Editorial: Arthur Clarke saw the future
Asked how he wished to be remembered by the generations whose lives he envisioned with uncanny prescience, Arthur C. Clarke replied, “I would like to be remembered as a writer.”
Clarke, who died this week at age 90 in his adopted home of Sri Lanka, can consider the request fulfilled. Although he could lay claim to many titles ó promoter of space exploration, scientific visionary, underwater adventurer ó his greatest fame came through his science-fiction novels and stories. Clarke wrote more than 100 books but will always be linked most closely with one work in particular, the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” for which he developed the screenplay (with Stanley Kubrick) while simultaneously writing the novel of the same title.
First screened back in 1968, when we were still using rotary phones and hi-fidelity phonographs, “2001” introduced us to the world of artificial intelligence and a creepy voiced computer named HAL. Initially, the movie didn’t enjoy soaring reviews. Emerging from an early screening, the actor Rock Hudson reportedly groused, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” and the critic Pauline Kael dismissed it as “trash masquerading as art.”
Forty years later, however, it’s considered a groundbreaking classic of the sci-fi genre, and HAL has taken his place beside other iconic literary figures like Huckleberry Finn and Madame Bovary, though in a much more sinister way.
While he was a titan of science fiction, the remarkable thing about Clarke was not only his prodigious imagination but that so many of imaginings eventually became fact. Along with the coming of the computer age and the creation of artificial intelligence, he foresaw the advent of geostationary communication satellites, mobile phones, space stations and even electronic libraries.
Considering the accuracy of his literary projections, it’s fascinating to contemplate the inventions and events that he saw lying somewhere over the interstellar horizon, in a future yet to arrive. He believed we’d one day reach orbit through a space elevator ó a huge cable connecting Earth to space that would convey electromagnetic vehicles (and which, in fact, is the subject of current research). And he was utterly convinced that extraterrestrial beings existed and would one day ask to greet our leader ó or introduce us to theirs.
Clarke’s work influenced generations of scientists and astronomers whose imaginations took flight from his stories about intergalactic space travel and life in distant pockets of the universe. “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible,” he once said, “is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” He would no doubt take great satisfaction in knowing that his influence will continue to ripple through space and time, wherever and whenever his books are read.