Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hal to the Odyssey

This month sucks.  First Anthony Minghella and now Arthur C Clarke.  I hope this is not an alphabetical culling of all my favourite artists, writers, directors and such.

I remember immersing myself in Clarke's worlds as a child.  An uncle had bought me one of his books at one of those book fairs for 30p and I devoured it in less than 2 hours.  It was Dolphin Island and I was hooked.

I made my uncle bring me to the book fair again that very day so I could scour the place of more of Arthur C Clarke's books.

He gave me many many hours of wonderful reading pleasure as a child.  My lifelong love affair with science fiction was in no small part due to him.

Thanks, mate, for a wonderful odyssey.


Arthur C. Clarke's life was an 'Odyssey' of the mind
Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction visionary best known for the groundbreaking 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a psychedelic epic of mankind's encounter with never-seen aliens, died Wednesday at age 90.

The English writer died in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He had been in poor health in recent years, confined to a wheelchair due to the effects of post-polio syndrome.

He was a scientist, a philosopher and a prolific author who penned more than 80 books and 500 essays during his lifetime, including fiction and non-fiction. His 1951 short story The Sentinel became the foundation for 2001.

Clarke was a futurist who seemed to live ahead of his time. Many of his ideas and theories became reality. His work was embraced by both the scientific and science fiction communities. He viewed the future as something to behold, not fear.

"I'm an optimist," he told USA TODAY, half-jokingly, in 1997. "I've always said we have a 51% chance of survival."

His own odyssey began as a boy growing up in the seaside town of Minehead, England. The son of an English farming family, Clarke was born on Dec. 16, 1917 to Charles (the source of Arthur's famous middle initial) Clarke and Mary Nora Willis.

Clarke spent his boyhood years staring at the stars through homemade telescopes and launching amateur rockets using gunpowder he mixed with his mother's kitchen utensils. He was introduced to the world of science fiction as a boy through the pulp magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science.

With no money for college, he moved to London in 1936 and took a job as a government auditor. In his spare time, he joined the British Interplanetary Society, a group devoted to the science of space flight, and began writing science fiction for several fanzines.

In 1941, at the height of World War II, Clarke volunteered for the Royal Air Force and served as a radar instructor. His military experience led to his 1945 landmark essay, Extra-Terrestrial Relays, published in the technical journalWireless World.

In the piece, for which he was paid $40, Clarke proposed building a network of orbiting communication satellites, placed 22,300 miles above the equator, fixed at the same spot over Earth. In 1963, the world's first geosynchronous satellite was launched, making his vision a reality.

That was the first of several scientific predictions that led fans to worship Clarke as if he were a modern-day Nostradamus, though many of his overly ambitious visions of man's presence in space never materialized.

Clarke's foundation in science came from his years at Kings College in London, where he studied math and physics after the war. After graduating, he spent a year as an assistant editor of the journal Physics Abstracts before the income from his writing hobby overtook his day salary. His first book, the non-fiction Interplanetary Flight, was published in 1950.

In 1953, Ballantine Books put Clarke on the map with the publication of his sci-fi classic, Childhood's End, about a race of aliens who come to Earth and eliminate disease and poverty — at the cost of mankind's freedom. His subsequent best sellers included 1956's TheCity and the Stars, 1961's A Fall of Moondust and 1975's Imperial Earth, among others.

His 1973 critically acclaimed classic Rendezvous with Rama— about a team of astronauts who are sent to investigate an alien spacecraft (Rama) that is hurling toward our sun — won Clarke every major sci-fi writing accolade including the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter and Nebula awards.

Donna Shirley, former director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, called Clarke "a remarkable man." Clarke served on the museum's advisory board and was inducted into its Hall of Fame.

"He (was) the creator of some fascinating and brilliant concepts in science fiction," she said, adding that he grounded his science fiction in scientific fact.

But Clarke's career remains defined by his seminal short story, The Sentinel. Written in 1948 for a BBC contest (he lost) and first published in 1951,The Sentinel told of a pyramid-shaped structure (which became the mysterious monolith left by aliens in 2001) found on the moon. It was Clarke's first attempt to tackle humanity's oldest question: Why are we here?

In 1964, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was looking to make a movie about aliens after the release of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures introduced him to Clarke. The two men clicked and brainstormed for several months in New York.

The Sentinel became the jumping-off point for their project. In the summer of 1964, Clarke holed up at the Chelsea Hotel to type their script. The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spanning 4 million years from the dawn of man to the title year, the saga starred Keir Dullea as an astronaut attempting to decipher the meaning of an alien artifact discovered on the moon. His crew is sent to Jupiter to track the source of the monolith's radio signal, with dire consequences.

It was unlike any film ever made, using imagery, symbolism and classical music rather than relying solely on dialogue to tell the story.

The film also famously gave the world the malevolent, thinking, talking mainframe computer, the HAL 9000.

2001 opened to mixed, sometimes hostile, reviews from critics and audiences who didn't "get" it. The New York Times called it "somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring." Harper's said it was "a monumentally unimaginative movie."

Despite its reception, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a shared screenwriting nod for Clarke and Kubrick. It won one Oscar for best special effects.

Today, 2001 is considered an influential masterpiece. "There have been many science-fiction films, but I don't think any of them are as cerebral or as daring as this one," says film historian Leonard Maltin. It ranks No. 22 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movies of all time.

2001 "poses metaphysical, philosophical and even religious questions," Clarke explained in Neil McAleer 's 1992 authorized biography. "I don't pretend we have the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about. It's about concern with man's hierarchy in the universe, which is pretty low. It's about the reactions of humanity to the discovery of higher intelligence in the universe."

Clarke certainly believed in extraterrestrial, intelligent life. "They might land tomorrow on the White House lawn," he told McAleer. But he did not believe in UFOs, which he said could be reasonably explained.

Nor did he believe in God. He was an unapologetic atheist with no patience for organized religion, which he blamed for many of society's ills. "The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion," he wrote in a 1999 essay.

Clarke was not oblivious to the potential abuse and side effects of new technology, evidenced by HAL and his banal droning. ("I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.") In 1997, Clarke told USA TODAY that he embraced e-mail while simultaneously calling the Internet "the most deadly drug ever developed."

Clarke's influence and admiration in the scientific world was undeniable. The command module of 1970's ill-fated Apollo 13 mission was dubbed "Odyssey" in honor of the film, as was the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft. At MIT, a room dedicated to artificial intelligence is dubbed the HAL project. The area of space where geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth is known as the "Clarke Belt."

In his private life, Clarke was often portrayed as an eccentric recluse who refused to give interviews. But in truth he frequently chatted with reporters and fans via e-mail and gave speeches via satellite.

In 1953, Clarke married an American, Marilyn Mayfield. The marriage lasted less than six months. "The marriage was incompatible from the beginning," he once said. "It was sufficient proof that I wasn't the marrying type, although I think everybody should marry once."

After the marriage collapsed, Clarke's fascination with the underwater world brought him to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), where he settled in 1956 and started a scuba-diving business along with business partner Hector Ekanayake.

In December 2004, Clarke and his family survived the catastrophic tidal waves that killed more than 225,000 people in Asia, including thousands in Sri Lanka.

"The day after Christmas turned out to be a living nightmare reminiscent of The Day After Tomorrow," Clarke posted on his website after the disaster. He noted that his first book about Sri Lanka, 1957's The Reefs of Taprobane, chronicled a tidal wave that struck the area in 1883.

In 1998, his life was turned upside down after the British tabloid Sunday Mirror accused the writer of being a pedophile. Clarke vehemently denied the accusations and was never charged with any crime.

The controversy did not prevent Clarke from being knighted by Britain's royal family, or giving interviews as Jan. 1, 2001, approached. He spoke of the significance of 2001, which has been re-released in theaters several times since 1968, including in 2001.

He also continued to write. Sunstorm, a novel with Stephen Baxter, was released in 2005 by Del Ray.

Before his death, Clarke made provisions for the future. He donated six strands of his hair to a Houston-based company that plans to launch human DNA into space.