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Space Visionary

I don't remember the first book I read by Arthur Clarke, or my age when I read it, but I would imagine that it was less than ten. But I do remember that, whatever book it was, it spurred me to go find more.


In the 1960s, Flint's auto industry was booming, and one of the founders of General Motors, Charles Stewart Mott, still lived there. He was worth a couple hundred million at the time (equivalent to a couple billion today), and he had established a foundation for education that had rendered the Flint public school system one of the premiere ones in the country at the time. Part and parcel of this was the public library system. I lived within walking distance (and a trivial bike ride) of the main branch. I would haunt its science fiction section daily, in hope of finding a new Clarke (or Heinlein, or Asimov) book that I hadn't read, and I recall the anticipation when I would discover an unread one that had just been returned by the previous borrower. I often wouldn't even wait to get home, instead sitting down in a chair to devour it in the library.

More than Heinlein, more than Asimov, both of whom were strong influences on me, Clarke taught me about the precision and beauty of science and engineering, and of the importance of making science fiction plausible. I liked all of his work (including the non-science fiction, such as Glide Path, a story of the development of radar during WW II), but I liked the solar fiction the best. It realistically presented me with an exciting future in space into which I could imagine growing up. When 2001 came out (sadly, he died only a month before the fortieth anniversary of its initial screening), it redefined science fiction movies in a way that no other did, before or since (and no, sorry kids, Star Wars doesn't count--despite the space ships and flying vehicles, it's fantasy, not SF). Barely a teenager, I watched, enraptured, as Clark and Kubrick took me first into earth orbit, on that spinning space station, then on to the moon, then on to Jupiter in that amazing nuclear-powered spaceship that had no fins, no streamlining--just ungainly, but realistic-looking and functional hardware that would work in the vacuum and darkness of deep space. (Sadly, as an aside, we seem much closer to Hal the talking computer today, seven years after the movie was supposed to take place, than to even the Pan Am space transport or space station, let alone moon bases and manned Jupiter missions.) It was a future that I could envision, and one toward which I could work, by studying math and science.

But it wasn't just one side of Snow's two cultures--Clarke had his spiritual and artistic side as well, and he inspired one to think deeply about the meaning of existence. One of his best books is much less hard science than most: Childhood's End, a book about how humans evolved, and where we are evolving to, a subject that becomes ever more relevant and prescient as (or if) we are truly approaching a Vingian singularity. I've always thought that it would make a great movie, if Clarke were involved, but there's no chance of that now.

He didn't just have interesting stories and themes--he was a beautiful, eloquent, emotive writer. As I mentioned in the previous Clarke post, we stole some of his words for the foreword of our space ceremony, of which he was one of the major influences that caused us to create it:

Five hundred million years ago, the moon summoned life out of its first home, the sea, and led it onto the empty land. For as it drew the tides across the barren continents of primeval earth, their daily rhythm exposed to sun and air the creatures of the shallows. Most perished -- but some adapted to the new and hostile environment. The conquest of the land had begun.

We shall never know when this happened, on the shores of what vanished sea. There were no eyes or cameras present to record so obscure, so inconspicuous an event. Now, the moon calls again -- and this time life responds with a roar that shakes earth and sky.

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world -- but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.

Rarely do I get tears in my eyes from reading, but one of the most moving short stories of his that I ever read won a Nebula Award1. And justly so. It has an ending poignant and tragic, not just for an alien civilization, but for a man's faith in his God.

I only met him once, though I suppose that still makes me fortunate, in that most never got to meet him at all. It was not long after I graduated from Michigan with two engineering degrees--the product of his influence (and that of others as well, most notably Gerard O'Neill). I was working at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California (near Los Angeles), and I had just written a paper on a concept that I'd come up with, called a "tidal web," that I presented to the Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing in 1981. It was a geostationary structure consisting of a series of tethers in gravity gradient, connected together in a ring, to create a huge platform on which sensors and transponders could be placed. This would in theory eliminate the need for station-keeping satellites, and allow a much higher density of GEO usage, with it being limited only by spectrum and EMI interference issues, rather than physical concerns about collision. (Unfortunately for me, it later turned out, based on calculations performed by Dan Alderson for Larry Niven while researching Ringworld, that it would be orbitally unstable, and eventually fall to the earth.)

Not long afterward, Clarke gave an evening lecture at TRW in Redondo Beach, not far from where I worked and lived. I attended it, and afterward, met him briefly and, knowing of his interest in geostationary structures, gave him a copy of the paper. I later got a brief, but gracious note from him, postmarked from Colombo, Sri Lanka, indicating his interest and gratitude, and that he had added it to his collection of such things. I still have, and treasure, that letter.

I'm sure that he was disappointed, as were many of his readers, that his 2001 vision didn't come true, even without the monolith. After all, in the 1940s and 1950s, he probably would have been astonished (or incredulous) if someone had told him that we'd have landed a man on the moon in 1969. When we appeared to be doing so (which was the case while the movie was being written and produced), it was seductively easy to extrapolate it to lunar bases in the 1970s and Mars missions in the 1980s, as the space station was being constructed in earth orbit. But he'd have been even more astonished, and appalled, to think that we would never go back after 1972, and spend the proceeding decades in low earth orbit, very expensively.

While he lived a long life, it's sad that he died just as interesting and different things are happening that may finally have the prospect of turning at least some of his space stories into reality. Clarke had three well-known laws about technology (though J. Porter Clark has a good related one of his own). But one of his lesser-known ones (at least I think it's his--I can't find a link with a quick search) is that we tend to be optimistic about technological progress in the short term, and pessimistic in the long term, due to the exponential nature of technological advance. I try to use this law to temper my expectations in both directions, and (at least) be optimistic about the long term, as long as it's not long-term enough that (in the famous words of Keynes) we're all dead. The long term was too long for Sir Arthur, but if and when we do have the lunar bases, and the nuclear cruisers to Jupiter, it will be in no small part due to the role that he played in challenging minds, young and not so young, and painting vivid and credible pictures of the future in their heads that motivated them to go out and attempt to create it.

So remember him, and go reread some of the classics. And if you've never read them for the first time, I'll cast my mind back to my childhood and youth, remember the thrill I felt when I opened up a new, unread one, and envy you.

[Early evening update]

One other point about his prescience in the sixties (or at least, I hope so--it seems likely to me as a general point, if not the specific company). The clipper ship that went up to the space station in 2001 didn't have a NASA logo on it. It was Pan Am.

1. I just noticed in rereading it, a failure of imagination that wouldn't strike one reading it in the 1960s. It's interesting that, in the late fifties, he thought that a starship would be bringing data back to earth on magnetic tape and photographs. It just shows how hard it is to get the future right.


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PizzaHog wrote:

Wow. A very nice eulogy for someone who affected so many.

Well done.


Anonymous wrote:

"Profiles of the Future"
Age 10 (1960)

Gary C Hudson

Jay Manifold wrote:

My favorite comment so far, which I quoted in a mini-tribute over on ChicagoBoyz, from a pseudonymous SomethingAwful "forum goon":

Tonight, when the sun has gone down, go outside to a place where you can see the stars. Look up. Watch for a point of light that moves fast enough that its motion is obvious -- then take the phone out of your pocket and call someone on the other side of the planet.

Dick Eagleson wrote:

Clarke's place, along with those of Heinlein and Asimov, as one of the Three Pillars of 20th Century Science Fiction is unassailably secure.

Of the three, Clarke was, by far, the most lyrical wordsmith. The English masters are hard to beat when working in their own language. His only worthy rival in the SF field for sheer beauty of composition was the late Poul Anderson.

As I have seen it mentioned nowhere among eulogies encountered to date, I would like to recommend my personal favorite Clarke work, Earthlight - a tale of transient political and military conflict between Earth and her Martian colonists that, for quite interesting reasons, is set mainly on the Moon. The main events of the story are almost preposterously cinematic. How Hollywood has overlooked this gem for so long is beyond me. Perhaps someone worthy - Peter Jackson? - will one day render it properly on the big screen. Here's hoping.

Finally, I also once met Clarke, very briefly after a lecture he gave at Michigan State in the early 1970's. A remarkable man. I shall miss him.

Mark in AZ wrote:

The City and the Stars, age 12? (7th grade at any rate)

Steve wrote:

Childhood's End, 1967, I was 12 or 13.

Oris Bracken wrote:

The Sands of Mars --as a boy I found it dry like the title. Not my kind of SF. Then came Childhood's End --to use an old time phrase -- blew my mind!

And, there's no doubt, 2001 is one of the great works of art in the lsat century.

Oris Bracken

Paul Spudis wrote:

Very nice tribute, Rand. I too am a big Clarke fan and I became acquainted with him via 2001: A Space Odyssey, after seeing which I immediately bought and read the paperback -- and loved it even more than the movie. I then took it upon myself to seek out and devour his entire corpus of work. His best fiction: the already mentioned 2001, A Fall of Moondust (although influenced by the then-respectable but now known-to-be-bogus science of Tommy Gold and his lunar mare "dust bowls"), and his (IMHO) masterpiece, Rendezvous with Rama.

Clarke was not only a wonderful write of great fiction, he was a superb popularizer of science, especially the science of astronautics. His non-fiction works on space were almost as influential to me as his fiction. Of those, I would single out The Promise of Space and the wonderful Profiles of the Future, which can still be read profitably today.

Clarke was a true visionary and he inspired many of us in the business. He will be missed. R.I.P.

Jon Acheson wrote:

My favorites among Clarke's works were his short stories, particularly Tales from the White Hart.

Most of his novels suffered in comparison, I thought.

There is a big collection of all his short stories out now, I'll have to pick it up.

Mike G wrote:

"It's interesting that, in the late fifties, he thought that a starship would be bringing data back to earth on magnetic tape and photographs. It just shows how hard it is to get the future right."

There's an H.G. Wells story that does a great job of predicting the internet-- he imagines a kind of newspaper that has moving images, updates itself, etc. And yet... it's still thrown at your front door every morning by a 12-year-old. It was written in the age of radio, but he still couldn't see the newsPAPER as a similarly wireless box. It's very hard to get past certain fixed ideas of how things "have" to work.

Diogenes of Sinope wrote:

Pan Am and TWA took reservations for trips to the moon -

A.W. wrote:

I hate to dissent, but Clarke didn't impress me much. he was at his best when he teamed up with Kubrick for 2001. He needed Kubrick because Clarke cared nothing for human emotion. Which meant that his work lived or died on the science of it.

Rama is the perfect example of the fact that approach is house of cards. For those who haven't read it, its about an alien spacecraft shaped as a cylander and rotating slowly in order to create gravity by centripetal force. Remember that, because this is important. its occupants are in some kind of stasis and the ship itself was flying on its way to somewhere else when it happened to pass reasonably close to earth. So we send out some people to explore it. at one point, they use a pedal glider to fly through the air to try to get around a barrier. They take off in the "center of the can" and fying toward a device on the other end. at some point, the device on the other end reacts and destroys the craft. So the pilot is falling, falling, faster and faster toward the ground, and its supposed to be so dramatic.

Only one problem. It wouldn't happen. Remember this is not real gravity, this is centripetal force pretending it is gravity. Therefore if you flying in the middle and your "plane" is destroyed, what would happen? you would simply float where you were, perhaps propelled by the force that destroyed your craft, but gravity is not going to grab you and pull you down faster and faster. In other words you have to have contact with the "can" itself in order to be affected by the centripetal force.

With nothing else to recommend it but its science, then i tossed it aside as a piece of junk.

The fact is most science fiction is laughably bad in predicting how things will turn out. Go back and watch Alien again, and recognize that the computer pictured in that movie is less sophisticated than the one i am typing on now. Now you can content yourself with merely imagining what might happen and get it wrong and make your work obselete. or you can be like orson scott card and write a book (like Ender's Game) that is increasingly wrong in its predictions but still an absolute joy to read for its story and characters. Or even enjoy Alien because as lame as the fake computers are, that creature is creepy as hell, even if it was just a guy in a suit.

Or be like Clarke + Kubrick. 2001 has already passed and we have not made it past our moon. 2010 is around the corner and i doubt any of those events will take place (not to mention that there is no soviet union anymore). But that movie has longevity that has nothing to do with scientific accuracy. Hal references still litter our culture.

Clarke by himself wasn't very good at that sort of thing.

Randy wrote:

I have a different take on our tending "to be optimistic about technological progress in the short term."

Think back to Clarke's famed geosynchronous satellite prediction. Years later, he wrote that he was wrong in one respect that I think is crucial here: He had expected them to be manned with crews of technicians to keep everything going. So, he was actually pessimistic about computer development (HAL-9000 notwithstanding).

Now, what about those Mars, Jupiter and Saturn missions? We've had them, too, and they arrived right on schedule. They were crewed with computers instead of men. Didn't Cassini make the same trip as in the book?

That's not to say I'm completely pleased. I just don't want to miss how good we have it.

John S Allison wrote:

Here here.

Rand Simberg wrote:

I hate to dissent

Dissent is not permitted. A. C. Clarke is the greatest SF writer ever. On this there can be no dispute. ;-)

Only one problem. It wouldn't happen. Remember this is not real gravity, this is centripetal force pretending it is gravity. Therefore if you flying in the middle and your "plane" is destroyed, what would happen? you would simply float where you were, perhaps propelled by the force that destroyed your craft, but gravity is not going to grab you and pull you down faster and faster. In other words you have to have contact with the "can" itself in order to be affected by the centripetal force.

You're mistaken. That's true as long as he stays on the axis, but if he drifts off just a little, the rotating air will start to impart tangential velocity to him via drag, which will start to result in a radial component. By the time, as he spirals "down," and he starts to approach the "ground" he'll be moving quite fast. People have actually simulated this.

Mike G wrote:

"He needed Kubrick because Clarke cared nothing for human emotion."

Well that was sure barking up the wrong tree! :)

philw1776 wrote:

I put aside my bad feelings about British oppression of 1776 and aggression in 1812 and read ACC as a young boy in middle school in the late 50s. 'The City and the Stars' and 'Childhood's End' were imaginative, challenging and disturbing. His "Challenge of the Spaceship" and fiction books are a treasured part of my heritage. His books and Heinleins always make me think pleasently about my early adolescence.

ken anthony wrote:

>A. C. Clarke is the greatest SF writer ever>

What was the agreement between Asimov and Clarke regarding SF vs. Science writing?

Roger Jordan wrote:

Mr. Simberg,

You may be pleased to learn that the Flint Public Library main branch is still a good place to go for the latest science fiction, and maintains a creditable collection of past works. Some of Clarke's books that you read are no doubt still on the shelves there.

The Wind From the Sun anthology
Age 8-9 (I can't remember when in 1981 I read it).

Followed shortly by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was reading Clarke novels religously as they came out and as I found old ones I had not read until sometime during college 10 years or so later. The last two books I recall reading were The Ghost from the Grand Banks and Rama II.

Tim Doll wrote:

I loved Clarke's writing, and 2001 is one of my all time favorite books - I read/re-read it pretty much yearly from the time I was 12 until I was nearly 30.

But my absolute favorite Science Fiction/Fantasy writer has to be Ray Bradbury - his writing style approached poetry. An absolute joy to read.


anonymous wrote:

"on to Jupiter in that amazing nuclear-powered spaceship that had no fins, no streamlining--just ungainly, but realistic-looking and functional hardware that would work in the vacuum and darkness of deep space."

In the book, Discovery did have fins.

But they were to radiate heat away from the nuclear engines.

The only picture I've seen of that was on a TV Guide cover around 1979 - 1980 (along with a picture of the Batlestar Galactica).

Rand Simberg wrote:

In the book, Discovery did have fins.

Radiators aren't "fins." I was referring to (unnecessary) aerodynamic surfaces, like tailfins or canards.

Hunt Johnsen wrote:

"Sands of Mars" bought as a paperback at the Honolulu airport - over my parents' objections - in 1954 twisted me for life - almost as much as Bonstelle's illustrations in Colliers Magazine a few years prior. I believe "Prelude to Space" was the next one I encountered.

Wilbur wrote:

The Sands of Mars. It was 1977 and I was nine.

I haven't read all of his novels but I might get on to it now. I always recall his short stories to be very strong. They where were his sense of humour could express itself the best. I still giggle thinking about the ending of his short story about the I.T. experts helping the monks in a mountain retreat to establish the nine billion names of god.

SteveGW wrote:

In 'Lost Worlds of 2001' Clarke relates that he and Kubrick decided to do away with the radiators on Discovery because they didn't want the audience wondering why a spaceship had wings. So it was a deliberate inaccuracy in the film.

I fondly remember the first ACC stories I read when I was about 11. They were 'Against the Fall of Night' and 'The Lion of Comarre' bound together in one of those leery yellow covered Gollancz hardbacks. I think his 'The City and the Stars' (which was an extended version of 'Against the Fall.. ) and Asimov's 'Foundation' trilogy were the most daydream-provoking SF that I ever read.

Speaking of scientific inaccuracies, there are plenty; but I do particularly recall Clarke being embarrassed about using magnets to propel a stream of molten iron as a weapon in 'Earthlight' (I think.) He'd forgotten that iron loses its magnetic properties before it melts.

ralphe wrote:

I'm agree with Rand on most every thing he said. I grew up a few miles south of Flint at roughly the same time.

In the late 50's or early 6o's I had read a couple of Clarke's books, those in my elementary school library and likely the science fact section, and kept looking for more. I must have been in my early teens maybe 12 when I found his 'A fall of Moondust' delivered straight to my house in a Readers Digest Condensed Book. My Dad was a constant reader so there were always books and magazines coming in.

It was the first "Adult" SF novel I think I ever read,and it did nothing but make me want to read more. Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, I started spending my lunch money on books. I just checked the list I keep, and have 25 of Clarke's books on my shelves today. I felt sad and old when Heinlein died and again when Asimov passed away, then Gordon Dickson and Poul Anderson. They all live in memories. A greater tribute on Earth is beyond our power to render.

Rand Simberg wrote:

I'm agree with Rand on most every thing he said. I grew up a few miles south of Flint at roughly the same time.


My brother still lives in the area.

Mike wrote:

As a SciFi reader since age 11, 1953, you could well say I grew up with Arthur (& Heinlein/Asimov/Van Voght).
He peaked in '57 with "Childhoods End" his seminal work, much like Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land".
AC & Robert,imo, got screwier and screwier as they aged.

Bill Faith wrote:

Thank you Arthur for my two engineering degrees.

sherlock wrote:


I appreciate your argument, but unfortunately you neglect the fact that the Rama cylinder was filled with air.

As the flyer moved toward the periphery, it would have been subject to lateral displacement, since the volume of air within Rama would long ago have come to rotational equilibrium within it.

The flyer would thus have been accelerated in roughly the same fashion as if it were fixed to a structure - otherwise it would have been subject to very rapidly increasing winds. The flyer is (obviously) an air vehicle and will naturally float or fly within the air volume that surrounds it.

The result: centripetal acceleration. Or, in laymen's terms, artificial gravity.

Close, but no cigar, old man.

ralphe wrote:


Actually Detroit, the once great city 60 miles to the south, though like you I have a brother still in the area and living in Grand Blanc since retiring from Flint Engine.

Rand Simberg wrote:

Well, sixty miles is a lot more than a "few," and it's not south, but southeast. That's why I asked if it was Fenton.

Lee Valentine wrote:

A great man now belongs to the ages.

It would be hard to overestimate the effects of his inspiration for those working to move Man into the cosmos.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on March 19, 2008 9:49 AM.

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