Arthur C. Clarke

Known as one of the modern masters of science fiction, English novelist Arthur C. Clarke (born 1917) created the immensely popular 2001 series, which became the basis for a classic film in 1968.

Arthur C. Clarke is the architect of some of the 20th Century's most enduring mythology. A futurist and science fiction writer, Clarke has penned over 600 articles and short stories, as well as dozens of novels and collections. His work has been translated into over 30 languages and adapted on television and in Hollywood movies, most notably in the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. That Stanley Kubrick movie helped make Arthur C. Clarke an international celebrity. It won a whole new audience for his visionary tales about the possibilities of science and the wonders of space exploration, and solidified his reputation as one of the modern masters of science fiction.


Discovers Science Fiction Early

Arthur Charles Clarke was born on December 16, 1917 in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England. His parents, Charles Wright and Nora (Willis) Clarke, were farmers. Clarke was educated at Huish's Grammar School in Taunton, Somerset. He first began reading science fiction at the age of 12, when he first discovered the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. It soon became his principal passion. "During my lunch hour away from school I used to haunt the local Woolworth's in search of my fix," he told The New York Times Book Review, "which cost three pence a shot, roughly a quarter today."

As a teenager, Clarke began writing his own stories for a school magazine. When poverty forced him to drop out of school in 1936, he moved to London to work as a civil servant auditor for the British government. He kept up his interest in outer space by joining the British Interplanetary Society, an association of sci-fi hobbyists. He wrote articles on space exploration for the Society journal and got to know other science fiction writers and editors. He would later use these contacts to secure the publication of his first stories.

When World War II broke out, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he worked as a radar instructor and earned the rank of flight-lieutenant. During this time, Clarke served as a technical officer on the first Ground Control Approach radar. In 1945, he wrote an article, "Extraterrestrial Relays," which proposed using satellites for communications, something which would become quite common in later years. After the war ended he returned to London and enrolled at King's College. He graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of science degree. His honor subjects were mathematics and physics.


Becomes Prominent Futurist

In 1946, Clarke became the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society. That spring saw the publication of his first two science fiction stories, "Loophole" and "Rescue Party" (both published in Amazing Science Fiction magazine). During this period, he often wrote under pen names, which included Charles Willis and E.G. O'Brien. His early stories were known for their tidy construction and sound scientific basis.

In 1949, Clarke returned to hard science, joining the staff of Physics Abstracts as its assistant editor. But he continued writing about outer space as well. His first novel, Prelude to Space was published in 1951. Another book, The Sands of Mars followed later that year. While many reviewers found the prose in these novels a bit stiff, they did offer an optimistic view of the potentials of science in the space age. Islands in the Sky (1952), about a boy in an orbiting space station, was another representative early book.


Sentinel of Things To Come

In 1952, Clarke received the International Fantasy Award for his early work. The next year, he published Expedition to Earth, a collection of short stories which included "The Sentinel." This tale, which involves the discovery by humans of a mysterious alien monolith, was to form the basis of the 1968 film and novelization 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also marked the introduction of metaphysical and religious themes into Clarke's work. Many readers saw "The Sentinel" as an allegory about man's search for God. Certainly it expressed Clarke's belief in the power of science in helping mankind understand the universe.

Clarke continued to explore these themes in his next two books. Against the Fall of Night (1953) follows a young protagonist in his attempts to escape from the controlled environment of a utopian city of the future. Childhood's End involves an attempt by aliens to tutor mankind in the ways of cosmic transcendence. Both stories so gripped Clarke's imagination that he spent many years revising and rewriting them under various titles. Both novels are highly conceptual and contain many mystical, visionary passages. They are considered two of his finest achievements and helped break new ground in the science fiction genre.


Man of Many Interests

Clarke maintained other interests during this fertile period as well. On June 15, 1953, he married Marilyn Mayfield. In 1954, he took the first the first step in what would become a lifelong effort to explore and photograph the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the coast of Sri Lanka. He took up residence in Sri Lanka (known at the time as Ceylon) in 1956. An avid skin diver, Clarke wrote many non-fiction books and articles about his experiences.

Clarke continued to write prolifically throughout the 1950s. His work came to embrace many topics that went beyond the conventions of genre science fiction. The Deep Range (1954) concerned the possibility of farming under the sea in the future, managing to combine Clarke's interests in science and underwater exploration. The Star (1955) was another powerful allegorical story about a star put in the sky by God to herald the birth of Jesus. It won a Hugo award, the science fiction community's highest honor.

In the 1960s, Clarke began to concentrate on non-fiction. His writings on the nature of science won him the UNESCO Kalinga Prize in 1962. In 1963, he published his first non-science fiction novel, Glide Path, about the origins of radar. As space travel became more reality than fiction, Clarke began to write and speak extensively on the subject. He became well-known around the world as a television commentator for CBS covering the Apollo 11, 12, and 15 missions.


Becomes an International Figure

Clarke's fame took a quantum leap with the release of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This adaptation of Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" redefined science fiction filmmaking. It eschewed the cowboy conventions of earlier, Western-influenced movies about space exploration. Instead, 2001 followed Clarke's lead in using science fiction as a bridge to the consideration of mystical and religious themes. The limits of technology were also explored, in a scene where a space station's super computer, known as HAL 9000, goes berserk and attempts to kill its human users. The picture was a hit with moviegoers and made Clarke the most recognizable science fiction writer on the planet. He penned a novelization of the film which expanded upon the characters and themes contained in "The Sentinel."

Clarke used his newfound international celebrity to secure a lucrative new book contract. A collection of his non-fiction science writing, The Exploration of Space received the International Fantasy Award in 1972, A new novel, Rendezvous with Rama appeared in 1973. It explored many of the same themes as 2001 and was awarded all the major science fiction prizes. Imperial Earth: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1975) got a decidedly mixed reception from critics. But Clarke bounced back with Fountains of Paradise (1979), which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Clarke disappointed many of his fans, however, when he announced it would be his last book of fiction.

Reneges on Promise

By 1982, despite his previous statements, Clarke was ready to write another novel. He produced a sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, which was made into a popular film two years later. It was followed in 1986 by 2061: Odyssey Three, solidifying the "Sentinel" mythos into a full-blown series. Also in 1986, Clarke was the recipient of a Nebula Grand Master Award for his contributions to science fiction.

Now in his seventies and a certified living legend, Clarke showed no signs of slowing down. With help from co-author Gentry Lee, he produced sequels to Rendezvous with Rama in 1989, 1991, and 1994. In 1989, his memoir, Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography appeared. The entertaining account of his life contains many fascinating anecdotes about other writers Clarke had known. The solo novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990), about attempts to raise the Titanic in the near future, was dismissed by reviewers as too spare. But 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) returned Clarke to familiar and beloved territory. The sprawling conclusion to the saga begun in "The Sentinel" some 45 years earlier read like a summation of the visionary writer's life and philosophy.

Clarke's critics have said his work lacks warmth, that he concentrated on science to the detriment of the "human element" that is so necessary to good fiction. But critics sympathetic to Clarke's viewpoint see in his work a vision that transcends the limitations of "nuts and bolts" sci-fi. That vision, wrote Eric S. Rabkin in his study Arthur C. Clarke, is "a humane and open and fundamentally optimistic view of humankind and its potential in a universe which dwarfs us in physical size but which we may hope some day to match in spirit."

Further Reading on Arthur C. Clarke

Contemporary Authors, New Revisions, Volume 55, Gale, 1997.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nichols, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Hollow, John, Against the Night, The Stars: The Science Fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Harcourt Brace, 1983.

Rabkin, Eric S., Arthur C. Clarke, Starmont House, 1979.