A bone, cast into the African sky by a prehistoric ape, cuts to a satellite spinning in orbit. A space plane docks with a rotating space station to the strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube. A star-child, poised between human and alien, floats towards the Earth.
The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who died last week aged 90, is most likely to be remembered by these spectacular images from the 1968 film of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But the irony is that director Stanley Kubrick managed to draw out Clarke’s fascination with the infinite in ways his writing could rarely manage.
Clarke’s professional career started in 1946 and he soon found himself propelled into the front ranks of post war science fiction, alongside Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
Together these writers promoted a form of science fiction that rejected the fantastic in favour of rational extrapolations from scientific and technical knowledge. This became known as “hard SF” – a style of science fiction that tries not to violate scientific principles.
Although some leftists have worked in this tradition, it is more typically associated with right wing, free market libertarianism.
Some hard SF practitioners worked on Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal for a space-based missile defence system. Others are involved today in modelling potential terrorist scenarios for the US government.
Clarke himself had close personal ties with the US space agency Nasa and was one of its most vocal public supporters. Nasa, in turn, named two spacecraft in Clarke’s honour.
What made Clarke unique in his generation was the way in which he reworked elements from early British science fiction into a US idiom.
In particular, he took the evolutionary and cosmic timescale of British writers such as HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon, but jettisoned their melancholy in favour of the technocratic optimism of the new US empire.
But the insignificance of our tiny planet in the immensity of space provoked in Clarke a turn to the sublime, rather than a desire for conquest.
In Rendezvous With Rama (1972) an alien spacecraft bypasses our solar system on its way to somewhere more important. In Childhood’s End (1953) superior alien beings called the Overlords enable humankind to undertake an evolutionary leap.
Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1954) involves engineers installing a computer in a Buddhist monastery so that the monks can more speedily list all of god’s possible names. As the computer finishes its run, they look up to the sky and see that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out”.
This sentence captures the central dynamic in Clarke’s work – a tension between the desire for rationality and the knowledge that the universe is bigger and more strange than anything human reason can conjure.
One of Clarke’s contemporaries, James Gunn, claimed that “serious” science fiction looks “at humanity from the viewpoint of the universe”.
In practice this works as an ideological sleight-of-hand that allows educated, white and middle class men to claim their privileged position is somehow universal and “free from ideology”.
Consider the paternalistic alien Overlords of Childhood’s End. They unite humankind and impose English as the global language. They resemble more than slightly the colonial administrators of the British Empire.
The Overlords are “self-sacrificing”. They bring “progress” – represented as the viewpoint of the Universe – to the unenlightened natives of Earth.
They radically transform our world without any meaningful discussion. They bear the galactic equivalent of the “white man’s burden”, and do so without agenda or motive of their own.
The seemingly endless reasonableness of Clarke’s narrative voice lures the reader into identifying with this position. Many readers loved Clarke’s placid descriptions of coming technological marvels. Indeed, novels like Imperial Earth and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) are not so much stories as ever-so politely guided tours.
Free from the tub-thumping libertarianism of Heinlein and his imitators, Clarke offered a deeply consoling vision. In it, rationality, the absence of women, sensible white middle class views and a hint of “manifest destiny” conquer even the need for politics – which is why so many of his characters come across as middle managers.
But every so often something slips through – moments of visionary incomprehension when the universe exceeds Clarke’s own authorial control.
He knew the universe is incomprehensibly vast. He knew that it was material, not supernatural. Yet somehow it was always just beyond him, slipping free of the chains of reason.
Mark Bould is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of the West of England