Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C Clarke

A couple of weeks ago at a party, in the midst of a conversation about the divide between sports and science, I said "Every true geek can remember where he was when Isaac Asimov died." One of the guests thought he was still alive, but further questioning proved that he was actually thinking of Arthur C Clarke. Asimov had been gone since 1992 and despite my proclamation, I don't actually remember where I was when I heard the news; I only remember a vague impression of writing down how I felt. Last night, of course, was different.

Unfortunately, I actually did get to know where I was and what I was doing when I found out Clarke had died. Even though we had all acknowledged that he was pretty old, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't go on forever. I was online on the Intrepid forum, arguing about the correct length of phaser beams in Star Trek, and then suddenly there was a new thread started with breaking news...

In my last post I wrote that Islands in the Sky was one of the first Clarke books that I had read, but it wasn't the one that made the most impression. Even for a techie like myself, who loved the sheer plausible, accurate detail in his short stories, it was the imagery that sold it. No other writer could convey such a sense of awe. And for all that his style was functional, and his love of technology perhaps offputting to those who couldn't appreciate the inherent cleverness of the stories, there was just enough sprinkling of poetry to require carefully putting the book down for a few minutes to savour it.

One image that has stayed with me for years is from The Songs of Distant Earth, when the colony ship ignites its drive system on the opposite side of the world and the whole of the horizon lights up. The colonists are departing, and because this is proper science fiction with the emphasis on science, of relativistic time dilation, we have a full, deep, understanding of what it means; there is no possibility of return. None.

Two groups of people who can never again meet.

And its this fusion of enormous concepts with a very human dimension which shows Clarke at his finest. I have some of his books on my bookcase right now.

I think I should do some reading.