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Clarke, Arthur C

Entry updated 13 February 2023. Tagged: Author, Fan.

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(1917-2008) UK author, resident in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death. Born in Minehead, Somerset, after leaving school Clarke came to London in 1936 to work as a civil-servant auditor with HM Exchequer. He was active in fan circles before World War Two, through which he served (1941-1946) as a radar instructor with the RAF, rising to the rank of flight-lieutenant. After the War he entered King's College, London, in 1948 taking his BSc in physics and mathematics.

Clarke's strong interest in the frontiers of science was evident early. He was chairman of the British Interplanetary Society 1946-1947, and again 1950-1953. He began publishing professional work of genre interest "Loophole" for Astounding in April 1946, though he had previously sold to John W Campbell Jr the far more famous "Rescue Party", which also appeared in Astounding in May 1946; his first professional sale was in fact an article, "Man's Empire of Tomorrow" (Winter 1938 Tales of Wonder), though even this was preceded by appearances in Amateur Magazines with such stories as "Travel by Wire!" (December 1937 Amateur Science Stories). In his early years as a writer he three times used the pseudonym Charles Willis, and wrote once as E G O'Brien, these four stories all appearing in UK magazines 1947-1951. Four of Clarke's early pre-professional stories, written for Fanzines (1937-1942), were reprinted in The Best of Arthur C. Clarke 1937-1971 (coll 1973; reissued in 2vols, 1976-1977, the first being inaccurately titled 1932-1955) anonymously edited by Angus Wells; a 1930s poem and essay appear in The Fantastic Muse (coll 1992 chap); other very early work has been assembled as Childhood Ends: The Earliest Writings of Arthur C Clarke (coll 1996 chap). Clarke also worked as adviser for the comic Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future for its first six months in 1950.

Clarke's early stories are very much Genre SF, neatly constructed, usually turning on a single scientific point, often ending with a sting in the tail. Some are rather ponderously humorous. His first two novels in book form appeared in 1951: Prelude to Space: A Compelling Realistic Novel of Interplanetary Flight (1951; rev without subtitle 1953 UK; rev 1954 US; vt Master of Space 1961 US; vt The Space Dreamers 1969 US) as Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3, and The Sands of Mars (1951; vt Sands of Mars 1952). Both suffer from the rather wooden prose which Clarke later fashioned into a more flexible instrument, though he was never able to escape an occasional stiffness in his writing. They are, in effect, works of optimistic propaganda for science (see Optimism and Pessimism), with human problems rather mechanically worked out against a background of scientific discovery. In this category of his early work, it was with the science that Clarke's imagination flared into life. Islands in the Sky (1952), a juvenile about a boy in an orbital Space Station, followed the same pattern.

A different note is evident in Expedition to Earth (coll 1953), which includes "The Sentinel" (Spring 1951 10 Story Fantasy as "Sentinel of Eternity"; vt in Expedition to Earth, coll 1953). A simple but haunting story, it tells of the discovery of an Alien artefact, created by an advanced race millions of years earlier, standing enigmatically on top of a mountain on the Moon. Many years later it became the basis of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which Clarke wrote the script with Stanley Kubrick. The novelization, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; with 2 related stories added, rev as coll 1990), was written, by Clarke alone, on the basis of the script after the film had been made (see below for sequels). An account of Clarke's connection with the film can be found in his The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972), which also prints alternative script versions of key scenes.

With "The Sentinel" came the first clear appearance of the Clarke paradox: that the man who of all sf writers of his generation was most closely identified with knowledgeable, technological Hard SF was at the same time strongly attracted to the metaphysical, even to the mystical; that the man who in sf histories is often seen as standing for the boundless optimism of the soaring human spirit, and for the idea (strongly presented in John W Campbell Jr's Astounding) that there is nothing humanity cannot accomplish, is best remembered for images of humanity childlike in stature compared 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. The sense that human Evolution may lead to an impersonal, all-encompassing Transcendence of individual beings reaches its fullest and most hypnotic early expression in Clarke, the poetic hauntedness of his style almost certainly deriving at least in part from Lord Dunsany, though the example of earlier authors of the British Scientific Romance like Olaf Stapledon was ultimately more telling. Clarke's marriage of tone and content soon became definitive, and his complexly rooted presentation of this material can be detected in the decidedly more optimistic and action-oriented Uplift tales of David Brin and others. More clearly, Clarke deeply influenced later British writers of a similar bent like Stephen Baxter, who became his principal twenty-first-century "collaborator": their joint work began with The Light of Other Days (2000), a remarkably and Baxterianly exhaustive exploration of the Time Viewer theme which clearly affirms both authors' affinity with the British style of Cosmological imagination.

Although the intertwining of Religion and Evolutionary Transcendence was evident in "The Sentinel", and even clearer in the iconography of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the end of which mankind is seen literally as a foetus, Clarke gave it its most potent literary expression in two more books from 1953 which are still considered by many critics to be his finest, and in which he comes close to bringing the tradition of the UK Scientific Romance to its natural climax. They are Against the Fall of Night (November 1948 Startling; 1953; exp and much rev vt The City and the Stars 1956) – also assembled with "The Lion of Comarre" (August 1949 Thrilling Wonder) as The Lion of Comarre and Against the Fall of Night (coll 1968) – and Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990).

Both the original and the longer versions of Against the Fall of Night have long been simultaneously available. Indeed, the shorter version was republished, along with a sequel, very different in tone and theme, by Gregory Benford, as Beyond the Fall of Night (anth/omni 1990; vt Arthur C Clarke – Against the Fall of Night/Gregory Benford – Beyond the Fall of Night 1991). The longer version, The City and the Stars, is one of the strongest tales of Conceptual Breakthrough in genre sf. Alvin, a young man in the enclosed utopian city of Diaspar, on Earth in the Far Future, becomes impatient at the Technology-mediated stasis of the perfect life, and after many adventures makes his way outside the city to Lys, another Utopia but of a different kind, which stresses closeness to Nature. Ultimately Alvin finds an Alien spaceship left behind millennia ago, visits the stars, and finally discovers the true nature of the cosmic perspective which has been hidden from both Lys and Diaspar. The final passages blend a sense of loss and of Transcendence with almost mystical intensity. Clarke began working on this story as early as 1937, and the Dying Earth ambience permeating the various versions of the tale is clearly central to all his thinking and feeling; it is perhaps his most memorable work, and The City and the Stars is distinctly superior to the more awkward earlier version (which does, all the same, have an almost cartoon-like clarity and freshness). As noted, it makes more palatable and humanly moving the evolutionary perspective of Olaf Stapledon, whose works Clarke greatly admired, as does Childhood's End, in which the children of humankind's last generation reach Transcendence under the tutelage of satanic-seeming aliens, eventually to fuse with a cosmic overmind (see Omega Point) – an apotheosis which is forever to be denied both to their ordinary human parents and to the alien tutors. The City and the Stars was later transformed into a cantata by the composer David Bedford, the narration between movements being read by Clarke at its performance in 2001.

Clarke continued to publish sf with some frequency over the next decade, with Earthlight (August 1951 Thrilling Wonder; exp 1955), Reach for Tomorrow (coll 1956), The Deep Range (April 1954 Argosy UK; exp 1957), Tales from the White Hart (coll of linked stories 1957), The Other Side of the Sky (coll 1958), Across the Sea of Stars (coll 1959), A Fall of Moondust (1961), Tales of Ten Worlds (coll 1962), Dolphin Island: A Story of the People of the Sea (1963), a juvenile, and Glide Path (1963), his only non-sf novel, about the development of radar. The most interesting of these are The Deep Range, about Near-Future farming Under the Sea, which contains some of Clarke's most evocative writing, and A Fall of Moondust, a realistic account – in the light of theories about its surface now known to have been mistaken – of an accident to a surface transport on a lightly colonized Moon. "The Star" (November 1955 Infinity Science Fiction), a short story of great pathos describing the discovery that the star put in the sky by God to prefigure the Birth at Bethlehem was a supernova that destroyed an entire alien race, won a Hugo. A good retrospective collection of stories, all but one reprinted from collections listed above, is The Nine Billion Names of God: The Best Short Stories of Arthur C Clarke (coll 1967).

After 1962, only a small amount of fiction by Clarke appeared in sf magazines, though two of his most interesting stories date from this period: "Sunjammer" (March 1964 Boys' Life; vt "The Wind from the Sun" in The Wind from the Sun, coll 1972), which is about the Solar Wind, and A Meeting with Medusa (December 1971 Playboy; 1988 chap dos), winner of a Nebula in 1972 for Best Novella, the story of a Cyborg explorer meeting Alien life in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Both stories are reprinted in The Wind from the Sun: Stories of the Space Age (coll 1972; with 3 vignettes added rev 1987), his sixth and last individual collection (not counting reprint volumes or those adding small amounts of minor material). More than One Universe: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (coll 1991) assembled most but by no means all of his short work to that date; The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke (coll 2000) is very nearly complete.

By the 1960s most of Clarke's creative energies had been diverted into writing nonfiction books and articles, many of them – not listed here – about undersea exploration; he was an enthusiastic skin-diver himself, one reason for his residence in Sri Lanka. His popularizations of science, which won him the UNESCO Kalinga Prize in 1962, are closely related to his fiction, in that the stories often fictionalize specific ideas discussed in the factual pieces. He is probably most famous as an author of nonfiction for his early essay, "Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?" (October 1945 Wireless World), which was the first piece to propose – certainly the first in English, though Hermann Oberth has also been given the credit for generating the idea as early as 1923 – the concept of the geostationary satellite. He soon began publishing nonfiction books, interesting still though some are out-of-date, with Interplanetary Flight (1950; rev 1960), whose publication in fact preceded that of his first novel in book form, The Exploration of Space (1951; rev 1959; original text with new intro 1979) and The Exploration of the Moon (1954). The repeatedly updated Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962; rev 1973; rev 1984; rev 2000) sets out his principles of Prediction and Futures Studies, including Clarke's Laws. For other (selected) titles see Checklist below. Later volumes of interest (usually assembling old and new material) include The View from Serendip (coll 1977), 1984: Spring: A Choice of Futures (coll 1984), Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography: The Technical Writings of Arthur C. Clarke (coll 1984), By Space Possessed: Essays on the Exploration of Space (coll 1988) and Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays, 1934-1998 (coll 1999; vt Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: A Vision of the 20th Century as it Happened 1999), which assembles much of his most significant nonfiction work. Clarke's early professional experience as assistant editor of Science Abstracts 1949-1950, before he became a full-time writer, paid off amply, and The Exploration of Space won a nonfiction International Fantasy Award in 1952. Clarke became well known all over the world when he appeared as commentator on CBS TV for the Apollo 11, 12 and 15 Moon missions. He later presented a number of television programmes, including the series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World at the beginning of the 1980s. His science writing is lucid and interesting; his only rival as an sf writer of significance who was also of importance as a scientific journalist is Isaac Asimov.

After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke became perhaps the best-known sf writer in the world, and in America by far and away the most popular foreign sf writer. A few years later he signed a contract, for a sum of money larger than anything previously paid in sf publishing, to write three further novels. These turned out to be Rendezvous with Rama (1973; minor revs 2020), Imperial Earth: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (cut 1975; with 10,000 words restored vt Imperial Earth 1976) and The Fountains of Paradise (1979; exp with afterword 1989). All were bestsellers; all had a mixed critical reception, though Rendezvous with Rama scooped the awards: the Hugo, Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial Award and BSFA Award. To what extent the book deserved it, and to what extent the awards celebrated the return of a much-loved figure to the field after many years' comparative silence, is unclear. All the old Clarke themes are there in the story of a huge, apparently derelict Alien World Ship which enters the solar system, and its very partial exploration by a party of humans. As an artefact, the ship is a symbol of almost mythic significance, enigmatic, powerful and fascinating (see Discovery), transcending any sense that it may in the end be a Big Dumb Object, and the book derives considerable power from its description. The human characterization, on the other hand, is perfunctory, perhaps deliberately so; some sidebar content does interestingly suggest that sexual practices and compacts have been much sophisticated (two men in the expedition clearly live together on board ship, while sharing a wife back home). Imperial Earth tells of relations between Earth and the Outer Planets, and contains a rather meandering intrigue involving Clones; there are some interesting speculations about Black Holes. The Fountains of Paradise, a much better book than Imperial Earth – it won the 1980 Hugo for Best Novel – tells of the construction on Earth of a Space Elevator 36,000 kilometres high, and combines Clarke's favourite themes of technological Evolution and mankind's apotheosis with moving directness; it is the most considerable work of the latter part of Clarke's career.

The 1980s and after provided an astonishing coda to all of this. These decades were – in terms of the number of books appearing with his name on the cover – unexpectedly productive, unexpectedly because Clarke was well into his sixties, and had previously announced that Fountains of Paradise would be his last work of fiction. However, soon there appeared 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey (see above) which, where the first novel and film differ, follows the film. This was made into a film directed by Peter Hyams, 2010 (1984; vt 2010: The Year We Make Contact). Neither book nor film is as distinguished as the original, but the book is better than the film. It was followed by 2061: Odyssey Three (1988), whose open-endedness correctly suggested that the Odyssey saga of alien intervention might not yet be complete; 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) – though it declaredly puts finis to the sequence, giving a resurrected astronaut Frank Poole a guided tour of the new world he has helped to create – was itself followed, very tangentially, by the A Time Odyssey sequence comprising Time's Eye (2004) (a geographical Timeslip story), Sunstorm (2005) and Firstborn (2007), all as by Clarke and Stephen Baxter. These novels present an Alternate History version of the 2001 Forerunners who in the original book and film kick-started human Evolution via the famous black monolith but are here determined to eliminate us. The trilogy reworks themes central to both authors. A little earlier Clarke had published The Songs of Distant Earth (June 1958 If; much exp 1986), which also derives the film scenario, also published as "The Songs of Distant Earth" (September 1981 Omni); the tale quietly and without much action recounts the meeting of an isolated human colony on a remote planet with one of the last Spaceships to leave a doomed Earth, and the cultural clashes that follow.

In the mid-1980s, however, Clarke developed a debilitating and continuing illness affecting the nervous system, which began inevitably to affect his production. His illness meant that much of his work was necessarily collaborative. While some of this was found disappointing by the critics, and even reviled, there is considerable gallantry in his having made the effort at all, more especially as his earnings, it has been said, were intended to shore up various charitable enterprises he had founded, in order to render them financially secure after his death. Of these, the quasi-charity most closely identified with sf is the Arthur C Clarke Award annually given for the best novel published in Great Britain during the previous year, although it emerged after Clarke's death that future funding for this award had not in fact been secured. The collaborations began with Cradle (1988) with Gentry Lee and, also with Lee, three sequels to Rendezvous with Rama: Rama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991) and Rama Revealed (1993). Most of the writing seems to have been Lee's, whose style is less compact and more stereotyped than Clarke's; these books all have moments of embarrassing prose reminiscent of popular romance, though they are progressively more confidently written. A more interesting partnership was that between Gregory Benford and Clarke, the former (as noted above) writing a sequel to the latter's 1948 novella Against the Fall of Night. Clarke also franchised out (see Shared Worlds) the Venus Prime series to Paul Preuss (whom see for details), each novel having some basis in a Clarke short story. The series begins with Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime, Volume 1: Breaking Strain (1987), based on "Breaking Strain" (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Thirty Seconds – Thirty Days"; vt in No Place Like Earth, anth 1952, ed John Carnell). The fact-and-fiction anthology Project Solar Sail (anth 1990) has a cover which says it is edited by Clarke, but a reading of the title page suggests the true editor, here "Managing Editor", was David Brin. Clarke's collaborations with Stephen Baxter are discussed above. A final collaboration came about when, after drafting some 15,000 words, Clarke found himself unable to complete a projected novel and turned it over to Frederik Pohl: The Last Theorem (2008), with Pohl, combines themes of Mathematics (Fermat's Last Theorem) and impending Invasion by Aliens who plan to exterminate humanity.

After 1988 there were, however, four books by Clarke alone, including 3001: The Final Odyssey, referred to in context above. Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography (1989) consists of enjoyable reminiscences of his own literary life, with a good amount of material on other writers, both these topics being often seen in relation to the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction. Perhaps surprisingly in the midst of so many collaborations, two further solo novels appeared. The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990) is an interesting tale of an attempt to raise the Titanic in the early twenty-first century; it is indubitably Clarkean, perhaps a little ghostlike, much of the story pared to the bone, though typically containing a technical (and neatly symbolic) diversion into the Mathematics of the Mandelbrot set. The Hammer of God (Fall 1992 Time Magazine; much exp 1993), which hangs a number of speculations on a thin narrative involving an Asteroid bent on colliding with Earth, is also remote and telegraphic in the telling.

For many years until his death Clarke was president of the British Science Fiction Association and patron of the Science Fiction Foundation, and at the ceremony formalizing the housing of the latter's research collection with the University of Liverpool, he received an honorary doctorate from the University, by videolink; he also received many other awards not directly linked to his sf work, including the Association of Space Explorers' Special Achievement Award. But for most readers Clarke remains primarily an sf figure: indeed, the very personification of sf. Never a "literary" author, he nonetheless always wrote with lucidity and candour, often with grace, sometimes with a cold, sharp evocativeness that produced some of the most memorable images in sf. He is deservedly seen as a central figure in the development of post-World War Two sf, especially in his liberal, optimistic view of the possible benefits of Technology (though one that is by no means unaware of its dangers), and in his development of the Stapledonian theme of cosmic perspective and Transcendence, in which humanity is seen as reaching out like a child to an alien Universe which may treat us as a godlike parent would, or may respond with cool indifference. Clarke received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 1986; he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997; and he was knighted in 1998. [PN/JC]

see also: Advertising; Agriculture; AI; Children in SF; Children's SF; Christ; Cities; Club Story; Colonization of Other Worlds; Comets; Computers; Del Rey Books; Dimensions; End of the World; Eschatology; Fantastic Voyages; Fantasy; Generation Starships; Gods and Demons; Golden Age of SF; Gravity; History of SF; Hive Minds; Humour; Internet; Invention; Leisure; Longevity in Writers; Magic; Mars; Media Landscape; Memory Edit; Metaphysics; Music; Mythology; Pastoral; Perception; Physics; Power Sources; Psi Powers; Pyramid Books; Race in SF; Radio; Rays; Retro Hugo; Robert A Heinlein Award; Rockets; Science-Fiction Five-Yearly; SF Music; Scientists; Seiun Award; Shakespeare; Space Flight; Space Habitats; Stars; Sun; Superman; Terraforming; Time Travel; Transportation; Virtual Reality; Weather Control.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, CBE

born Minehead, Somerset: 16 December 1917

died Colombo, Sri Lanka: 19 March 2008



2001: A Space Odyssey


A Time Odyssey

individual titles

further "collaborations"

It is generally understood that despite his prominent co-author credits, Clarke's input into these works was minimal and chiefly conceptual.

collections and stories

nonfiction (selected)

works as editor (selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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