Busy? Oh, a tad…

Finals week is always good for filling my mind with many other things than I normally would deal with — but it’s all part of the job: hiring new students, planning for the next quarter, catching up on a variety of things to ensure a smooth transition and so forth. I don’t mind it all, because I always look at it as a chance to improve what’s already there, to smooth it out more fully for next time around. (And I’ve already got a few ideas in place — the trick is never to rest on your laurels but ask yourself what can be done better and more quickly.)

So maybe some more thoughts tonight — in fact, definitely more thoughts, as I’ll be linking to some recent AMG work — but for now, I’m not too proud to say that this is the headline of the year. Others have been more overt in their puns and the like, but it’s the flatness here that counts.

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

To say this will be one of many tributes on Clarke on the Internet will understate. To say that the fact that these tributes would not be possible on the Internet without Clarke overstates — but only to an extent. (For myself, I find the fact that I learned about it via a quick check at cnn.com on my iPhone perfectly appropriate — almost right, somehow.)

Clarke was and remains a complicated, complex character. He’s remarkably hard to pin down in many ways and I’m sure he would have liked it that way. I can’t say I ever felt a direct affection for him as a writer or a thinker, not in the same way that, for instance, Carl Sagan hotwired my youth via Cosmos, and how his death honestly saddened and moved me. In part I’m not too overwrought here because, after all, Clarke had lived a full life — ninety years? we should all be lucky! — and to realize that he was born a year before the end of First World War, and to imagine all that he saw change in his lifetime is to imagine much.

But when I say I don’t feel a direct affection, this is not to say I’m not heavily impacted by many of his works. He effortlessly crossed boundaries between scientist, public figure and fiction (and nonfiction) writer and popularizer, and as such took advantage of a position not entirely feasible anymore, a high profile voice in a more centralized, smaller media world that still had worldwide reach. Starting with the legendary 1945 paper proposing geostationary orbiting satellites — for which alone he would deserve honor upon his passing — he emerged as one of the classic post-war (meaning WWII) figures, someone whose experiences were shaped by it but also helped provide the springboard to greater heights. Those older than me could speak to this more directly, but I always sensed his presence and stature, not in a grandiose way but a constant one.

For many people it’ll always come back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and nobody should be surprised. It actually remains one of the most realistic portrayals of space yet, for all the trappings and predictions of which companies would make it to that time (hi dere, Pan Am) — from the absolute silence of space to the delayed broadcast time between Discovery and Earth and more, it treats the limits of physics and technology as we still know them. But Clarke himself had firmly believed in the possibility of near-light travel, and if his predictions come true, it would be a marvelous way to honor his memory in another century by naming the first experimental vessel after him. Time will yet tell on that front.

Yet getting back to the film, the fact that Clarke and Kubrick were able to create a compelling portrait that remains powerful still — the first time I saw it, in the mid-eighties, my Star Wars and after loving self was quite captivated, for all that the pacing and style and everything else about was unlike nearly all other science fiction I’d known in cinematic terms — is to their credit, and if Kubrick was the interpreter and filmmaker, then Clarke provided the base. It’s perhaps little surprise that the first fiction book of Clarke’s I read was his first sequel to that film, 2010: Odyssey Two; the film adaptation of that was a strangely compromised vision that was eaten alive at the box office that fall by the original Terminator. But I had a chance to reread the book and still enjoy much about it — Dr. Chandra, the near-obsessive computer scientist, hoping to revive his beloved Hal, the chilling report from the lone Chinese astronaut stranded on Europa, the visions of Jupiter and Earth seen through the eyes of Dave Bowman or what was once him, and these are some of the many moments. Like the original film, it’s a product of its time — the old Cold War hadn’t long to live after its publication, but then again, who knows about a new one? — but I still appreciate its deft power and suggestiveness, all tethered to projections in hard science not yet true, but growing more likely with time.

Much of his other work remains memorable, a vehicle for speculation as often mystical as it is concrete — Childhood’s End remains a strange, fascinating form of wish fulfillment in particular, but one that takes certain philosophical stances to logical conclusions, with some alien assistance. And we can but hope that David Fincher finds a way to make the profound majesty of the titular ‘character’ in Rendezvous with Rama clear.

But to conclude on two of his works I was most familiar with at an even younger age — there was a series made for British TV in the early eighties called Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, an exploration of a variety of, indeed, mysteries, touching on everything from vitrified forts to the Baghdad battery to, in a now newly timely vein, crystal skulls, which had the obligatory tie-in book that I received as a gift. He himself did not write the book nor produce the series, but in his foreword notes how it grew out of discussions with the two actual authors, presumably also the series producers, and he provides brief separate commentaries on each chapter. The whole is a wry, sharp celebration of oddities and curiosities that steers clear of the In Search Of… mindset in favor of a more scientific l but not entirely unromantic point of view — as he puts it at the end of the chapter on the Loch Ness monster, “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I believe in Nessie.” Meanwhile, he concludes the book in part on this enjoyable note:

…whether they are important or not, easily seen through or impossible of solution — mysteries are fun. Even if they are only Nature’s practical jokes, they add to our enjoyment of the marvellous universe around us; and my colleagues and I hope that we have conveyed some of that enjoyment to you….If we can find the answers to as many as ten per cent, I should be very pleased — and surprised.

And even if we got the answers to one hundred per cent, there are plenty more where they came from.

Meantime, Clarke also provided the foreword for one of the most imagination-prodding books of my youth, The New Challenge of the Stars, one of many collaborations between Clarke’s friend and fellow English scientific personality (and, it must sadly be noted, utter crab) Patrick Moore and painter David Hardy, the latter providing a variety of imaginative scenes ranging from our own solar system to portrayals of deep space probes and ships, awesome starscapes at the center of the galaxy, a dying world overwhelmed by a dying sun. I have it still, and value it greatly for the memories. Though Clarke did not write the text, his foreword talks briefly but with informed, thoughtful passion on the illustrators of his own youth that fired his thoughts — he rightly and understandably names both classic pulp artist Frank R. Paul and the more scientifically accurate but no less dramatic Chesley Bonestell — and in talking about them and the decisions they make reaches a paragraph that could just as well be applied to him and his own imaginative fiction, which he doubtless recognized — and his point is just as appropriate:

Of course, the space-artist can sometimes be proven wrong — but that is part of the fun. Pre-Apollo moonscapes were invariably too jagged, and few if any of the artists (or scientists) anticipated the softly-yielding soil of the maria. Nor did anyone expect Mars to be covered with craters that would have looked perfectly at home on the Moon; or a Venus that rotated backwards and was almost red-hot; or a Mercury that had a sunrise and sunset. There will be other surprises to come.

And sadly, Clarke will learn no more new surprises. But what a range of ones he saw and foresaw. Rest well, sir.