Humanist Hero: Arthur C Clarke by Paul S Jenkins
Paul S Jenkins dives into the speculative fiction of futurist and humanist Arthur C Clarke.
As a teenager I was entranced by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke. While Clarke is best known for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his interests ranged from the eminently practical to the wildly speculative. He was the first to propose the use of geostationary communications satellites; he was also chairman of the British Interplanetary Society.
When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey shortly after its 1968 release, I was already an avid consumer of everything Clarke wrote. What initially captivated me was the incomparable sense of wonder pervading his science fiction. Then I came to appreciate the scientific rigour of Clarke’s stories – often his novels contained extensive appendices detailing which parts of the novel were real, present-day science, which parts were science extrapolated just a little bit, and which were pure scientific speculation.
Only later did I become aware of the humanist principles underlying Clarke’s writings, encompassing the vast swathe of humanist concerns – morality, science, nature and the future of human civilisation. Although my favourite of Clarke’s novels will always be The City and the Stars – for the sheer breadth and scope of its imagination – arguably his best novel is Childhood’s End, in which Earth is visited by superior benevolent aliens.
Clarke portrays the arrival of extraterrestrial intelligent life as a monumental event, and one of its consequences is the almost immediate demise of all forms of religion. While this may have been an example of Clarke’s hopes rather than a prediction, he did get to poke a little fun at religious imagery: the aliens take the form of devils, complete with wings, horns and tails. Here Clarke is invoking the idea of species-memory, a theme he used elsewhere – including in 2001: A Space Odyssey – that human evolution has been periodically monitored by extraterrestrial intelligence. So perhaps devils, and even gods, were actually intelligent aliens casually checking up on us over the millennia.
Religious themes are central to two of Clarke’s most celebrated short stories. In “The Star“, Clarke speculates on the origin of the star of Bethlehem, suggesting that it was a supernova explosion, with devastating consequences for its orbiting planets and their intelligent inhabitants. “The Nine Billion Names of God“ explores the impact of information technology on the single-minded academic toil at an isolated monastery – with literally world-shattering effect.
As with Childhood’s End, Clarke isn’t saying this is how it is – he’s writing science fiction, or to use its lit-crit euphemism, speculative fiction. He’s exploring the possibilities and their consequences – speculating – without committing to any of them one way or another. Clarke famously put a disclaimer at the beginning of Childhood’s End: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” The theme of the novel is that mankind is not destined to explore the universe – a view that Clarke hadn’t expressed previously, and a view he didn’t hold. He believed that science and technology will indeed take the human race to the stars – but that’s not what he says in Childhood’s End. In the novel he says the exact opposite: “The stars are not for man.”
Clarke made liberal use of religious motifs in his fiction, yet he was not a believer in gods, nor scripture. When he was on the BBC Radio 4 phone-in programme It’s Your Line, a caller requested suggestions for what to teach children about origins. “The Genesis story is incorrect,” was Clarke’s no-nonsense reply. In a 1999 interview with Free Inquiry magazine, Clarke stated, “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”
Though British by birth, Clarke adopted Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) as his home, for the simple reason that he loved the place. He was keen on sub-aqua, not least because underwater he could experience a simulacrum of space-travel’s micro-gravity, and he went on to establish a scuba-diving school. On his 90th birthday in December 2007, three months before his death, he released a video expressing his remaining wishes: that evidence for extraterrestrial life be discovered; that humanity cease its dependency on fossil fuels; and that lasting peace be achieved in strife-torn Sri Lanka. To my great joy he also revealed that he wished to be remembered most of all for his writing.
Arthur C. Clarke may not have been the best ever science fiction writer – he was not known for the roundness of his characters, for example. But his stories contain an unsurpassed wonder at the magnificence of the universe, a wonder informed not by gods but by human endeavour, and the belief that our aspirations and our achievements come from within.
You can find out more at www.humanism.org.uk/humanism/humanist-tradition/heroes
Paul S. Jenkins is a writer, erstwhile podcaster, atheist and skeptic, living and working in Hampshire. His blog Notes from an Evil Burnee can be found at evilburnee.co.uk.