My Debt To Arthur C. Clarke

March 23, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke’s death hit me harder than other recent obituaries, even though it’s been decades since I read much by him. His were some of the first science fiction stories I read, at the age of ten or eleven; and for several years after that he was my favorite author.

I remember, during one of our long summer trips visiting the extended family in Germany, finding one of his story collections in the small English-language section of a public library. I read it over and over and over. I don’t remember which book it was, but it had some of his classic stories like “The Sentinel”, which became the inspiration of the film “2001”.

A bit later, it became my life’s highest priority to see that film. I had the novelization, and the making-of book The Lost Worlds Of 2001, and the soundtrack record (which itself was a big influence on me musically). But this was before video rentals, when you had to wait patiently for a movie to show up in a theater. Fortunately there were correspondingly a lot of theaters that showed older movies; but it still took months of poring over the newspaper theater listings before I finally found a showing of “2001” and dragged my dad to take me to see it. And it was worth the effort: I’d never seen anything like it. (This must have been 1976 or early ’77, since it was before “Star Wars” came out.)

Clarke wrote a lot about space travel, but when I think back, what really blew my mind about his fiction wasn’t space but time. He was good at portraying far distant, alien futures, as in the book The City And The Stars, set on an Earth turned desert, lit by a burning-out Sun, with only one city left (thanks to its “eternity circuits” that defeat entropy and keep everything the same.) I also remember a story from that book I read in Germany, in which a future dictator has himself put into suspended animation in a sealed vault, and Clarke describes the infinitely slow processes of geological change taking place outside as millions of years pass, before he awakens.

It’s fourth-dimensional vertigo, staring dizzily into time, and I’m forever in his debt for acquainting me with it.