To celebrate National Science Fiction Day tomorrow, here’s a look at Arthur C. Clarke, author of sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Although Clarke famously built his own telescopes while growing up on the family farm near Bishops Lydeard, he drew earlier inspiration from visits to his birth town of Minehead. His grandmother lived near the beach, which sparked Clarke’s imagination with its sandy shores and rocky tide pools, and housed a neighboring family that made a unique impression on the writer-to-be. Clarke not only received his introduction to science fiction with his friend Larry Kille’s November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, he found himself overwhelmed by grandma Kille’s state-of-the-art knitting machines. “I can still hear the clicking of the hundreds of needles and the whir of the well-oiled gear wheels,” he recalled in Neil McAleer’s biography, Odyssey of a Visionary. “My own interest in science owes much to the fascinating hardware that Mrs. Kille operated with effortless skill.”
The Clarke Orbit
Before earning fame for his imaginative novels, Clarke made waves in different academic circles for his 1945 magazine article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” The article proposed the concept of relaying radio and television signals from satellites in geostationary orbit — meaning they match the planet’s rotation so they appear fixed in the sky — at approximately 22,236 miles above Earth. Clarke didn’t invent this particular idea, but he was the first to explain in clear terms how it could be used to develop a global communication network. His concept came to fruition, with telecommunications satellites today nestled in geostationary orbit at 22,236 miles above the planet, a level dubbed the “Clarke Orbit” by the International Astronomical Union.
A Passion for Scuba Diving
In 1956, Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in large part so he could partake in one of his great loves — scuba diving. As with other endeavors, Clarke excelled in this field. The same year he took up residency in the country, he discovered the underwater ruins of the 2,000-year-old Koneswaram temple during a diving expedition with photographer Mike Wilson. He went on to publish several diving books with Wilson, and he later opened a diving school in the coastal town of Hikkaduwa. Late in life, when he was stricken with post-polio syndrome and confined to a wheelchair, Clarke could still enjoy a free range of motion underwater while partaking in smaller dives.
Along with heralding the coming of a global communications network, Clarke seemed to have a pretty good bead on what the future would hold. During recorded interviews in 1964 and 1976, he described technological innovations that would bring the general public home computers, email, Skype and smartwatches, among other creations. Of course, the man wasn’t Nostradamus — Clarke figured humans would set foot on Mars by 1994, and we’re still waiting for that space elevator that renders rocket travel obsolete; still, it’s an impressive record for someone who once noted that “Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation.”
The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Clarke’s collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey was unlike any other fictional project he sunk his teeth into. When the two agreed to work together in 1964, they decided that Clarke would first write a novel, based loosely on his 1948 short story “The Sentinel,” with the screenplay to be developed from there. That idea was soon amended to account for the novel and screenplay being written concurrently, and by 1965, all bets were off as filming began as well. The famously demanding Kubrick required continual changes to the script, leading to inevitable differences between the 1968 feature film and subsequent novel (i.e., a change from Jupiter to Saturn for the mission’s destination). But the collaboration was a successful one in spite of the frenzied process, as Clarke and Kubrick scored a joint 1969 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Honors & Knighthood
Along with the Oscar nomination, Clarke garnered just about as many accolades as one man could stuff into a lifetime. He won Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards for his stories, was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and voted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Kalinga prize for helping to popularize science and claimed a Marconi International Fellowship for his engineering work. Of course, those are small potatoes compared to those that bring a head of state into the equation: He was formally named a Knight of the British Empire in 2000, and in 2005 he was conferred Sri Lankabhimanya, Sri Lanka’s highest civilian honor.
A Cosmic Tribute
Hours before Clarke’s death on March 19, 2008, NASA’s Swift satellite detected the presence of a powerful gamma-ray burst from an ancient region of the universe. The result of an incomprehensibly massive star’s explosion some 7.5 billion years ago, the burst appeared briefly in the constellation Boötes, making it by far the oldest, farthest celestial object visible to the naked eye. If not quite a tribute from some cosmic overlord, it was a fitting coda to the life of a man who spent much of his days seeking to understand the great mysteries beyond our world.