Monday, April 14, 2008

Reading Sir Arthur

(Apologies for the length.)

In high school, a friend turned me on to a book he had read called Childhood’s End. If my memory is reliable at all, I believe he had to read it for a class assignment. Knowing that I was a fan of science fiction movies, he suggested I read it, for he had enjoyed the story and was eager to talk to me about it. I wish I could say that it changed my life or made me into an Arthur C. Clarke fan for years afterward. But it didn’t.

I remember it as a bit of a disappointment to my young mind. Talking about the book with my excited friend, I just didn’t share his enthusiasm for the material or the irony of the shape of the alien visitors. Perhaps I was used to the whiz-bang of Terminator and Star Wars, not fully able to grasp the literary merit of the book at that age.

But, what happened surprised me. For years the story stayed with me, and how could it not? Once in a while, images of alien ship appearing over the major cities of earth were recycled from Childhood’s End, for example in the Eighties science fiction miniseries, “V” and I was reminded of the novel written in the early Fifties. Of course at the time, few of my friends could share my holier than thou statements of how Clarke did this first and better in print. Same with the disguised alien race that comes to earth and brought with them peace and prosperity, only to turn the deal upside down when their true motives are revealed (also done by Clarke in Childhoods End.)

I visualize the aliens and think of the story in its ironic terms. How mankind envisioned its ultimate end in the form of the Overlords’ true form, humanoids with wings, horned heads, and tails, like the devil. Humankind’s racial memory—foreknowledge implanted on our collective memory—preceded the arrival of the aliens who would bring about the end humanity, absorbing us into the collective hive existence of the Overmind.

I also distinctly remember a scene where a human character flies around with one alien and marvels at the architecture of a race of winged beings. Then there was the title, Childhood’s End, which seemed gothically tantalizing (I still wonder when the movie adaptation is going to be produced.)

Some years later, and quite by accident, I stumbled upon another of Sir Clarke’s books. In an English class in ninth grade I was given a few choices of books to read for a report, and one of them was none other than Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hadn’t yet seen the entire movie by that age, only clips, but I knew it was one of the most celebrated science fiction movies of all time. When I was in elementary school, the father of a buddy of mine had it on videotape (a big, big deal back then). I watched parts and pieces of it but never really got into it or probably more like, never understood it.

Despite that frustrating experience with Kubrick’s movie version (which I expect many people also share) I picked up the soft cover novel, all white except the still frame from the movie of Dave’s eyes peering put of his helmet. I read the entire thing during lunch periods between hardened Grilled Cheese sandwiches and Friday Pizza.

I don’t remember my book report in its entirety but I do think I had some trouble with it, especially explaining the end. I also vaguely remember my teacher having pity on me and probably giving me a better grade than was called for, simply for the sake of having tackled such an esoteric story to write about. My strongest memory is struggling with the conclusion, though I remember for the first time rereading the words "The thing's hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — it's full of stars!" repeatedly, not struggling with understanding, but attempting to decipher my mix of emotions ranging from awe at the power of words and the regret that it was over. Dave had become the Star Child and he achieved a new level of evolution.

At the time, I never knew that the book and the movie were more entwined than simply one being the inspiration for the other, as is usually the case. In fact, it was Stanley Kubrick who, after finding a short story by Arthur C. Clarke called "The Sentinel," urged the author to expand the story into a script. The script was jointly developed by Clarke and Kubrick; Clarke’s book varies from Kubrick’s movie, though that was not the original intent. In the end, both film and novel stand as individual achievements that have only increased in complimenting one and other over the years.

The book can’t be said to be a novelization of the movie and the movie can’t exactly be categorized as an adaptation of the book. Ironically, for a work of science fiction, both exist symbiotically, one never able to really separate itself very much from the other. Without the book to provide support and narrative elucidation for the movie’s visual abstraction it may fail; yet without the movie to provide us with a startling and stark futuristic interpretation of Clarke’s words, the book’s themes may have lingered as an obscure short story.

Mirroring the journey of Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey, first from animal to man and then man to something else—gods? I had reached a new plateau in my life. Youth affords one the time for long periods of reflection and mood. At the time, I was in puberty, a real era of evolution in a boy’s life. Taking the step from boy to man is a long one, fraught with uncertainty.

Probably more than any other time in my life, I think that moment, that book, ignited the spark that would eventually become a life long love of books and a writing career. Words, simple words, made me feel that way! Not moving images. Not music. Not love. But little words put in a particular order. From then on, not only was I hooked on books, but science fiction books and the real universe above my head. Despite all that, the book did not make me a Clarke fan—which I think was more from my own fear of never understanding another of his books and ruining the balance of mystery in meaning behind a phrase or paragraph and capturing the gist of the entire story.

In between that experience and the next time I picked up another Clarke book, my mother –a rather big science fiction fan and probably single handedly responsible for me becoming one myself—took me to see the movie version of the sequel, 2010 starring the recently departed Roy Schieder as an American hitching a ride to Jupiter with some Commies. At the time I thought that the movie was merely a sequel to that “other science fiction movie.” I didn’t know until years later that there were more books in the series.

For years after, I’d spy other Clarke books in libraries and book stories but because of my childhood experiences I refrained from picking up another. As I grew, I partly knew that I wanted to mature before reading more Clarke, not wanting to put another of his books down without understanding them.

Finally, as an adult commuting to my job by train, I found that I had more than enough stagnant hours between work and home to finally catch up on some serious reading. I picked up Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and even Kurt Vonnegut, but nothing by Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed my eyes for a long time. Then it happened. My friend and fellow commuter bestowed upon me a crate of old books he’d read on the same commute that I was then taking and thought I’d enjoy reading them. Again, mostly Science Fiction stories. Buried among them was a paperback copy of Rendezvous With Rama, another of Clarke’s classics, one I’d heard of, seen and avoided like the plague.

I read it straight through in a few days. It was a simple story of astronauts investigating a vacant space ship as it passed through our solar system. Exciting an event though it was for being the first contact with an alien species (or its abandoned vessel), the story, set against the backdrop of a populated solar system, had no direct conflict with the aliens.

Rama was by far one of Clarke’s most sincerely hard science fiction stories, involving little in the way of grand transformations of mankind or hinting of a next stage of existence in the universe. And even though Clarke had said he never intended to produce the sequels that he eventually co-wrote, there is a hint of such a thing in the passage at the end of Rama:

“And on far-off Earth, Dr. Carlisle Perera had as yet told no one how he had woken from a restless sleep with the message from his subconscious still echoing in his brain: The Ramans do everything in threes.”

So years again passed, never once have I picked up an Arthur C. Clarke book. But funny things happen in vacuums. Like empty space seething with virtual energy, the mind sometimes spontaneously fills with the most random thoughts. Having absorbed no less than three of Clarke’s seminal novels, I inevitably stirred to recall bits and pieces.

What I have realized since then was that Clarke’s unassuming style had more impact than a laser beam to the solar plexus. I found myself mulling the irony of Childhood’s End, more and more frequently. The power of the slow conflicted crawl across the solar system in 2001, A Space Odyssey constantly crept into my mind. More often or not I pondered the further consequences of the significance of three in Rama.

Clarke is one of the few writers to be able to merge heady, philosophical themes often associated with fantasy and religion (evolution beyond the need for technology or physicality) with hard science. Through the years, I was affected by Clarke’s stories and vision, by the immense shadow he cast on the world of science fiction literature and in movie themes. I realized, after his death that his books had been with me all this time, sitting in my subconscious, affecting me, rooting themselves so that they could never be disengaged. That is the profound effect Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s writing had.

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 J. Sawyer did it in Calculating God and Arthur C. Clarke did it in his classic novels, albeit in a much less overt manner.

I would love to have heard what Clarke said when he peered into the darkness at the end. I am inclined to predict that 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.


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