Arthur C. Clarke Remembered

Arthur C. Clarke, who died Wednesday, spent more than 60 years writing about how communications and computing technology could help drive the the next stage of human evolution. So it's appropriate that he's now being remembered on the international communications network, the Internet.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

March 19, 2008

5 Min Read

Arthur C. Clarke, who died Wednesday, spent more than 60 years writing about how communications and computing technology could help drive the the next stage of human evolution. So it's appropriate that he's now being remembered on the international communications network, the Internet.InformationWeek readers filled the comments thread of our obituary of Clarke with testimonials and remembrances. Kim C. writes about an encounter with a doctor who'd served with Clarke during World War II.

The doctor "said Clarke would tell the men stories at night, while they were hunkered down in their foxholes, about how things would be in the future. The doctor said that at the time, they all thought he was a bit loopy, but as it turned out, most of what Clarke had predicted came to pass," Kim C. writes.

Sparkzilla, posting a comment on the blog Boing Boing, remembers interviewing Clarke:

He told me this story which he said may or may not be true...

During the Apollo astronaut training, they had to be trained in survival tactics in case they came down in an out-of-the-way part of the world. And one of the places they were trained was in America, in the Navaho territory. The Navahos saw this training, these strange men in spacesuits, and they said "What's this?" and NASA said "they're going to the moon." The Navaho were delighted and said, "Well, that's where our ancestors come from, would the astronauts take a message from us?" So NASA gave them a tape recorder and they recorded a brief message. Now Navaho is a very difficult language, only spoken by a few thousand people, and the Navaho didn't say what the message was. And every time NASA played the message to anyone who knew Navaho, they burst out laughing, but they wouldn't translate it.

But eventually they found a defector who would do the deed. It was a very short message -- "Don't let these bastards steal your land!"

Sparkzilla links to a YouTube video of Clarke telling the story:

Later in the same thread, Pseudothink writes: "Clarke's writings helped inspire me, not just in his writing and creativity, but also helped me grow beyond my Catholic upbringing and find happiness in agnonsticism/atheism. Thank you, Mr. Clarke, sincerely."

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a science-fiction book editor at Tor Books, remembers Clarke:

He was the last, really the last, of the heroic age of 20th-century science fiction writers. Everyone knows the trinity: Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke.

Despite polio, and post-polio syndrome, and an increasing number of infirmities late in his very long life, he seems to have managed to live very much on his own terms. He had a reputation for self-regard -- his nickname in 1930s and '40s London-area SF fandom was "Ego" Clarke -- and on the one occasion when I met him, his method of making conversation was to take [Tor publisher] Tom Doherty and me on a tour of his file of recent press clips. But good grief. He was Arthur C. Clarke. He invented the geosynchronous satellite and wrote Against the Fall of Night. He wrote 2001 in the Chelsea Hotel and co-broadcast the moon landing with Walter Cronkite. A tenth of his achievements would justify a healthy pride.

Clarke's practical science and engineering outlook co-existed with a broad mystical streak, Nielsen Hayden says. In that way, Clarke was like his peer and contemporary, Robert A. Heinlein, and unlike another peer and contemporary, Isaac Asimov. "Indeed, much of his work establishes the basic template for one of modern science fiction's most evergreen effects: the numinous explosion of mystical awe that's carefully built up to, step by rational step. So much of Clarke's best work is about that moment when the universe reveals its true vastness to human observers."

Nielsen Hayden goes on to share a delicious anecdote about a meeting between the scientist Clarke and Narnia author C.S. Lewis, whose books frequently include scientists as villains and minions of Satan. It would be a wonderful world if all ideological enemies could meet on such friendly terms as Clarke and Lewis did.

Clarke's 90th birthday message is on YouTube:

It serves as a kind of Farewell Address; Clarke looks back on his long life and then looks ahead to a future that will not include him.

He starts out by quipping, "I don't feel a day over 89." He starts to chuckle at his own joke before he delivers the punchline, and continues to chortle through it. He does the same thing with the Navaho story (above); it's an endearing tic.

"There's also a sad aspect to living so long," he says. "Most of my contemporaries and hold friends have already departed, however they've left behind many fond memories for me to recall."

Clarke continues, "I now spend a good part of my day dreaming of times past, present, and future." He says he is sleeping 15 hours a day, but "being completely wheelchaired doesn't stop my mind from roaming the universe."

He goes on to say, "In my time, I have been very fortunate to have seen many of my dreams come true. Growing up in the 1920s and '30s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades. We space cadets of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel, but we didn't imagine that it lay in our own near future."

He describes the penetration of cell phones as an extraordinary achievement, with more than 3.3 billion subscriptions in a little more than a quarter century -- more than half the population of the world. "The mobile phone has revolutionized human communications and is turning humanity into an endlessly chattering global family," Clarke says.

He goes on to say that communications technologies are "necessary but not sufficient" for human beings to get along, which is why there is still so much conflict in the world. Human beings need "tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between people and nations."

Clarke says, "I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization."

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights