God, Man, and Arthur C. Clarke

Mar 24, 2008 8:02am

I must have been nine when my father gave me a small paperback of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories.

The book was called “Expedition to Earth,” and in the title story, long-ago aliens visit the third planet of an unremarkable yellow star.  There, they meet primitive human beings, whom they nudge on the path toward intelligence.

It was a common Clarke theme, repeated in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and other stories, up until his last.  He died last week at 90.  Never lacking for imagination, Clarke had all sorts of ideas about how this planet, of all the worlds in the cosmos, came to have what we call civilization.

The seed had to have come from elsewhere, he kept seeming to insist. Life may come into being on its own, but Mind does not.  In Clarke’s universe, intelligence was conferred from above.

How far above?  Clarke did, after all, write a story called “The Nine Billion Names of God.”  But at his funeral this weekend on Sri Lanka, according to local reports, he insisted there be none of the rituals of any earthly religion.

Clarke, openly atheist, created his own gods.  In many of his stories his aliens were flesh and blood of one sort or another — but in others they had moved on, first replacing their bodies with machinery, then, later, evolving into beings of pure energy.  Science-fiction writers can take such liberties with the possible; Clarke seemed to revel in it.

I wanted to ask him about such matters the first time I met him, but I failed.  I was sixteen, completely star-struck, and I had a wonderful job, the summer before college, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Clarke came to town to help us kick off a new exhibit. The planetarium staff took him to dinner, and I (probably much to my bosses’ annoyance) sat next to him.

He was rich and old by then, a great raconteur, but it was clear he wasn’t going to give an inch.  He told one joke after another, and I gradually realized I’d heard them all — they were straight from his own writings.

I went home crestfallen.  It was as if the great master was out of material.  I decided later that he was, like many other prominent people I’ve since met, very good at satisfying an audience, talking at length without giving anything away.

Many of Clarke’s best-known work dates from the early space age, and may seem quaint in a postmodern world.  Hal, the psychotic computer, was a mainframe.  Space stations seemed fantastic, not expensive.  In “2001″ he takes us to a moon base where a visitor from Earth finds “the familiar environment of typewriters.”

As for the bigger questions, he granted little.  In his limitless imagination, he pictured immortal beings but not eternal truths.

Now he is gone.  I cannot help wondering what sort of odyssey he has now begun.

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