Writing at Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster had a trio of thoughtful posts examining the development of Arthur C. Clarke (1, 2, 3). The first post, “The Vision of Arthur C. Clarke”, points to an interesting-looking new biography about the writer.
Neil McAleer’s new book on Clarke is called Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke Project, 2012). It’s the place to go for the background on this period, and on any period, in Clarke’s life. I call the book ‘new,’ but it’s actually a major revision and update of McAleer’s 1993 biography that adds extensive coverage of Clarke’s last fifteen years, covering a lot of material that was new to me, including insights into Clarke’s synergistic relationship with Stanley Kubrick, his reaction to the tsunami of 2004, and the almost playful way he fielded questions about his private life until a newspaper scandal based on nothing more than innuendo delayed the ceremony conferring his knighthood for two years. Throughout, McAleer’s research is exhaustive, drawing on memoirs, interviews and letters from Clarke’s many friends.
The second, “Arthur C. Clarke: On Cities and Stars”, draws from McAleer’s biography to look at the influences and experiences of the young writer, leading up to his The City and the Stars.
By the time Clarke moved from Somerset to London in 1936 he was already suffused with science fiction and in particular enraptured with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, not to mention the second-hand copies of American science fiction magazines that were then available in England. He spoke of the ‘ravenous addiction’ these magazines inspired and the effect that Stapledon’s novel, with a time scale spanning five billion years, had upon his imagination. He was twelve years old when he first read Last and First Men, awed by its cosmic reach and its placement of the evolution of humanity against the broader backdrop of the cosmos.
Think for a moment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has any film ever covered a wider swath of time, from the beginnings of tool making to the apotheosis of the species in an extraterrestrial encounter? This was Clarke’s stage, but the other great discovery of his youth, David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1931) gave him the technology he would spend a life examining. Lasser was the founder of the American Interplanetary Society (which became the American Rocket Society and, eventually, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). He was also, for a time, the editor of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. If Stapledon brought Clarke the cosmos, Lasser gave the boy a focus on the attainable, the idea of space as a reachable frontier.
[. . .]
I came across The City and the Stars just a few years after it was published and was mesmerized by its setting in much the way Clarke was taken with Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Here was Diaspar, the city of the far future, the only city on planet Earth, whose inhabitants moved through a high-tech monument to stasis. Nothing changes in Diaspar even as the world around it loses its oceans and becomes desert. Clarke would have much to say about the kind of inward thinking that his characters have to overcome, but the unmistakable fact about Diaspar is that the city at the end of time is also achingly, eerily beautiful.
The third and final (so far?), “Clarke: The Rocket Man Emerges”, considers the beginning of his viable writing career and his genius as a science writer and predictors.
As his stint in the Royal Air Force drew to a close in 1945, Clarke developed the notion of geostationary satellites providing global communications. During the war he had worked on microwaves and radar, while his passion for rocketry provided the means of deployment. McAleer points to George O. Smith as a possible influence, the latter having published a series of stories in Astounding during the war years that became known as the Venus Equilateral series. Clarke even wrote an introduction to a 1976 reprint of these stories saying that they might well have influenced him subconsciously in his work.
The article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” whatever its sources, would appear in Wireless World in October of 1945. Worldwide coverage by radio and television would be implemented by a series of spacecraft with an orbital period of 24 hours at a distance of 42,000 kilometers from Earth center. Clarke went on to describe the equatorial orbits that would place space stations into ‘fixed’ spots in the sky (as seen by people on Earth). The predictions were bold, valid and, yes, visionary, but remained unheralded at the time except by the US Navy. Many believe the article was influential in the development of early space satellites.
Clarke’s $40 from Wireless World offered him plenty of opportunity later in life to joke about the real monetary value of the communications satellite concept, and McAleer notes that he never showed any regrets about what might have been. In any case, being a visionary was already becoming a habit for the writer, one that seemed to outweigh financial considerations. While still in the RAF and working as an instructor at a radio school in Wiltshire, Clarke often broke into soliloquies on rocket science, describing at one late night session how multistage rockets would get us to the Moon. When asked how big the rocket would be, he described it as the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which turns out to be within a few feet of the height of the Saturn V.
Read all three; they’re good.