the big three of science fiction’s golden age. He has been deeply influential on the genre—not only for his original writing (such as the 1953 novel Childhood’s End), but also for his works that have been adapted (the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was based in part on his earlier short story “The Sentinel”) and for his collaborations (such as the novel Beyond the Fall of Night, which Clarke coauthored with Gregory Benford). Known as a humanist and rationalist, Clarke nevertheless repeatedly explored religious themes in his fiction, and he was skilled at blending real-world science with technological vision. When you crack open a Clarke novel, chances are pretty good you are getting a sneak peek at the future.

Facts and Trivia

  • Though born in England, Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008. He survived the tsunami that hit the island in 2004—but it did destroy his scuba diving school.
  • He didn’t take out a patent, but Clarke is credited with coming up with the idea of communication satellites.
  • Clarke was knighted for his achievements in 2000. He had been scheduled to be knighted in 1998, but a particularly nasty—and false—story in a British tabloid caused him to ask for the ceremony to be delayed.
  • How great was Clarke’s influence? A dinosaur, an asteroid, a Mars explorer, an orbit, a school, and more than one award have been named after him.
  • Clarke’s law about advanced technology is even quoted by people who don’t otherwise know who he is: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060

Arthur Charles Clarke was a commercially successful and highly respected contemporary science-fiction writer. Born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead, a coastal town in Somerset, England, he was the oldest of the four children of Charles Wright and Norah (Willis) Clarke. Clarke’s father was a post office engineer and farmer. “My youth,” Clarke recalls, “was spent alternating between the seaside and my parents’ small farm.” Having developed an early interest in science (from reading about dinosaurs), Clarke built a telescope at the age of thirteen and mapped the moon with it. From 1928 to 1936, he attended Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton, and wrote for the school’s literary magazine.

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Since poverty prevented his attending college, Clarke worked for the British Civil Service as an auditor from 1936 to 1941. During this time he joined the British Interplanetary Society, becoming its chairman. During World War II Clarke served as a radar instructor in the Royal Air Force, rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. While in the military he wrote several articles on electronics and sold his first science-fiction stories. In an article published in Wireless World (October, 1945), Clarke predicted the development of communications satellites. A veterans grant enabled him to attend King’s College, the University of London, where he received his bachelor’s degree (with first-class honors) in physics and math in 1948. From 1949 to 1951, Clarke was an assistant editor at Science Abstracts, a publication of the Institution of Electric Engineers, London. In 1951 Clarke became a full-time writer.

“My literary interests,” Clarke noted, “are divided equally between fiction and non-fiction.” His first success was an introduction to astronautics, Interplanetary Flight, followed by related works, The Exploration of Space and The Exploration of the Moon. Clarke won esteem as a science writer. Critic Ray Gibbons praised “Clarke’s ability to reduce complex subjects to simple language and his steadfast avoidance of fantasy as a substitute for factual narration.”

Clarke concurrently wrote science fiction. His Prelude to Space was hailed as “a compelling realistic novel of interplanetary flight.” Other works came quickly: The Sands of Mars, Islands in the Sky, Against the Fall of Night, and The Lion of Comarre. A milestone was Childhood’s End, for it placed Clarke in the mainstream of Anglo-American science-fiction writers. Basil Davenport of The New York Times added Clarke’s name to those of “Olaf Stapleton, C. S. Lewis, and H. G. Wells, ”the very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophical ideas—not merely ideas about the nature of future society, but ideas about the End of Man.” In 1952, Clarke received the International Fantasy Award for his work. This was the first of hundreds of awards he was to receive throughout his life.

Long interested in underwater exploration and photography, Clarke began, with Mike Wilson, to swim off the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the coasts of Sri Lanka. These experiences inspired nonfiction works set in the sea, including The Challenge of the Sea, The First Five Fathoms, and, with Mike Wilson, Indian Ocean Adventure and Indian Ocean Treasure—as well as such novels as Dolphin Island and Cradle.

Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was another turning point. Clarke emerged as both a scientist and a storyteller. Clifton Fadiman’s prediction was fulfilled: “Clarke is no mere dreamer. If he roves space, it is with a slide rule in hand.” Three more novels, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey explored the evolutionary impact of human life in space and completed his groundbreaking story. Encounters with extraterrestrials were discussed, a theme developed in Rendezvous with Rama, winning for Clarke a second Nebula Award and the Hugo Award. The idea of humans living in space inspired Imperial Earth (written for the American Bicentennial), The Fountains of Paradise (which envisioned a vast elevator to the heavens), and The Songs of Distant Earth (an epic of human pilgrims fleeing a dying Earth).

Clarke went on to complete the Rama books in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with the publication of Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed, all cowritten with Gentry Lee, an engineer at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In this masterfully written series Clarke returned to the metaphysical ideas of works such as “The Nine Billion Names of God” and Childhood’s End, with the final volume integrating science and religion in such a way that God indeed becomes the master-builder of Clarke’s universe. Clarke, in collaboration with Gregory Benford, also returned to the universe of his short story “Against the Fall of Night” with the publication in 1990 of Beyond the Fall of Night, a tale of the culmination of a far-future humanity’s destiny.

Most of Clarke’s published work after the late 1980’s was in collaboration with other distinguished authors and scientists. Although the ideas expressed were distinctly Clarke’s, the writing often lacked his poetic, fluid touch. Critics found them to be of secondary importance in his canon generally. In the early 2000’s, Clarke continued his collaborations, as well as writing articles and essays for various journals.

Clarke was also a futurist, as evidenced in the nonfiction Profiles of the Future and other works. He contended that “anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.” Open-ended in his hopes for humankind, “Clarke’s Law” states, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

For years Clarke was a popular lecturer in the United Kingdom and the United States. By the mid-1950’s, he had taken residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a decision later reinforced by his divorce in 1964 from Marilyn Mayfield. (The couple had been married in 1953.) In 1979 Clarke became chancellor of Moratuwa University. “Baldish” and “bespectacled,” he was fond of diving, photography, and table tennis. In December, 1997, he was knighted, becoming Sir Arthur C. Clarke. A world-class writer, Clarke’s reputation is secure. Godfrey Smith, writing in The New York Times, said, “He writes clear prose which draws its solidity and confidence from his formal scientific training but it is occasionally laced with passages of something like poetry.” Clarke lived in Colombo until his death at age 90 on March 19, 2008.

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