Remembering the Space Age: Arthur C Clarke dead at 90

Crikey logoBugger. The Space Age ended today. Sir Arthur C Clarke, the grand master of science fiction, is dead at age 90. According to the BBC he died in Sri Lanka, his adopted home since 1956, from a cardio-respiratory attack.

Clarke is best-known, of course, for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the 1966 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even today it’s visually stunning, a grand expression of 1960s technological confidence. Even today, the ending still makes no sense whatsoever, with or without LSD.

Everyone remembers that the computer HAL 9000 went mad and killed the crew. The real lesson is that HAL went mad because his masters had told him to lie, to cover up the mission’s true purpose. This Cold War-era fable about how paranoia corrupts the mind remains completely relevant in this age of The Continual War on Terror.

Diagram from paper on satellite communication

What Clarke should really be remembered for, however — and what could have made him a multi-billionaire — is suggesting the use of geostationary satellites for international telecommunications.

Clarke’s 1945 paper “Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” sketched out the idea so thoroughly that it counts as “prior art” and no-one’s been able to gain patents ever since.

Apart from 33 novels, 13 short-story collections, TV programs and countless non-fiction works, Clarke was a regular letter-writer to New Scientist magazine. Sometimes he wrote about the ethics and politics of science and technology, but more often than not it was to point out that some newly-patented idea had already been described in one of his novels decades before. Not to boast, just to chuckle.

Sir Arthur is dead. The Space Age is dead.

At least the First Space Age is dead. The 1960s imperative “to boldly go” as imagined by visionaries like Clarke has congealed into a bloated, bureaucratic NASA which has, in the US at least, drained all the excitement from spaceflight.

Long live Space Age 2.0, funded not by governments asserting their fitness to rule the world, but by entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. Space will never be the same.

[A slightly different version of this story was published in Crikey today.]

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14 comments

  1. Alastair’s avatar

    What is it with the aging nerd pantheon dropping like flies this year? First Gary Gygax, and now this…

    (I realise that two recent deaths hardly warrants the phrase “dropping like flies”, but at least be thankful that I didn’t use that irritating “in as many weeks” device favoured by commercial news channels…)

    On a pedantic note, you say 1966 but the wikipedia article you linked to says 1968. So does IMDB.

  2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Alastair: Yes, I screwed up. 2001: A Space Odyssey was planned for a 1966 release, yes, but thanks to many delays wasn’t actually released until 1968.

    Clarke was one of a wave of post-WWII SF writers who were of a certain generation. Most are already dead — I’m thinking of Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. Clarke’s one of the last left. Ray Bradbury is still around though.

  3. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    This is a sad day.

    I’m not boned up on science literature or most of those authors you mention, Stil, but I absolutely place Clarke in that realm of throw-out-the-square-altogether-type sci-fi visionaries (such as the also-late Douglas Adams and whoever the fuck came up with the concept of the Daleks) who helped introduce ordinary sorts like me to The Big Questions about our humble place in the universe.

    The scale of the man’s thinking is belied by the simple common sense of his hypotheses. That’s not contested. But surely the real take-home coffee table subject for tonight is how we reconcile our admiration and respect for Sir Arthur C. Clarke with his admitted history as a pedophile.

    Anyone?

  4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Stephen Stockwell: Erm, “admitted history as a pedophile”? There were certainly allegations by the Sunday Mirror which a Sri Lankan police investigation determined to be “baseless”. Do you know of “admissions” which we’re not aware of?

    Of course, now that Clarke is dead and cannot sue for libel, all sorts of information might emerge. Stand by.

    That said, if the allegation were true, why would we have to “reconcile” that with our admiration for his work? Different axes of measurement, surely? Can we not like one aspect of a person’s life while disliking another?

    Surely as a sophisticated media-savvy gentleman, Stephen, you can hold an opinion of someone which is more nuanced than “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy”?

  5. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    Touche.

    I haven’t done my homework.
    But I’m recalling a bulletin, probably on a commercial network, from about 4 or 5 years ago when Clarke’s arrest over this issue took place. From memory, Sir Arthur didn’t deny the allegations, but — more tellingly — his underlying attitude to the issue was one of ‘so what?’ indifference. And I’ll search for the relevant articles later.

    As for the different axes of looking at Clarke’s life and work, Mr. Gherrian, that sort of compare/contrast was precisely the sort of thinking that my post was aimed at provoking. I’d thought fearless inquiry, debate and such like was what your blog was all about. So it’s depressing to read you think I’m doing nothing more than playing “Good Guy/Bad Guy”.

    Oh well.

  6. Tekla’s avatar

    A colleague of mine was fortunate to be the last journalist to interview Clarke before his death, you can listen to the interview at spectrum.ieee.org/radio?id=2518, read a summary at spectrum.ieee.org/mar08/6075, or read the whole transcript spectrum.ieee.org/mar08/6076.

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Stephen Stockwell: Ah, so “failing to deny the allegation (at least in the few moments of commercial TV footage that I vaguely recall from some unspecified time in the past)” now makes you guilty? Hang on, I’ll just amend my list of fundamental legal principles: Innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law. There! Done.

    No need to search for the relevant articles, they’re already linked from the Wikipedia entry for Arthur C Clarke. We even have that much-needed denial as required under the Stockwell Doctrine, as well as this report.

    I’m all for fearless inquiry, yes my Dear Friend. I’m also for rigorous thinking, human rights and the rule of law. And as a Dear Friend, you get roasted more quickly. 🙂

    I do like “The Stockwell Doctrine”, though. Sounds like a good title for a thriller.

    @Tekla: Thanks very much for the pointer.

  8. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    But surely the real take-home coffee table subject for tonight is how we reconcile our admiration and respect for Sir Arthur C. Clarke with his admitted history as a pedophile.

    And my apologies to the late Sir Arthur and anyone else between me and the Magna Carta who has ever had something unproven about them suggested as fact in public. I should always look before I leap, but for now, I hope the adrenal giddiness passes soon, Stil.

  9. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    Ah, I meant that first line to be strike-through.

  10. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Stephen Stockwell: Strikeout added, for your viewing pleasure. But “adrenal giddiness”? I hardly even raised a sweat. Flicking off such a pathetic effort is easy work… 😉

  11. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    Effort?
    What was I trying to do, exactly?

  12. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    Nevertheless, it’s this same combative salivating you so readily indulge in that I was referring to. I enjoy reading your blog most of the time, but lately you seem to greet each day bristling with power and invective in search of a target.

    Any target.

    You could have called me out on the unsubstantiated pedophilia allegations without spitting…but it seems that just wouldn’t be as much fun for you — the same sort of fun a big kid has while going around the classroom giving smaller kids dead arms. Because he can.

    So here you are, king of your electronic castle, where at some point almost every day we’ll all get to watch you patting yourself on the back for whichever name-dropable name you’re rubbing shoulders with and snickering at your latest, overblown online street fight dressed up as intellectual rigor. Surely you don’t think we need more of this sort of grandstanding on the internet? Or have I got it all wrong and you’re actually fighting the good fight?

    Don’t ever get into cocaine.

  13. Bernard’s avatar

    and oh dear, your correction in Crikey got typo’d unless you have segued the end of hitherto unknown Borstal incarceration with the release of the film 🙂

    Stilgherrian writes: Re. “Remembering the Space Age: Arthur C Clarke dead at 90” (yesterday, item 5). OK, I screwed up. The Kubrick/Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey was originally planned for a 1966 release, but there were delays. I was, indeed, released in 1968.

  14. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Bernard: Sadly the typo was in the original email to Crikey. I have changed keyboards and I’m still getting used to it.

    @Stephen Stockwell: We’ll resolve this one via our private emails and the phone, I think. Folks have seen enough of our spat so far…

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