A giant of SciFi

October 17, 1997

Andrew Robinson's feature on Arthur C. Clarke (THES, October 10) is thorough and detailed, but I cannot help feeling that many recent commentators on Clarke are not articulating what makes him such a special figure in our culture.

We experience in Clarke what science fiction readers know as the "sense of wonder": the apprehension that the universe is both awe-inspiring and understandable. That even if we do not understand, now, at some future time, we may. Clarke's fiction possesses the almost poetic response of the scientist who finds the physical world mysterious and challenging. The Science Fiction Foundation - of which Clarke is a patron - exists to chart this interface between science, philosophy, and the creative response. Its library of thousands of volumes of SF texts and criticism - now at Liverpool University - is witness to the fact that Clarke is not alone in this response, but he is fundamental to understanding it.

An examination of the bibliographical history of the forthcoming collection described in Robinson's essay may well reveal that many of the earlier contents appeared not in academic publications but in fanzines or the organs of the British Interplanetary Society - a group seen before the war by many in mainstream science as little different to the readers of the lurid pulps (which many of them, of course, were: indeed, Clarke went on to publish fiction in them).

Clarke is different from his contemporary science fiction writers only in two ways: the fact that he is one of the few of his generation who is a household name and that, more than many, he combines with such perfect balance the two elements of "science" and "fiction". While trained as a scientist, Clarke has been concerned with communicating, in fiction and non-fiction, the excitement of the speculative process and the genuine awe that we must feel as we discover more about the universe. His early descriptions of space, for instance, still sound journalistic. It is with a struggle we realise that this is imagination, not descriptive travel writing.

While it would be as great a mistake to claim that Clarke "teaches" science through his fiction as to suggest that we would not have geostationary space stations without him, he certainly inspires, and by communicating his own (sometimes uncomfortable) speculation about how the universe may take shape in future time and far space suggests to his readers channels for their own visions. In an age where far too much of this inspiration - even within science fiction itself - takes the form of easy answers and uncritical mysticism it is important that the values of analysis and method are protected. In an age where science is far too often seen as anti-humanitarian and threatening it is important to consider the mystery and strangeness that surrounds us.

Andy Sawyer.

Librarian/administrator. Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool

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