“Arthur C. Clarke” by Gary Westfahl

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Of the “Big Three” authors who dominated the Golden Age of science fiction, I’ve always felt I had the weakest grasp on Arthur C. Clarke. Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre is easy to summarize: technological optimism and robots. Robert A. Heinlein tended to infuse his works with libertarian politics and nonconformists. As for Clarke? I’ve read several of his most famous novels and short stories, but always struggled to identify common themes. Clarke seems to veer wildly between hard-nosed science and wild-eyed mysticism. Childhood’s End features humans who gain almost godlike psychic powers, while Rendevouz with Rama tells the story of a scientific exploration to a mysterious alien object. Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey seems like a warning against A.I., yet Clarke was hardly anti-science – most of Clarke’s protagonists are scientists. 

Gary Westfahl’s new study of Arthur C. Clarke helps situate his works into a comprehensive and consistent view of humanity’s future. Westfahl points out several features of Clarke’s writing that distinguish him from most other science fiction writers of the Golden Age. First, Clarke’s admiration for scientific progress is tempered by his concerns over how humanity would use new technologies. He almost never depicts technology as an unadulterated good that would solve our problems. Second, while we often associate Clarke with space travel, he doubted mankind’s ability to travel beyond the solar system. Instead of fantastic voyages to the stars and heroic milestones in exploration, Clarke spends more time imagining what everyday life in space might be like for our descendants. Finally, while Clarke believed humanity had the potential to evolve into something greater, he also that human civilization is vulnerable. Just one major cataclysm could wipe out the entire species.

Westfahl’s book is not a conventional biography, but rather an intellectual exploration of Clarke’s science fiction. The introductory chapter does provide a brief overview of Clarke’s life, but Westfahl’s mostly uses this to note that Clarke was a very private person. Few people claim to know him well.* Westfahl does occasionally note how the themes or characters in his stories reflect elements of Clarke’s personal life. Perhaps the most interesting is Westfahl’s observation that Clarke’s characters tend to be taciturn professionals with little time for family – just like Clarke himself. While critics generally cite the “bland” and “underdeveloped” characters as a weakness of Clarke’s writing, Westfahl argues that Clarke’s approach to characters is in fact one of his more interesting predictions. Although Clarke didn’t predict the Internet, his vision of people increasingly communicating over long distances and consumed by work seems to capture something important about the 21st century.

* (Fortunately, Clarke’s private diaries are scheduled to be released 30 years after his death (in 2038), so we might eventually learn more about Clarke the person.)

The jury is still out on whether or not the humans of 2061 will resemble Clarke’s cold professionals. On the one hand, Westfahl is correct to point out that marriage and birth rates have fallen. On the other hand, recent survey data paint a more complicated picture. Younger people still want to get married and have kids, but can’t because of the financial costs. Moreover, while people in the 21st century do spend less time with friends and neighbors, they also spend more time with family, suggesting that interpersonal relations aren’t quite dead.  If we end up resembling Clarke’s cold professional characters, it might be due more to economic constraints than to technology.

Overall, I recommend this book to students of science fiction, particularly fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s work. Westfahl’s knowledge of Clarke’s oeuvre is encyclopedic. He manages to find patterns and themes in Clarke’s diverse set of short stories, novels, and nonfiction works. While Clarke the human being remains a bit of a mystery, I have a better understanding of and appreciate for Clarke the science fiction intellectual.

[NOTE: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

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