Wednesday, March 19, 2008

This is the first time I'm writing a tribute to an Important Person Who Has Died. But of all the writers who have shaped my taste in science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke was probably the most influential.

I'm sure the net is already full of tributes to Clarke by people who personally knew him, and I can't brag having personally met any of the classical SF legends. (Though I know people here in Austin who had met Asimov!) In a world of six-degree connectedness, the closest connection to Clarke I can claim is 3rd degree. I once knew an Indian guy who told me Clarke funded a scholarship for one of his classmates, a brilliant girl who wanted to study aeronautical / astronautical engineering.

And yet I feel compelled to write some kind of tribute to this author, because few other writers' works invoked in me a Sense Of Wonder in all capital letters the way Arthur Clarke's did. It may be because I read most of Clarke's works in my childhood and teenage years, when I was far more impressionable than now; I probably would not have been as impressed with them if I read them first as an adult.

Or maybe I would have. Since an early age I was drawn to eschatological themes, and those themes figure prominently in Clarke's major works, such as 2001: The Space Odyssey, Childhood's End. The obituary in the New York Times touches this aspect of Clarke's writing indirectly. It says: "For a scientifically trained writer whose optimism about technology seemed boundless, Mr. Clarke delighted in confronting his characters with obstacles they could not overcome without help from forces beyond their comprehension."

I find this curious too, now that NYTimes has put it this way, and yet I identify with Clarke's fascination with "forces beyond comprehension." That's what attracted me to his stories too. It may be even more odd given that I never believed in any deities, not even as a child. However, in Clarke's stories the incomprehensibly powerful entities and the eschatological changes they bring to the humanity are never supernatural. Their power comes from mastery of science and technology. I don't know what Clarke's religious views were, but a worldview that comes through in his writing is definitely secular humanist.

I can't say I liked each and every of Clarke's books I've read; they seemed of rather uneven quality to me. For example, "Rendezvous with Rama" left me indifferent. I find Robinson Cruso'esque scenarios boring. :-) Throughout the book I was hoping the explorers will eventually meet the aliens that built Rama, but no such luck. I vaguely recall that one of his novels (forgot the title!) seemed to be written solely to praise the idea of raising whales for dairy and meat. Whale milk is a great replacement for cow's milk! That was the only science fictional element in the book. :-)

And I remember losing my interest in the Space Odyssey sequels around the 3rd book. I don't remember much about them anymore, except that it seemed they devolved from the Sense of Wonder to the characters' interpersonal drama.

However, there is a certain novel by Clarke that consists mostly of interpersonal drama, that I hold very dear. A Fall of Moondust. The plot is very simple: a tourist vehicle on the Moon falls into a lake composed of dust, where it gets stranded without even an ability to emit a call for help (radio signals do not penetrate moondust). A diverse bunch of individuals are brought together in a mission to find it and rescue the crew and passengers before they run out of oxygen. Despite llack of far-fetched science fiction concepts, the charm of this novel lies in how this event changes everyone involved.

While I don't think Clarke's writing stood out for exquisite style, I remember one of his lines (don't remember which book it came from). It goes something like this: "He found not happiness, but peace, which is just as important, and lasts much longer". (This can't possibly be an accurate quote, because I read that book in a language other than English. This is my translation of an inaccurate memory of Clarke's quote in another language. Only the gist of it stayed with me.)

So anyway, even though I haven't read anything by Clarke in a long time, and my current favorite writers are half a century younger than he was, I still feel an empty spot after his passing. Back when I was a child just starting to discover wonders of science fiction, writers like Clarke loomed larger than life in my imagination. And now that he's gone, it's like closing a door to that period of my life.

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