Happy 100th birthday, Arthur C. Clarke

We are thrilled to welcome Stephen Baxter back to the Gollancz Blog for an exclusive blog post on the legendary, Arthur C. Clarke. We’re celebrating Arthur C. Clarke’s 100th birthday with a look back at his legacy and an incredible one-day-only eBook sale. You can find out more about the sale here.

Over his last decade, it was my privilege to work with Sir Arthur C Clarke. Our first book was The Light of Other Days (2000), and we went on to write the three-book Time Odyssey series (2002-2008).

In the course of that work, as I revisited Clarke’s oeuvre, I was struck by the way his fiction reflected aspects of his life.

For instance he documented his Second World War radar research experience in his non-genre novel Glide Path (1963). Whiz-kid engineer Alan Bishop, born like Clarke in England’s West Country, is called back to his father’s funeral and finds he has grown up: ‘He could never escape from [his childhood’s] influence … But it would no longer dominate him … He had become entangled in powers and instrumentalities that would surely shape the future’ (chapters 21, 30). Just as Bishop/Clarke left his rural childhood for a technocratic future, so mankind must one day leave the green cradle of Earth.

Clarke’s career reached its apotheosis in 1968, with the novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, as if Kubrick had run an exercise in psychoanalysis, 2001 actually documents Clarke’s own long inner odyssey. Clarke himself did not deny the metaphysical speculation in his work (though he was dismissive of fakery and bad science, and believed organised religion to be a blight). The universe is full of wonder, and no complete human being could fail to apprehend that fact. And through the nuts-and-bolts technologies of spacecraft and radio telescopes we reach out for such wonder. Many authors have struggled to express these great and contradictory perspectives. But none, surely, have succeeded so well as Arthur Clarke.

As I worked with him, I continued to be reminded of the Somerset farmer’s boy who had got hooked on sf through a heady cocktail of Olaf Stapledon and the US pulps. In 3001, back-from-the-dead astronaut Frank Poole says (Chapter 14): ‘Do you know what [futuristic super-spacecraft] Goliath reminds me of? … When I was a boy, I came across a whole pile of old science-fiction magazines that my Uncle George had abandoned – “pulps”, they were called … As I grew older, I realised how ridiculous those spaceships were … Well, those old artists had the last laugh … Goliath looks more like their dreams than the flying fuel-tanks we used to launch from the Cape.’

And Clarke never stopped reflecting on his other prime root. In 2001 he sent me a portion of a letter to Stapledon from JBS Haldane, dated 1945: ‘Your utopia is a very exciting one. Why, though, must the intelligent animals forget the brutality of the past? … The final utopia must somehow redeem the past [my emphasis], or else be something less than utopia.’ Clarke wrote, ‘Dear Stephen – This phrase [emphasised] haunts me – does it give you any ideas?’ Well, it did, and my novel Transcendent was the result.

Collaborating on our books, we worked by email and phone. He would call when it was convenient for him in Sri Lanka, sometimes at five in the morning UK time: ‘This is Arthur, over and out!’

Well, happy 100th birthday, Arthur. This is Stephen, over and out.