English science fiction writer, inventor and explorer Sir Arthur C. Clarke is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of his time, one who contributed to the formation of the sci-fi genre as we know it. His innovative imagination and searing intellectual force have changed our perception of the universe forever. Although his most popular contribution is probably Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke’s entire body of work is a fascinating collection of his thoughts and insights. On the anniversary of his death, we take a look at Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s illustrious career in science fiction as a tribute to the pioneering intellectual.
Born on December 16, 1917, in Somerset, England, Clarke was born into a farming family where he was the eldest of four children. While growing up on the family farm, Clarke found himself wondering about the secrets of the universe. He would spend countless hours looking at the stars and collecting fossils piqued his interest as well. Curious about the subjects of science and astronomy, the young boy fashioned a homemade telescope and used it to look into the dark recesses of the cosmos. From an early age, he had all the makings of an innovator and later attributed his growth to an eclectic range of sources: from cigarette cards to sci-fi magazines like Amazing Stories.
Clarke continued researching about his interest areas in his teenage years and joined the Junior Astronomical Association, where he began writing about space travel. It was clear that Clarke was an intellectual force who used interesting concepts to tackle the problems of the universe, citing scientific research as well as works of popular culture like Walt Disney’s Fantasia. However, he had to leave all of it after his father passed away and look for work to support his family instead of pursuing his interests at university. Clarke travelled to London in 1936 and started working as a pensions auditor at the Board of Education. The experience was a formative one for the young writer who met other sci-fi thinkers and earned the nickname “Ego” because he would completely lose his grasp over reality while thinking about his chosen subjects.
Although Clarke had already started venturing into science fiction during this period, his efforts were interrupted by a cataclysmic event: the Second World War. He served as a radar specialist in the Royal Air Force and even contributed to the development of innovative military technology like the early-warning radar system. Clarke’s experiences during the war were later recorded in the non-science fiction – Glide Path (1963). After the end of WW-II, he received a fellowship which allowed him to continue his education at King’s College London, where he studied mathematics and physics and even served as the president of the British Interplanetary Society.
At the beginning of his career, Clarke had written non-fiction books and a few science-fiction stories in fanzines. However, his reputation as a “scientific” sci-fi writer was reinforced with the publication of his very first sci-fi novel, Against the Fall of Night, which was considered revolutionary for a burgeoning genre. During this period, his most famous work was the novel Childhood’s End which earned him widespread acclaim and immense popularity for his vision of the cosmos and his unrelenting imagination. It is still considered to be vastly influential and was even adapted for a 2015 television miniseries. The legendary writer C.S. Lewis also helped Clarke’s development in his early years and corresponded with him to engage in fascinating discussions about space travel and the genre of science fiction.
In 1948, Clarke penned a short story titled The Sentinel, which was rejected by the selection committee for a BBC competition. However, the story would change his career forever because it became the basis of his magnum opus: the 2001 series of novels. Although 2001: A Space Odyssey is known as his most famous work because of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful film adaptation, Clarke actually wrote three sequels to the seminal masterpiece, and one of those was also adapted for the big screen – but it did not come close to the artistic achievements of Kubrick’s vision.
In an interview, Clarke recalled: “Well I was heavily involved right from the beginning, and in fact Stanley went through a number of writers and eventually he sent me a fax for which many writers would have murdered their entire families, saying ‘only you can write the script. Name your figure.’ Well that was a challenge I couldn’t resist and I did write an outline and really I did it because I owed him so much – I never got a penny for it I never asked for anything.” The result of their collaboration has gone down in history as the greatest science fiction film ever made. Clarke provided the interesting philosophical framework for the film, and Kubrick managed to elevate it to the highest form of art: irresistibly elusive and definitively life-changing.
Clarke’s reputation grew to such dizzying heights that he was considered to be one of the “Big Three” of science fiction in the latter half of the 20th century, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. He continued his career as a prolific sci-fi writer and churned out more acclaimed works like Rendezvous with Rama, which won the Nebula Award as well as the Hugo Award. There were even attempts to adapt it for a film, but the production process proved to be too arduous. Although David Fincher and Morgan Freeman were initially attached to the project, it hasn’t materialised to date. Clarke produced more celebrate masterpieces like The Fountains of Paradise and wrote autobiographical works like Astounding Days and Ascent to Orbit. He even worked as a television host on popular series like Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.
Suffering from polio-related complications, Clarke found himself in a wheelchair, but he continued to write about the topics he had dedicated his life to. He had emigrated to Sri Lanka in 1956 and lived out the rest of his life there, scuba diving and discovering ancient underwater ruins. A futurist and a major proponent of space travel, Clarke even developed a revolutionary system for satellite communication which made use of geostationary orbits. For his contributions to his disciplines and beyond, Clarke was knighted in 1998 and was even awarded Sri Lanka’s highest civil honour award a few years before his death. At the age of 90, Clarke passed away due to respiratory failure, but his legacy has been immortalised. Over the course of his brilliant career, Clarke’s extensive writings proved that he was one of the most original thinkers of his time.
In the last years of his life, he reflected: “Beyond wisdom, there must be foresight. You know that’s really the end of the line. Wisdom itself isn’t enough. The whole series is data, information, knowledge, wisdom, foresight. There may be something beyond that, but I can’t think of it at the moment.”