Already renowned for his science fiction and scientific nonfiction, Arthur C. Clarke became the world's most famous science fiction writer after the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He then produced novels like Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise that many regard as his finest works. Gary Westfahl closely examines Clarke's remarkable career, ranging from his forgotten juvenilia to the passages he completed for a final novel, The Last Theorem. As Westfahl explains, Clarke's science fiction offered original perspectives on subjects like new inventions, space travel, humanity's destiny, alien encounters, the undersea world, and religion. While not inclined to mysticism, Clarke necessarily employed mystical language to describe the fantastic achievements of advanced aliens and future humans. Westfahl also contradicts the common perception that Clarke's characters were bland and underdeveloped, arguing that these reticent, solitary individuals, who avoid conventional relationships, represent his most significant prediction of the future, as they embody the increasingly common lifestyle of people in the twenty-first century.
About the Author
Gary Westfahl, formerly of the University of La Verne and the University of California, Riverside, has now retired to focus exclusively on research and writing. His many books on science fiction include William Gibson and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction.
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The key facts about Clarke's early life have been presented in several sources: he grew up on a farm, Ballifants, in the village of Bishops Lydeard; experienced the trauma of his father's death when he was thirteen; began creative writing while attending Huish's Grammar School in Taunton, Somerset; and after graduating moved on to a civil service position in London and intense involvement in science fiction fandom. Recently available sources, however, provide additional details about youthful activities that anticipated later achievements.
From an early age Clarke was primarily interested in science. Among other activities — described in Fred Clarke's "Arthur C. Clarke: The Early Days" (1987) — he collected fossils, assembled objects with his Meccano construction set, installed an intercom system in his home, and devised an experimental way to transmit sound using light beams and photoelectric cells. But he became especially fascinated with outer space and the possibility of space travel, building telescopes, and constructing and launching small rockets. These experiences are occasionally alluded to in later fiction: both "Saturn Rising" (1961) and Rendezvous with Rama describe boys obsessed with astronomy who construct telescopes, and Clarke's 1938 poem "Prelude to the Conquest of Space" makes fun of his rocket experiments, as the narrator's three progressively more ambitious efforts to launch rockets all result in destructive explosions.
Still, even while looking up at the sky and speculating about its wonders, the young Clarke also spent time at his grandmother's house in Minehead and its nearby beach. In his "Foreword: Coming Home," to Literary Trips (2001), Clarke describes this beach as "a great crescent of sand from which I could see the distant coast of Wales, and the mysterious islands of Flat Holme and Steep Holme. Every day the tide's long withdrawal would expose a wonderland of rock pools full of alien life forms: here I would construct elaborate sand castles and await their demolition by the returning waves. This much-loved playground was the inspiration for my short story 'Transience.'" These childhood experiences laid the groundwork for his later devotion to scuba diving in Sri Lanka; indeed, Clarke concludes, "The great arc of Minehead bay ... imprinted itself on my mind so effectively that I unconsciously sought it for the rest of my life" (ix), explaining his devotion to "Unawatuna Bay, on the south coast of Sri Lanka," which he later realized constituted his "platonic ideal — the apotheosis of my childhood playground" (x).
For biographer Neil McAleer the crucial event of Clarke's childhood was the death of his father, Charles Clarke, effectively obliging Clarke to serve as a father figure of sorts to his younger sister and two younger brothers, and perhaps establishing his lifelong pattern, noted by McAleer, of forging strong friendships with younger men. Still, Clarke indicates that he and his father were never close; in "Introduction: Of Sand and Stars" (1983) he recounts how his father once handed him a cigarette card with a picture of a dinosaur, stating this was "virtually the only memory I have of my father — a shadowy figure who has left no other mark, even though I was over 13 when he died" (10). While McAleer attributes Charles Clarke's death to lingering effects of the poison gas he was exposed to during World War I, Clarke simply says in his 1986 Playboy interview, "My father died prematurely of cancer" (59), and while retelling the anecdote of the cigarette card in his 2007 foreword to The Rise of Animals, he describes cigarettes as "the drug that killed my father" (xi), conveying that he succumbed to lung cancer caused by smoking.
While some of his comments indicate that Clarke was genuinely saddened by his father's death, his discussion of that event in Astounding Days suggests that he was more affected by the resulting loss of family income:
At the age of eleven or twelve, I had graduated from the elementary school which still stands virtually unchanged in the center of Bishop's Lydeard, the small Somerset village where my father (like many other demobilized officers) had rented a farm after the end of the First World War. Unfortunately, he had little talent for business or agriculture; his previous occupation had been a Post Office engineer, and I have sometimes wondered if his background in telecommunications could have influenced my future career. ... After Father's death in 1931, Mother continued to run the farm, augmenting its income (or neutralizing its losses) by riding lessons, breeding Cairn terriers, and taking paying guests. (9-10)
Clarke's widowed mother was not only obliged to focus her energies on finding other ways to earn money (including, in addition to those Clarke listed, cultivating a garden to raise food for her family and knitting gloves), but she also had to rely upon her children to perform chores.
While Clarke reports in Astounding Days that his mother "with great difficulty ... was able to send me to Huish's Grammar School" (11), one has to assume that a majority of his fellow students came from more affluent families who could afford the necessary payments to send their children there without "great difficulty," and the young Clarke may have been painfully aware of that fact. For whatever reason, throughout his career he manifested a strong desire to earn money, which eventually led to seemingly unwise decisions. As he entered his seventies, with a steady stream of income from regularly republished novels and collections, there was no need for Clarke to lend his name to several "collaborations" he actually did not write, and these inauthentic publications tarnished the value of his name on book covers as readers and reviewers learned to ignore books credited to "Arthur C. Clarke and...." One also wonders why the elderly Clarke kept picking up pocket change by writing innumerable introductions and forewords, often to unlikely books. (Long after becoming accustomed to million-dollar advances, for example, he agreed to write the foreword to my Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits  for the paltry sum of fifteen hundred dollars.) But remembering the poverty of his youth, he may have felt compelled to keep adding to his savings, building up reserves sufficient to deal with any disaster. (Some also argue he sought to keep generating income primarily to support charitable endeavors.)
It was around the time of his father's death that Clarke first became devoted to science fiction. At Huish's Grammar School he discovered an issue of Astounding Stories and after reading its entire contents began collecting other American science fiction magazines. Like many youthful readers of science fiction, Clarke developed a desire to write science fiction, as evidenced by pieces in the Huish Magazine, and after graduating and moving to London, he quickly connected with other science fiction fans and began writing for and editing fanzines.
At this point a possible comparison of Clarke to another renowned British science fiction writer, H. G. Wells, breaks down. True, both were bright young lads interested in science who successfully struggled to rise above humble origins by writing scientific nonfiction and science fiction; both developed a passionate aversion to war and became international celebrities. But although there were other noteworthy differences in their lives — Wells grew up in a city, while Clarke lived on a farm, and Wells faced his own childhood traumas but never experienced the youthful loss of a parent — their disparate relationships with science fiction fundamentally altered the courses of their careers. Wells came of age when there was no recognized genre of science fiction, was hence obliged to devise his own approach to writing science fiction, soon concluded that such stories lacked literary merit, and accordingly devoted the bulk of his later decades to writing realistic novels. In contrast, Clarke began reading science fiction magazines as an adolescent, joined groups of science fiction fans, started writing with some knowledge of the genre and its conventions, and never expressed or evidenced any desire to abandon science fiction, which became his lifelong avocation.
All the passions viewed as central to Clarke's career — devotion to space, the sea, and science fiction; a pattern of close relationships with males; and a constant urge to make money — may be traced, then, back to his early years. But I would add another characteristic that arguably defines his life: while Clarke forged many friendships during his life, few people claimed to have known him well. In Sentinels in Honor of Arthur C. Clarke (2010), for example, Gregory Benford offers a telling anecdote about Clarke attending a party in New York City and spending all of his time writing a short story instead of conversing with the partygoers — defining, perhaps, his simultaneously sociable yet private nature. In part, this may be because Clarke needed to rigorously conceal one aspect of his life — his homosexuality — after recognizing his sexual orientation as a youngster. But he was similarly circumspect about other personal matters that never would have aroused moral indignation, like his apparent proclivity for writing satirical poetry. Yet this is also what makes Clarke seem, years after his death, a true man of the future.
As a London civil servant, Clarke surely performed his duties well, but his life was centered on the British Interplanetary Society and science fiction fandom. His passions for space travel and science fiction inspired articles on those topics, as well as several stories and two poems published in fanzines. However, although Clarke extols science fiction poetry in a 1938 article, "The Fantastic Muse," he never published additional poems, although one piece of evidence indicates that writing poetry remained a private avocation: a brief poem included in the text of The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972), "Kubrick, Stan."
Clarke's fan-oriented activities were halted by World War II, which led him into the Royal Air Force and years of work developing Ground Controlled Approach Radar, the experience that inspired the article "You're on the Glide Path — I Think" (1949) and Clarke's only realistic novel, Glide Path (1963). Thus, his only recorded publications in 1943 were excerpts from two letters published in a fanzine.
As the end of the war approached, Clarke began writing again — a few scientific articles, including his famous plan for communications satellites, "Extra- Terrestrial Relays" (1945) — and as a veteran could finally afford to attend college, earning a degree in mathematics and physics from King's College London and briefly working as an editor for Physics Abstracts. A turning point in Clarke's postwar life came in 1950 when he met photographer Mike Wilson, as Wilson's interest in scuba diving inspired Clarke to take diving lessons. Soon, underwater explorations became a regular activity, and the two men would later produce several books about the undersea world offering Clarke's prose and Wilson's photographs.
In 1946 Clarke also returned to writing science fiction, selling stories to American and British magazines, and by the early 1950s he was gaining a reputation, and considerable income, as an author. Most early earnings came from nonfiction books about space travel, beginning with Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (1950), but his science fiction novels attracted attention as well, most notably Childhood's End, generally considered his first major work. While Clarke began enjoying regular visits to America, he seemed destined for a long and successful career in his native country.
Everything changed in 1952, I would theorize, due to an event usually not mentioned in accounts of Clarke's life: the arrest of British mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing for homosexual activity. After agreeing to chemical castration as an alternative to prison, Turing reportedly committed suicide two years later. While Turing was not as renowned as he is today, news of his arrest may have reverberated throughout Britain's homosexual community, reminding them of the draconian laws against homosexuality that their government evidently remained determined to enforce, regardless of the perpetrator's social status. If aware of Turing's situation, Clarke would have recognized that, despite his own achievements, he might face similar persecution if caught in a compromising position.
Such a realization may have influenced two significant decisions in Clarke's life. First, in 1953, after meeting American divorcée Marilyn Mayfield in Florida, they almost immediately got married. McAleer insists they were genuinely attracted to each other, but Clarke undoubtedly understood that a wife would allay suspicions about his sexual preferences. In any event, the relationship ended after six months — Clarke told McAleer only that "the marriage was incompatible from the beginning" (100) — though they remained married for a decade. Second, Clarke began spending more time away from his homeland, eventually settling in Sri Lanka. Clarke publicly explained that he relocated in order to pursue his fondness for scuba diving; however, McAleer notes the move also allowed Clarke to avoid Britain's high taxes. (An amusing reference to this issue surfaces in "Venture to the Moon"  as British astronauts volunteer to spend extra time on the moon solely to avoid paying taxes that year.) Yet Turing's experiences may have given Clarke little incentive to remain in Britain, and as verified in John Baxter's 1997 book, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (203), Clarke relocated to distant Sri Lanka in part because its laws regarding homosexuality were less severe, and Clarke could express his true sexuality without fearing retribution.
Clarke's underwater exploits, facilitated by his new home near the Indian Ocean, led to a burgeoning focus on writing nonfiction books about the sea, though he continued writing science fiction stories and novels. This phase of his life largely came to an end in 1962, when he was temporarily incapacitated by polio (though that diagnosis remains unconfirmed); still, he continued diving as much as possible, and references to the sea remained a recurring feature of his fiction.
Another life-altering event came in 1964, when Clarke was invited by Stanley Kubrick to collaborate in writing the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This experience made him more famous, enabling him to garner an unprecedented one-million-dollar contract to write three novels and obtain lifelong financial security Clarke announced his retirement after completing the third novel, The Fountains of Paradise, but proved unable to stop writing fiction and eventually completed six additional novels, several brief stories, and numerous articles, introductions, and afterwords.
The mature Clarke also developed an interest in doing more work in film, with mixed results. He hosted three documentary television series, contributed to a documentary about fractals, and advised director Peter Hyams regarding the film adaptation of 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), titled 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984). But he also labored on proposed film projects that never came to fruition, though a few were transformed into novels: The Songs of Distant Earth, the Gentry Lee-written Cradle, and the Mike McQuay-writ-ten Richter 10.
In the 1990s and thereafter, Clarke worked only occasionally on novels but produced many nonfiction pieces, primarily introductions to others' books and commentaries for new editions of his older books. The year 1998 was especially significant because he was knighted by the British government, so he could proudly call himself Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Unfortunately, when the British Sunday Mirror published an article claiming that Clarke was a pedophile, one week before the scheduled ceremony, he requested that the ceremony be delayed until a police investigation could clear him of the charges. One effect of the article, though, was a more-or-less open acknowledgment of Clarke's homosexuality.
During his final years, although he announced in his 2003 "Foreword 1" to To the Edge of Doom that "I have retired" from "the field of science fiction" (9), he sporadically worked on another novel, The Last Theorem, but had to abandon the project because his memory was faltering, apparently a lingering effect of post-polio syndrome. After he first approached Gregory Benford about completing this novel, the assignment was given to Frederik Pohl, and though that final novel proved disappointing, Clarke's death in 2008 was widely reported throughout the world, and many prominent individuals offered fond tributes. While McAleer's updated biography will undoubtedly remain the standard reference on Clarke's career, other individuals who knew him well may provide additional revelations, and Clarke generated a vast quantity of private diaries that, he stipulated, could only be published thirty years after his death. In 2038, therefore, the world may learn more about this reticent individual's long and remarkable life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arthur C. Clarke"
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Biographical Sketch 9
Chapter 2 Jocular Juvenilia 17
Chapter 3 Marvelous Machines 30
Chapter 4 The Conquest of Space 43
Chapter 5 Human Destinies 73
Chapter 6 Alien Encounters 93
Chapter 7 Under the Sea 117
Chapter 8 Future Faiths 134
Chapter 9 The Solitary Observer 149
Appendix: Clarke's "Collaborations" with Other Authors 181
An Arthur C. Clarke Bibliography 189
Bibliography of Secondary Sources 207