Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Most certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) made Arthur C. Clarke the most famous science fiction writer in the world. I’m not claiming that he was the best nor even the greatest—although for many he is the very epitome of the SF writer—but unquestionably he was the most famous, a simple matter of fact. His closest rival in that regard may be Ray Bradbury. My personal tastes gravitate toward SF authors such as Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, but it was the writing of Arthur C. Clarke that initially drew me to science fiction decades ago.

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was at the impressionable age of fourteen. As everyone knows, although the one sheet of 2001: A Space Odyssey promoted the film as a Cinerama presentation, it wasn’t, of course, projected in movie theaters in true Cinerama. But for me that’s a moot point, anyway, because I didn’t see it in Super Panavision 70, what MGM was then calling Cinerama; in fact, I never have seen it in that format--and never will. I first saw it at the drive-in, of all places, and, subsequently, in the years after, during its re-release, in 35mm prints. And yet despite the less than ideal venue in which I first saw it, the film so profoundly captured my imagination that I subsequently went back to see it again, perhaps five or six times. What did I care whether it was at the drive-in? I would have gone to see it anywhere. Its power is not simply in its images, but in its ideas--and its music.

The soundtrack to 2001 became the first album I ever purchased (with my own money). I had saved up my allowance, and of all the albums on the racks—albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Association, Vanilla Fudge, Tommy James and the Shondells, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, on and on and on—the album about which I carefully deliberated, and eventually selected, was the soundtrack to 2001. I have that album to this day, and, alas, it has all of the tell-tale signs of age, e.g., “cover wear,” “corner dings,” “seam splits, “surface markings on record,” etc. Assuming my home is never subject some catastrophic event—fire, explosion, lightning, aircraft damage—I always will own it, until the day when my heirs are left to dispose of it, an antiquated, tattered material artifact connected to some decades-old movie.

Having read the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey around age fifteen, I was compelled to find more work by its author. My high school library had a few of Clarke's books; of those I read, I remember very much liking Islands in the Sky. A juvenile novel, I remember it being about a boy living on a space station, where human problems take second place in a world in which the imaginative reach of science was boundless. Soon after, I came across a few of Clarke’s short stories in some SF anthologies that I purchased off the carousel book rack at Garvey’s Rexall Drugs store. In due time Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (Signet, 1970) was published in paperback, followed a couple of years later by the book I found even more interesting, Clarke’s The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Signet, 1972), a detailed account of the making of 2001 that had the virtue of including Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” (primary source for the film), as well as alternative script material that wasn’t used in the finished film.

I was a freshman in college, though, when I first read Childhood’s End, the novel that, for me, is the great Arthur C. Clarke novel. In the many years since I’ve become a college English teacher, I’ve taught it whenever I’ve had the opportunity to teach a course in science fiction. Childhood’s End employs the idea Clarke had first used in “The Sentinel” (and hence, subsequently, in 2001) in which humankind achieves transcendence under the tutelage of benevolent but inscrutable aliens—which in the case of Childhood’s End happen to have a strong resemblance to the Devil (vaguely reptilian, with horns and tail). I choose to think Clarke never abandoned the fundamental premise of American writer Charles Fort (1874-1932). Fort, a student of the paranormal and strange and unusual phenomena, postulated the utterly paranoid idea, “We are property,” meaning that the earth and its inhabitants are the playthings of unknown but immensely intelligent creatures from outer space. I’m not aware of any criticism that has been written about 2001: A Space Odyssey that explores the way in which it is a Fortean film. Fort’s assertion that “We are property” is the unstated premise of “The Sentinel,” as it is for 2001. As it turns out, many years later, in one of those unexpected turns of which life consists, as part of the research for the book I co-authored with Rebecca Umland, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), I was given a copy of the screenplay adaptation of Childhood's End Abraham Polonsky wrote in the early 1970s, which Donald Cammell had hoped to direct. Although not widely known, and seldom if ever referred to in discussions of Polonsky's work after he ceased film directing, I'd love to know what Clarke thought of it.

Some years ago Peter Nicholls observed in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), that the paradoxical legacy of Arthur C. Clarke may be that while he is associated with technological progress, he at the same time may also be

best remembered for the image of mankind being as children next to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of alien races. There is something attractive, even moving, in what can be seen in Freudian terms as an unhappy mankind crying out for a lost father; certainly it is the closest thing SF has yet produced to an analogy for religion, and the longing for God. (230)

But a recent BBC news report published this week reported:

Sir Arthur was quoted as saying religion was “a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species,” and he left written instructions that his funeral be completely secular.

I am not at all surprised by this revelation, among the last wishes of a supremely intelligent writer of great imaginative reach, a man whose remarkable life spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century.

No comments: