Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died.
Where to begin to respond? From the start, or my start, I suppose. I can't think of another writer who so strongly influenced my imagination when I was a child and teenager. I remember so many stories and novels, and how my little mind was blasted wide open by possibilities. I remember the stories' physical housing - I can easily recall the covers of Rendezvous with Rama, 2001, Expedition to Earth, and every other short story collection, often fresh from the library, sometimes in my own precious paperbacks, as I devoured the books in car, or sitting outside on the grass.
(I still have a Science Fiction Book Club Wind from the Sun, pages crinkly from the cheap printing, an elementary school notification slip caught in the inside front cover.)
These tales were pedagogical devices for me, as a boy. Each book, each story taught me science and storytelling. Clarke's elegant prose let me learn both without intimidation or at excessive speed, challenging me just past my ever-growing Vygotskian edge. Rotation for gravity - check. Not being able to land on Mars because your ship isn't aerodynamically shaped - ah, got it. Why don't we hear about the angry mob planning to attack the atomic spaceship? To build suspense, I see. How can a space elevator work? I get it. How do you capture an audience with a single sentence? I see, I see...
And fear! Some of his tales had powerful currents of terror. "A Walk in the Dark" (1950) scared the heck out of me - I remember reading it in an indoor tennis court, drenched in artificial light, waiting for my father to finish playing... and carefully keeping away from each tiny shred of shadow. Rendezvous with Rama (1972) was, for me, suffused with impending dread. Each new, cryptic discovery surely concealed some dire attack, especially as the humans worked their way ever deeper into the thing. And who else saw 2001's lunar and orbital monoliths, in movie or on page, with pangs of terror? Remember the piercing shriek from the movie, as the sun's light lanced the exposed artifact, astronauts clutching their helmeted heads in agony and surprise? Clarke gave us machine crusades against all life, people dying alone in space, men plunging towards the death on the moon, vast squids snuffing out explorers, a man awakening as a bodiless recording in an alien machine, and all of these terrors often enough within the slimmest stories. Reread "Billion Names of God" (1954), with whose final line I opened this post.
Alienation: Clarke was one of the writers who taught me, a child atheist without any religious knowledge, that the rest of the world had this current of belief to which I has scant access. "The Star" was probably my first encounter with destroy-the-world fiction - think of how enormous that is, to a child - and yet I had no real connection with its terrible irony. I knew the Overlords' appearance in Childhood's End (what an awesome reveal!) must have been terribly shocking to folks, but couldn't connect with it emotionally. I didn't realize until I was an adult that Clarke shared my dislike and alienation from religion.
And exhilaration. Clarke is peerless in evoking the classic sense of wonder, of course, to the point of my not really having to mention this. But I started this post thinking of my childhood with Clarke's writing, and I'm looking at my battered copy of Wind from the Sun, as I type this, and remember the soaring feeling that overwhelmed me at 9 when I finished "Transit of Earth." I can't hear Bach's Toccata and Fugue without remember that last astronaut striding across the Martian landscape to his death.
2001 occupied a huge swath of my imagination. The novel astonished me, and I reread it frequently. I read the heartbeaking short story, "The Sentinel." I read Worlds of 2001. I had a couple of plastic models. I made my own versions of the awesome spaceships out of construction paper (and was heartbroken when my mother didn't appreciate getting one for her birthday). All of this was before I saw the movie. When I did, I was surprised by how people were confused by the finale - surely they read the book, and understood the evolutionary step engineered by aliens, yes?
I even recorded 2001 on an audio recorder. Yes, when some tv station broadcast a chopped-up version, such was my obsession that I sat next to the tv, Radio Shack device in hand, patiently capturing those precious sounds. (Years later, I found that old, dusty tape, and played it back. I was horrified to hear an unearthly scream, about halfway in. Then I remembered my brother. He'd been fussing about during the recording. We had tussled, I'd smacked him, and he'd bellowed outrage, caught faithfully by Radio Shack. Years later, sibling hatred cross-cut with Jovian orbit.)
I don't mean to suggest that Clarke was a childhood writer for me, although nothing he wrote during my adulthood struck me with such power. He did his work for me early on, which structured who I am as a person. Learning of his death is like witnessing a geological catastrophe, seeing my landscape holed.
And yet what joy to have shared the planet with him, to have become a biological adult while he also rotated around the Sun. I'm not thinking of his Rama collaborations, but of seeing life imitate the science fiction he helped create. How can one not feel delight when watching Clarke's video greeting to JPL, as Cassini reached Saturn? It reminds me of Heywood Floyd calling home from Earth orbit, bearing his secret knowledge to the moon. Or hearing about a space elevator company, and thinking of learning about this from his stories. Or seeing science fiction turn to ideas he offered decades earlier: posthumanism, machine intelligence, religious populism fighting science, life emerging from interconnected computers (in 1950!).
You should read anything by him. And, right now, you could watch this video, where Clarke ruminates on turning 90. Listen to his three wishes, think about that lifespan, and be amazed by his optimism. I can't watch without crying, and smiling:
(thanks to Googleblog for spotting that, and to the Appreciation blog in general)