Space-age Odysseus

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!
October 29, 1999

Andrew Robinson reflects on the past pages of a futurologist.

A couple of months ago, I took my young niece and nephew to see two films on the largest cinema screen in Britain, at the brand-new Imax cinema on London's South Bank. The first was about space, an awesome account of astronauts fixing a faulty mirror on the Hubble space telescope, high above the Earth. The second, in 3D, showed underwater life on a reef off the Californian coast, and was so vivid it had you reaching out to touch the brilliantly coloured fish floating past your nose. The underwater film was an absolute stunner, we all agreed. But whereas I had found myself strangely moved, almost to tears, by our ringside seat at the deafening launch of the space shuttle and the balletic manoeuvres of the scientists around their delicate equipment against the black void, my niece and nephew had been left cold. They seemed to regard the film as not much more than a vastly expensive, all-American-style propaganda exercise for Nasa. OK, the shuttle did not have the benefit of 3D, but that would not have mattered too much had the exploration of space been intrinsically appealing to them.

I was reminded of the experience constantly while reading this new book of non-fiction by Arthur C. Clarke, a distillation of more than 60 years of his writing (occasionally for The THES ), much of which has been about space, or the oceans, or both. Space and the sea - with their unique possibilities of weightlessness - have been twin obsessions for Clarke, each feeding his fertile imagination in novels such as Childhood's End and The Deep Range . It was the lure of underwater diving and exploration that first took him away from England - where he was already an established science-fiction writer - more than four decades ago, to Sri Lanka, the multifarious island that has been his base for more than half of his 82 years and is another recurring subject in his book.

Try this for vintage Clarke, from "The playing fields of space", a light-hearted look at the possibilities for space-age sport, published in 1965, in the early, heady days of the Apollo programme: "Someday, space yachtsmen will be tacking around the orbit of Mercury, racing tiny one-man vehicles not much larger than the capsules that the astronauts of the sixties rode. Billowing ahead of them will be vast, glittering surfaces, possibly miles across - flexible mirrors little thicker than soap bubbles, reefed and furled by a spiderweb of invisibly fine threads. The skippers of these fantastic little crafts would need a superb knowledge of astronautics and orbital theory, as well as skills that could not be learned in any classroom. There are many links between sea and space; here,surely, is one of the strangest. Across the centuries the spirit of the men who once sailed the windjammers around the Horn may live again as their descendants ride the eternal trade wind between the worlds."

Stirring or silly? Certainly, some of the rhetoric for space exploration in this book has dated badly and will strike most readers, and perhaps even the author himself, as mere boosterism. But Clarke is one of the few science-fiction writers whose non-fiction must compel respect, if not always agreement, because he has often enough been proved right about the near future.

For instance, in 1945, his technical paper for Wireless World , "Extra-terrestrial relays" - "the most important thing I ever wrote" - famously described the concept of communications satellites for the first time; and he very soon set out their amazing future uses. In the 1940s and much of the 1950s, when space travel was considered disreputable by most scientists, he maintained that a moon landing would come within decades. In his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, he casually anticipated the "wiring" of the planet that has now come about with the internet. In the 1980s, despite his technophilia, he warned against the dangerous absurdity of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative ("Star Wars"). And in 1990, in "The century syndrome" (a chapter from a novel reprinted here), Clarke anticipated the potential virulence of the millennium bug. Although some others accompanied him in these predictions, he was perhaps the most consistently far-sighted. "In a few years," he wrote in 1947 in "First men in the moon", "we will be seeing the first photographs of the Earth as a single small globe among the stars. Is it too much to hope that this may make the more extreme forms of nationalism look as ridiculous as they are?"

Even on his beloved subject of space colonisation, he can sometimes be remarkably sober. In 1950, addressing the British Interplanetary Society, he said the environments of the Moon and planets would prove so hostile that only scientific bases would be established on them. No more than a few thousand human beings would venture there; "and although spaceflight might well revolutionise our knowledge in other fields, after the initial experiment had worn off, it might prove an anticlimax". He now accepts there will be a long pause before men return to the Moon and reach Mars - as there was before scientists returned to work in Antarctica in the late 1950s, after the heroic visits of Amundsen and Scott in 1911-12. Significantly, in the final chapter of the book, "The twenty-first century: a (very) brief history", there is no mention of colonies beyond the Earth.

He does, however, anticipate that within the first quarter of the next century, contact will be established with extra-terrestrial life - hence the title of the book. It will come, not in the form of aliens landing in spaceships and greeting us "carbon-based bipeds", but as an indecipherable infrared signal from the centre of the galaxy. Although Clarke has little time for UFOs, he has a firm belief that we are not alone, and that "they" will be far in advance of us. Arguing with Stanley Kubrick in the early stages of making 2001 , Clarke maintained that the aliens in the film should look nothing like humans. To persuade Kubrick, he enlisted the help of Carl Sagan, who advised that evolution is highly unlikely to have produced life forms like us twice over, and that the aliens should not be shown at all, but rather suggested. "A third of a century later, I do not recall Stanley's immediate reaction to this excellent advice, but after abortive efforts during the next couple of years to design convincing aliens, he accepted Carl's solution."

Nevertheless, in 1967, Clarke sponsored the development of a brilliantly imaginative science-fiction script to be directed by another director admired by himself and Kubrick - Satyajit Ray - in which the alien creature would have been distinctly humanoid. Sadly, as Clarke recalls in "Satyajit and Stanley", the project eventually ran aground - but not before the script was much circulated in Hollywood, where Ray was convinced it influenced Steven Spielberg's ET (causing a slight hiccup in Clarke's friendship with Spielberg).

It is a tribute to Clarke's restless curiosity and wide interests that he could respond to both the unhuman grandeur of Kubrick's vision and the small-scale humanity of Ray's Earth-bound story. Like his hero H. G. Wells,Clarke has the capacity (unusual in science-fiction writers) to relate science and technology to human society convincingly. But unlike Wells, he has a more limited understanding of human psychology and emotions reminiscent of the tight-lipped Apollo astronauts he so admires. Thus, in "The obsolescence of man" (1962), he comments on Alan Turing, the early expert on computing: "There is ... something ironically appropriate in the fact that Turing, the brilliant mathematician who ... first indicated how thinking machines might be built, shot himself a few years after publishing his results. It is very hard not to draw a moral from this." In fact, as is now well known, Turing took his own life in 1954 (with cyanide not a bullet) after being publicly prosecuted as a homosexual and forced to undergo hormone treatment; his profound thoughts about thinking had little to do with his decision.

On a related subject, it is hard to know what to make of a presumably recent essay, hitherto unpublished, "The gay warlords", "triggered by ... revelations about certain much-decorated Royal Air Force Fighter Command war heroes". In heavily ironic mode, describing his own experience in the RAF during the second world war as that of "a closet pacifist", Clarke details the famous gays throughout history who have been successful military leaders - from the Spartans to the Zulu warrior Shaka the Great, not to speak of Richard the Lionheart and General Gordon. There was even Sir Hector Macdonald, VC, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ceylon at the turn of the century who, "to the great embarrassment of the local Brits (and doubtless the amusement of everyone else) ... was caught in flagrante with some Colombo schoolboys". Recalled by Whitehall, Sir Hector got as far as Paris, where he shot himself. So, concludes Clarke: "KEEP THESE FEROCIOUS GAYS OUT OF THE ARMED SERVICES! They're too bloodthirsty and warlike. We need gentle, compassionate soldiers, in the peaceful new world we hope to build."

The book is full of good jokes; wit is a Clarke hallmark - witness his well-known "laws" on scientific and technological progress. So, to rebut those who think the money spent in space would be better spent on sorting out Earth's problems, Clarke twists Oscar Wilde: "We have to clean up the gutters in which we are now walking - but we must not lose sight of the stars." On the subject of cold fusion, as notoriously claimed by two respected scientists, he offers "another of my dubious predictions. Pons and Fleischmann will be the only scientists ever to win both the Nobel and the Ig Nobel prizes".

And I cannot resist quoting, from an article about "Writing to sell", this gem taken from "a few ideas for books I feel somebody ought to write". Sunset on the Boulevard would be "a moving account of the work carried out by a rescue mission among the poor of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills in the years following the Final Depression. There are harrowing stories of the destitute drinking the last drops of water in their swimming pools; maddened by hunger, trying to open Andy Warhol soup cans - and finally succumbing to fatal sunburn when the protective smog vanishes."

Some needless repetition apart (especially in the later stages of the book), along with an avoidable sprinkling of typos, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! is a rich, thought-provoking and stylishly written anthology, worthy of one of the most intelligent scientific thinkers of our time. May he live long, to relish his predicted 100th birthday in the Hilton Orbiter Hotel in 2017!

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of Earthshock and Satyajit Ray .

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays 1934-98

Author - Arthur C. Clarke
ISBN - 0 00 224697 X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 608

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