Arthur C. Clarke lived to see the twenty-first century of which he had written so often. He might have hoped that things would be a little further along by now, but the man’s indefatigable optimism allowed him to take the long view. Which, after all, is what he was best at. He was a scientist who became a science fiction writer to keep pace with his own ideas—ideas that propelled him to a level of mainstream celebrity beyond the reach of any writer in the field besides H.G. Wells, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his persistent refusal to compromise his vision. One envisions the conversation now (through a wormhole in space-time, perhaps, reaching all those years back to the dingy corridors of the 1960s Chelsea?): “no sound! space is silent! let it speak for itself!” He was fortunate enough to find a director who would listen—and who had genius to match his own. Had an observer of 1970 been asked to select what SF author would dominate the box office across the next few decades, the answer would have been obvious.
And wrong. (Then again, no one would have seen PKD coming . . . ) But Clarke understood that history has a way of surprising. Perhaps that was why he seemed so unphased as those responsible for manned space exploration so completely lost the plot. After all, his original prediction that man would reach the Moon by 2000 was derided when he made it in the 1940s. It would have taken someone far more cynical than Clarke to predict in the 1970s that thirty years later we’d still be struggling to get back to Luna. And by the time 2001 really rolled around, we all knew it was a metaphor anyway: an attempt to sketch out the broad contours of future rather than link specific milestones to particular dates.
And what about those aliens? Were they a metaphor too? Hardly. They were, in fact, Clarke’s only regret. His 90th birthday greetings expressed sorrow that he wouldn’t live to see our species make first contact. For him, E.T.s weren’t just an affirmation that we aren’t alone in the universe: they were the cornerstone of his belief in Man Transcendent. Story after story involved humanity struggling to raise itself to the next stage of evolution under the dispassionate gaze of cosmic overminds (or, rather, minds that had already made the journey). Clarke claimed not to be a religious man, but it seems clear enough that he did have a religion of a sort—or, more accurately, that he hoped to turn the keys of religion over to science. We cannot say that he succeeded. But he may have laid the groundwork.
Making him, in the final analysis, almost impossible to judge. As Zhou En-lai once said when asked to evaluate the significance of the French Revolution: “it’s too soon to tell.” So it is with Clarke. His recognition of the significance of the geostationary orbit would have guaranteed him a place in history. But what would have been the pinnacle of any other man’s career became merely the first achievement of Clarke’s. And one senses that the extent to which he was embraced by the zeitgeist of the Apollo Era might be the harbinger of a more lasting verdict: that the public was right to consider this man the greatest of the SF authors. A question that can’t be settled here. But it’s worth noting that in stark contrast to so many of his contemporaries (including his fellow members of the Big Three, Asimov and Heinlein), the heart of Clarke’s philosophy was the proposition that mankind was unlikely to reach the stars unchanged. He reached them earlier this week. We who remain dwell in his shadow. RIP.