The death of a purveyor of magic

It is a shame that science fiction authors are so viciously discriminated against in literary circles, even in this modern era of fast-paced technological change. In the world of serious literature, they remain hermits. Only the most mainstream of such authors, such as your Michael Crichtons (using the descriptor “sci-fi author” loosely), seem to really acquire the widespread recognition and readership that they deserve for their works. I sincerely hope that this tradition is broken in remembering the life and times of Arthur C. Clarke, who has sadly passed away in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. He was a visionary, a genius, but perhaps first and foremost, a very good writer indeed.

Apart from creating fabulously imaginative, enticing worlds, probably the most important thing that science fiction authors offer that other fiction authors don’t is a glimpse of the future of humanity. Sometimes, as was the case with Arthur Clarke and geostationary satellite communications, science fiction authors even manage to conceive of an idea that advances humanity before dedicated scientists do.

There was a period during my time in high school that I devoured much of his work – even today I look back fondly on works like The Sentinel, upon which the 2001: Space Odyssey novel and film was originally based. His so-labelled “three laws” are worth re-iterating here, and exemplify the man’s intelligence and powers of observation:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The first sums up much of humanity’s experience with theoretical physics over the course of the last couple of centuries. The third and perhaps most memorable dictum probably underpins a large proportion of all science fiction in the latter half of the last century, and is particularly revered by sceptics. It also (ironically) represents the seed feeding the pop scientific theory that is there are (or indeed were) gods, they not inconceivably could have been aliens with technology superceding anything that humans were comfortable with or understood at the time.

As is almost always the case with writers, one of the best things we can all do to honour the life of Arthur C. Clarke is to pick up one or two of his works and read, or re-read them. If science fiction ever does manage to drag itself out of the hermitage and into the mainstream of literature in the eyes of critics, Arthur C. Clarke will be remembered as the man whose captivating works notched up some early, decisive victories for his genre. It is a sad day, but we can all be consoled by the knowledge that groundbreaking writers like him live on in their works forever.

2 thoughts on “The death of a purveyor of magic

  1. Science fiction (and fantasy, and the areas where the two are interchangeable) will never be ‘respectable’. In some respects that is a shame, but in other respects striving for it is a fools’ game. The only ‘respectable’ literature is that sort of no-genre writing that gets filed under serious-literature. The best of it ends up there by accident, and the rest is unreadable dross.

    Better that sci-fi go on being itself and throwing up the shining lights among the dross – just like every other artform.

    I should read some Arthur C. Clarke one of these days. Of course I adore 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film, but I probably should not make too much of that, as it apparently was more Kubrick’s vision on the screen, than strictly Clark’s story. So I speak from ignorance.

  2. I’m not sure about that – I think with the steady mainstreaming of science-fiction (perhaps I use the term loosely) in Hollywood, there is hope that science-fiction writing will at some point emerge as a true form of “literature”. Pop science fiction has such crossover appeal with teenagers in particular that it would seem only natural that there is a market for mature work as those teenagers move into adulthood.

    There is always too much to read at any one given time, and it is indeed a shame that it takes events like this to remind us of some authors’ bodies of work.

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