Arthur C. Clarke – Visionary of the 21st Century


Kim Stanley Robinson

Foreword for: Fritz Heidorn: Arthur C. Clarke. Jenseits des Möglichen. Visionär des 21. Jahrhunderts. Verlag Dieter von Reeken, Lüneburg, 2019

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century, and in the latter part of his life he was an important public intellectual, advocating utopian futures that were based on technological and social advances, with an emphasis on the human use of space resources and perspectives.

From the beginning of his career, his science fiction was striking for its iconic power, a power is suggested even in his titles: The City and the Stars, Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End. This cosmic perspective that he evoked so poetically was in the tradition of his beloved British precursors, H.G. Wells and more especially Olaf Stapledon. These two writers showed him how the scientific romance could turn into the new genre of science fiction in its specifically British version, working in effect as a kind of prose poem, quite distinct from the tradition of the realist domestic English novel. The origins of this kind of English scientific romance run back to Mary Shelley, William Blake, and John Bunyan. All these models showed Clarke ways of telling stories that focused on the largest scales of humanity, the planet, and the cosmos, while still retaining their human meaning and warmth.  

The other crucial influence on Clarke had to do with his writing style; this was the King James version of the Bible. Clarke adapted from this classic of seventeenth century English prose his own stately, solemn, exact and emotional phrasing; his frequent and particular use of the colon in sentences is one mark of this influence, not the most important, but quite revealing. This mix of influences resulted in a distinctive Clarkean mode; there is nothing else quite like it.

He had an opposite number in British science fiction, J.G. Ballard.  Ballard was a survivor of a Japanese civilian prisoner camp in World War Two, and his science fiction was always focused on the dark side of human nature, and on our capacity for collapse into violence, often as a result of psychological harm but also seemingly as a kind of cosmic fate. Ballard said he wrote about inner space rather than outer space, and his most characteristic novels were apocalyptic, as he found various ingenious ways to destroy the world.

Kim Stanley Robinson liest im Klimahaus Bremerhaven im März 2017

Clarke was the bright opposite of Ballard’s darkness, being one of the few novelists ever to have attempted more than once to describe utopian futures. This was just as much a personal attitude in him as Ballard’s darkness was to Ballard. Clarke was, as far as I can tell from my reading and from occasional contacts with the person, a cheerful man. He very much enjoyed the science fiction communities of Britain and the US, and other groups like the British Interplanetary Society.   Later he enjoyed Sri Lanka and the many friends he made there, and its warm waters.  As a polio survivor he was more comfortable in water than on land, so his aquatic life in Sri Lanka was very important to him, and it probably also gave him part of his feel for global biospheric ecology, our planet as a living and beautiful thing. This positive response to his adopted home, one form of biophilia, was very important in understanding his particular form of utopian thinking, which combined his technological interests and his concern for the environment in important ways.

This connection made by his personal interests was particular important in the last decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first, because during that time Clarke was one of the most famous people on Earth, and a crucial public intellectual because he helped to create our culture’s sense of where we were headed. His fame was mainly due to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he wrote with the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Often cited as the best science fiction movie of all time, it had an enormous impact on its release, and for the rest of his life Clarke was closely tied to its fame, becoming one of the world’s chief experts on the future, and on humanity considered as a species living on a planet in space.

His beginnings as a radio engineer and scientist certainly helped to give weight to his views, and the fact that a geosynchonous orbit for communications satellites is called a Clarke orbit added to his prestige and authority, but in fact none of that work would have been well-known if it weren’t for the power of his science fiction, in print and in cinema. For more than thirty years he was an international celebrity, functioning as one of the world’s chief experts on the future; and because his vision was so positive, people all around the world believed that we had a decent chance of making a good civilization. To an extent that must be rare in world history, he had an immense impact on people’s sense of what the future would become.

I felt lucky to be someone who Arthur Clarke called on the telephone from time to time. We often shared news of Mars, which was an interest we had in common. Once he called on my birthday, though this was a coincidence, and with pleasure he asked me if I had seen the latest photos from the Mars orbiters.

I told him I had. 

Did you see that cliff on Olympus Mons that you had your characters climbing?

Yes, I admitted ruefully.

He laughed at my tone of voice and said, You could ride your bicycle up that cliff!

But this happened to all science fiction writers, he went on to say; new information arrived and turned some science fiction stories into fantasy. This was natural and could not be avoided. The important thing was to keep trying based on the new information.

Now, twenty years into the twenty-first century, Clarke’s writing and career continue to form a vision of what humanity could become, if we take charge of our fate and do the necessary things to make a successful global civilization. His writing will endure as a highlight in the utopian tradition, which now stretches back to Thomas More and even Plato. There is also an Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, formed by some of his friends to further his utopian efforts, and they have teamed with scholars at the University of California, San Diego, to found the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Efforts are being made by both the Foundation and the Center to expand our understanding of concepts central to Clarke’s thinking.  

He believed in humanity’s ability to improve our interactions with our planet for sustainable prosperity over the long haul. This vision of his was a precursor of what we now call the Anthropocene.  What characterized Clarke’s version of this new epoch, and made it especially significant, was his idea of what could be called “a good Anthropocene,” in which humanity’s skill as a civilization was manifested by our ability to sustain it over many centuries, and even to spread it through the solar system, but only when that was appropriate: Earth has to be stabilized first, as he made clear in his important novel Imperial Earth; if we can manage that, the solar system will be in effect our reward for our success.

All his work implies this utopian possibility; it was intellectually coherent, forming a single optimistic vision that was a genuine expression of his sunny character. He was calm, cheerful, well-informed, intelligent; his judgment was good; he liked to laugh. All these characteristics infuse his writing, and make his vision something of permanent value to us, and a joy to experience. 

It’s a pleasure to welcome Fritz Heidorn’s book about this science fiction giant.