Photograph of Arthur C. Clarke in 1965 - ITU Pictures/Wikimedia Commons
CAIRO – 17 December 2017: December 16 is the birthday of British science-fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, a prolific author best known for scriptwriting “2001: A Space Odyssey”, considered to be one of the most important films of all time.
Born in the seaside town of Minehead Somerset, England in 1917, Clarke’s interest in science was nurtured by his time at a farm collecting fossils, reading magazines, watching the stars and wondering what lay beyond. He moved to London in 1934 to join the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), an idealistic futurist group that advocated for human exploration of space. Here he wrote for their newsletter and had even begun dipping into science-fiction, but the onslaught of WWII interrupted that.
Clarke’s time serving in the war proved to be to his benefit, however, as he served as a technician and radar instructor with the Royal Air Force from 1941 to 1946 and was amongst the earliest people to use radars that would help pilots land in poor weather. In 1945, Clarke wrote an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays” for the Wireless World magazine, which predicted the usage of a satellite system that would transmit radio and TV signals all around the world. This was the first of many scientific predictions Clarke made that eventually came true.
A year later, Clarke would see his first story sold, “Rescue Party”, in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. After the war’s end, Clarke would continue to pursue the scientific education he so always desired, eventually receiving a fellowship for King’s College in London. He graduated in 1948 with honors in Math and Physics, the knowledge of which he would use to provide the scientific backbone to his stories.
In 1950, Clarke published a non-fiction book, “Interplanetary Flight”, which discussed the logistics behind space travel. He followed that up a year later with “The Exploration of Space” and later wrote three novels about mankind settling into the solar system. It was his 1953 science-fiction story “Childhood’s End”, however, that received serious critical acclaim. It explores humanity’s interactions with a benevolent alien race known as the Overlords, who peacefully invade Earth and help usher humanity into a new era of existence.
He would continue to receive further praise with his future short stories, such as “The Nine Billion Names of God” and the Hugo-award winning “The Star”, where a space expedition on a distant planet explores the ruins of civilization destroyed when their star became a supernova. A Christian priest on board is shocked to discover this was the Star of Bethlehem.
Now an esteemed writer and thinker, Clarke was frequently consulted by scientists, including Americans, whom he helped to design spacecrafts and satellites. Clarke also discovered another passion: the ocean. In 1956 he moved to Sri Lanka and began to explore diving, the experience he likened to being the closest he could get to exploring space. He lived a second life in Sri Lanka, where he would photograph coral reefs and even helped to discover underwater ruins. Clarke would write about his diving experiences in the books “The Coast of Coral” and “The Reefs of Taprobane”.
In 1962, following his recovery from polio, Clarke wrote the novel “Profiles of the Future”, where he speculated on various human inventions up until 2100. It was also in this book that he came up with three laws, with the third being the best known – "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Clarke’s grandest project was only yet to come. Starting in 1964, Clarke met up with acclaimed American director Stanley Kubrick and worked alongside him to adapt his 1951 story “The Sentinel” into a feature length movie, eventually hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments in all of cinematic history. He would write a book based off the script, eventually turning it into a full-fledged trilogy known as the “2001 series”.
As the space race culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, where TV host Walter Cronkite interviewed Clarke and fellow science fiction author Robert Heinlein on the implications of NASA’s achievement. There Clarke discussed his shocked reaction to the landing, which he felt had forever changed humanity.
Clarke would win the Nebula award for his 1971 story “A Meeting with Medusa”, another tale of humanity contacting alien life – this time on Jupiter. His next novel, “Rendezvous with Rama”, would win both a Hugo and Nebula award two years later, and his 1979 story “The Fountains of Paradise” would win both awards once more.
Polio complications would return to strike Clarke, this time leaving him wheel-chair bound most of the time. It still did not prevent him from writing further novels, or even from scuba diving. His remaining novels required the help of other authors, and in 1983, the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation was established to improve quality of life for people, especially in more impoverished nations. He was knighted in the early 2000s, and he lived in Sri Lanka until March 19, 2008, where he died at the age of 90 from respiratory failure.
Clarke’s legacy continues to be felt to this day, with the International Astronomical Union naming the distance of 36,000 kilometers above the Earth’s equator as the “Clarke orbit”.