Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Writer's Odyssey - RIP Arthur C. Clarke

News today of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s death.

It strikes me that this is another sign that we’re in a time of transition for science fiction. 30-40 years ago, the genre saw the rise of the New Wave, where Golden Age authors like Clarke and Asimov had to share space with young radicals like Harlan Ellison. Times changed and other movements rose, some finding their stride and developing staying power, others falling quietly by the wayside. But the Golden Age authors were always there – the respected elders still telling tales by the fire who we kept returning to. Sure, younger authors came and made their mark, but even if they were silent for years at a time, veterans like Clarke always came to the forefront again when they were ready, and because they tended to be toting something worthwhile in their bag of literary tricks, they always got our attention. But, to paraphrase a line from the movie “The Longest Day”, the thing about being one of the few, is that they keep getting fewer. Today, with the passing of Clarke, science fiction has one less venerable elder around the fire, and we’re forced to realize just how few of the Golden Agers really are left. Puts me in mind of that scene aboard the White Star in “Babylon 5” at the close of the Shadow War when Sheridan muses that it feels like some of the magic has gone out of the universe, now that the First Ones are gone. Sure, as Delenn points out, it’s time for the young to make magic. But still, there’s no denying we’ve lost something valuable.

It was Clarke who formed the nucleus of hard SF in my early education in the genre as a pre-teen. As I plundered the library and bookstores for stories that illuminated big ideas, Clarke showed how they could be grounded in what was really possible without losing the sense of wonder. As an adult, reading through some of his novels or short story anthologies that I purchased years ago, I’m impressed at how Clarke’s writing has withstood the test of time. As many of us have found out, one of the painful realities of revisiting favourite authors of our youth – even some of the legends whose works hooked us on SF in the first place – is that some don’t age well. Whether we find the ideas stale in our modern world of lightspeed technological developments, or whether in maturity we realize some of the oldtimers’ writing styles were clumsy or characterizations weak, it can be hard to enjoy their stories as much now as then. Frank Herbert comes to mind as a writer who’s style tends to invoke a “meh” from me, even if his ideas remain colossal. Even the mighty Asimov, whose works I devoured voraciously throughout my teens, all too often seems somewhat drab now. But Clarke, now Clarke’s another story. I still pick up some of Clarke’s old books and thoroughly enjoy his writing, never mind the cosmic scale of his imagination. Clarke succeeds through the decades because beyond the ideas he was a good storyteller. He knew how to use the language. And while he could always hold his own, in recent years he made good showings as well in his many novels that he co-authored with other writers.

Looking back at Clarke’s gigantic body of work, I thought I’d share some of my favourites…

Of his short stories, my favorite is “Superiority”, about an alien general imprisoned by Earth recounting his species’ failed attempt at conquest. Others rounding out the top 5 are:
"The Star" (a traditional Christmas read around my house)
“The Sentinel” (naturally) – inspiration for “2001”
“Expedition to Earth”
“Second Dawn”

Turning to his novels, number one on my list is “2001” (of course), but in a very, very close second is its first sequel “2010 – Odyssey Two”. I’ll never forget Heywood Floyd’s impression of Io as the Leonov flies past, or the destruction of the Chinese expedition that puts down on Europa. Others in the top 5 include:
“The Songs of Distant Earth”
“The Ghost from the Grand Banks”
“Rendezvous with Rama”

And again, Clarke did an impressive body of collaborative work, so I’ll tip my hat to his efforts there. Probably my favourite among his co-authored works was his most recent – the “Time Odyssey” series, where he and Stephen Baxter made a radically different re-imagining of some of the ideas behind “2001”.

So long, Arthur, we’ll keep a spot open by the fire for ya.
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