Childhood’s End -- Arthur C Clarke, Science Fiction Writer, Dead at 90

Think of Arthur C Clarke and the first thing that would come to your mind is a giant monolith floating in space against the backdrop of the sun and the awe-inspiring musical motif provided by composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Think of his stories and you will be taken a million miles away on an amazing journey of fantasy and science fiction. But this giant of science fiction came from very humble beginnings.

The son of a farmer and a post office worker, Arthur C Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England. His tryst with science fiction came into being when he discovered a copy of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, a science fiction magazine of its time. It was all the inspiration he ever needed, he then joined the British Interplanetary Society, a group of science fiction buffs who argued that space travel was very much possible and that man achieve it in the distant future: a view Clarke strongly believed in.

His first published novel “Against the Fall of Night” (originally published in a magazine) would years later become the inspiration for the movie, “Pitch Black.” And his other novel, “The Hammer of God” inspired two summer blockbusters, “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”. Clarke’s imagination fascinated viewers, readers and even scientists alike. “I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.” Gene Roddenberry cited Clarke’s work as the inspiration behind his own creation, Star Trek.

His stories ranged from the apocalyptic, “Childhood’s End”, a story which described the final stage in humanity’s evolution to the genuinely weird, “Nine Billion Names of God” in which a group of monk scientists make a startling and strange discovery.

In the spring of 1964, Stanley Kubrick approached Arthur C Clarke with the idea to make a “proverbial really good science fiction movie”. Clarke was known for revisiting old ideas and rewriting them with a new twist. He used the template from an older story, “The Sentinel” and together with Kubrick (who wrote the screenplay) wrote the novel for the next four years. Kubrick would produce and direct the film which although wasn’t as successful in its time, it has found itself to have attained legendary status in cinematic history. From the appearance of the awe inspiring Monolith at the beginning of the movie and the infamous bone transforming into spaceship scene to the poignant humanity of szichophrenic computer HAL to the ominous creation of the Star-Child at the end of the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey” continues astonish audiences today.

He went on to write three more sequels to the book, out of which only one was made into a movie, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. Currently, only “Rendezvous with Rama” is one of his works which is in consideration to be made into a movie.

Though he achieved much, he had little or no regrets in life. He played a pivotal role in the development of the modern day radar, a development that provided success to the Royal Air Force in World War 2. He once recalled to a friend that he had lost billions of dollars by not applying for a patent for one of his most important ideas: using satellites as a form of communication relays. It is in his honor that the orbit that satellites use to revolve around earth is called “Clarke Orbit” by the International Astronomical Union.

In 1956, he permanently settled in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he discovered the wonders of scuba and underwater diving. He told friends and family that it would be as close to the weightlessness of space as he could possibly get. Along with his love for diving, Clarke fell in love with the nation of Sri Lanka and suffered terrible heartbreak as he watched the nation spiral into one of the longest and most devastating conflicts in the region.

A severe attack of polio in 1962 and development of post-polio symptoms in 1984 had limited him to a wheelchair. His vision and imagination knew no bounds. Only recently he had reviewed the manuscript to his latest novel, “The Last Theorem” co-written with American author, Frederik Pohl. The book is stated to be published in late 2008. Speaking about the book to Agence France-Presse, he said, “This could well be my last novel, but I’ve said that before.”

Though he explored strange new worlds, introduced us to advanced cultures and ventured to galaxies light years away in his stories, he kept his own life very private. He married in 1953 to Marilyn Mayfield, also a diving enthusiast, but divorced in 1964, with no children.

Perhaps it is his own words – the ones he chose to be put on his gravestone – that give us a glimpse of who he really was: "Here lies Arthur C Clarke. He never grew up and did not stop growing.”

Arthur C Clarke died on March 19, 2008 in Colombo, Sri Lanka due to respiratory complications and heart failure.

(Originally published in the 30th March, 2008 edition of Dawn Images)