Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke Makes His Final Voyage

At the age of 90, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away. He had moved to Sri Lanka and after suffering from post-polio syndrome for decades he is reported to have succumbed to breathing problems. My paternal grandmother passed away some 15 years or so ago and she also survived polio as a young girl, leaving her to battle with physical difficulties her entire life. Clarke was forced to use a wheel chair at times because of the lingering effects of his illness and I remember in a strangely nostalgic way how my grandfather used to help her get around from place to place, always hanging on his arm for support.

Like the author, my grandmother entertained me with stories, some about my father’s childhood, some of my grandfather’s less than stellar antics and others that were just simple explanations of current events as told to a child in the 1970s through the filter of a woman in her later years. She often explained to me what my grandfather was doing when he had to leave the house whenever I visited (he coached a Little League in Co-Op City in the Bronx) and told me about his job (he drove a city bus) or about the little golden figures lined up on the shelf in their apartment (grandpa was an avid bowler and won some trophies with his team).

Both sides of my family had always been storytellers, not the kind that win Nebula awards but the kind who spin tales of familial history or anecdotal stories of life in the days of yore, i.e. second generation Jews from the five boroughs of New York City during the early to mid-Twentieth Century. My maternal grandparents have also been telling the same stories for lo these many decades of my life. So much so that I know them all by heart yet I am lucky enough to be my age (late Thirties) and still have a set of grandparents around to keep telling them to me.

Sure, it’s not exactly science fiction, but to a young boy, these stories might have well been speculative fiction, the characters and events as removed from my own life as those of Luke Skywalker. Especially when considering the fact that my sister and I were struggling to find a place in the world with the added burden of having divorced parents.

In many ways my grandparents provided a hope that the hole left in our lives did not stretch to infinity, like some sucking black hole in our universe. There was a past full of strange but wonderful times, where people lived all crammed in a small apartment in some lost section of the Bronx. In the pictures, all in black and white with very plain, uncluttered street corners, people always seemed dressed for some special occasion, giving me a sense of awe at a time when every place looked like a movie set and every person like they were characters in a period drama.

It has always been the artists who have taken me out of my funk (or put me further into one making my real world seem not so bad in comparison). I remember as a child, sitting at home with my mother’s collection of LPs and 45s selecting various Beatles songs like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be.” McCartney’s sappy and sad lyrics drew me into a strange and wonderful world, perhaps a little darker than other favorites of mine like “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” but still transporting to another place and time, for as a elementary-aged kid in the Seventies, the Sixties seemed as long ago as those of Middle Earth, and apparently some thought the same thing when the generation of Flower Children re-discovered Tolkien’s trilogy and its message that in a big, scary world, unassuming people with little power can turn the tide and save us from evil.

The movie adaptation of Clarke’s book about the crew of a space ship on a mission to Jupiter facing the ultimate betrayal of technology, racing toward a seemingly preternaturally sentient monolith, was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public by a roguish and visionary director in a turbulent time in the world. Providing both a counterbalance and a parallel to current events, the sparse but amazing visuals served as backdrop for a complicated essay on the past, present and future of mankind. Were the same simplistic tools that supposedly civilized us (apes using bones as weapons) really a betrayal of our basic nature and our ultimate downfall (a computer that thinks and acts in what it deems our best interest) or a way toward salvation?

In his career Clarke flirted with the supernatural and religion as evidenced by his comments about the inspiration for Childhood’s End and 2001. He became very vocal about his criticism of organized religion though for what he said in an interview in 2001 were atrocities and wars committed in its name. One of the greatest products of a really good science fiction writer is to be able to balance the nature of man with the realities of science. Most of my favorite authors in the genre are able to do this without tipping the balance in favor of either but still posing poignant questions about both. Carl Sagan did this in the novel Contact, Robert did it in Calculating God and Arthur C. Clarke did it in his well-known novels, albeit in a much less overt manner.

I would love to have heard what Clarke said when he peered into the darkness. I am inclined to predict it was the same as his astronaut creation, Dave, when he peered into the monolith. I can only hope that beyond the veil there is more than what we see, perhaps the next place really is “full of stars.” If so, then with the passing of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, there is but one more in that place shining among the rest.

No comments: