Reflections on Arthur C. Clarke: 16th December 1917 – 19th March 2008

Five years ago today, we lost one of our greats. The last of The Big Three. The man who conceived the telecommunications satellite. The creator of one of the only two novels whose dates have become cultural touchstones. The writer whose ‘Third Law‘ is amongst the most quoted (and most misattributed!) in all of modern culture.

Upon hearing the news of Sir Arthur C. Clarke‘s passing, half a decade ago, my first reaction was a kind of numbness. I knew he was 90 years old, I knew he was not in the rudest of health and I knew of course that, to be blunt, people die. But this was different;  this was the writer who flipped the switch in my head and opened my eyes to the wonders of science fiction. In many ways, and with all due respect to some wonderful teachers I’ve been lucky enough to learn from over the years, it was Arthur C. Clarke who taught me to think. I devoured his novels and short stories – like we all do when we discover a new favourite – but with Clarke that wasn’t enough; I had to hunt down and read his non-fiction, too: the likes of Profiles of the Future, The View from Serendip, The Lost Worlds of 2001 and Report on Planet Three.

After a day or so to pause and reflect on an extraordinary life and career, I decided to re-read Childhood’s End – one of my great favourites for its iconic imagery, unique take on racial memory and vision of evolutionary destiny – but the night I heard the news, I went to my bookshelves, picked up my hardback of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, and renewed acquaintances with some old friends. In truth, I could have read it cover to cover and not been disappointed. Few writers have mastered the short form like Clarke – master of the twist in the tail. There was ‘A Meeting with Medusa’, ‘Against the Fall of Night’, ‘All the Time in the World’, ‘Encounter at Dawn’, ‘Expedition to Earth’,’The Lion of Comarre’,’No Morning After’, ‘Second Dawn’, ‘The Wall of Darkness’ and many, many more.

But with limited time (I didn’t fancy explaining to any of my authors ‘Yeah, sorry I haven’t edited your manuscript yet, I was re-reading every short story Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote …’) I picked what one might, appropriately, call the Big Three: ‘The Sentinel’, which gave birth to 2001: A Space Odyssey, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, winner of the 2004 Retro Hugo for works published in 1953, and ‘The Star’, winner of the Hugo Award in 1956 and, to my mind, pretty much the perfect science fiction short story. Now, with five years passed, I might go back and re-visit a few more. ‘Second Dawn’ in particular looks ripe for another reading.

If Arthur C. Clarke had written nothing more than Rendezvous with Rama, his place in the canon would be assured. That novel won the Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell, BSFA, Locus, Jupiter and Seiun Awards. But he also gave us Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fountains of Paradise (winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) and a horde of wonderful short fiction; he conceived of the telecommunications satellite (in the article ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?’ published in Wireless World, in October 1945), was involved in the development of the radar defence system during the Second World War, gave us Clarke’s Three Laws, commentated on several of the Apollo lunar landings, including Apollo 11, and endowed the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Some career.

In a post I wrote for the Orbit website the day after Clarke passed away I said:

If you’d asked me as a teenager what reading Arthur C. Clarke felt like, I’d have said ‘having my brain pried open and the universe poured in’.

Five years later I see no reason to change my opinion. Arthur C. Clarke wrote fiction and non-fiction with the same sense of wonder, and though he may be gone, his legacy lives on in those of us who now look at the universe through a Clarkean lens. As to how to express what we see through that lens, I’ll leave it to the man himself:

The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God – it’s full of stars!


Sir Arthur C. Clarke continues to contribute to the advancement of science and the improvement of health, education and the quality of life for people everywhere – especially in developing countries – through the work of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.