The passing of a legend: Arthur C. Clarke


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(photo: Associated Press)

Arthur C. Clarke, a giant of modern science fiction, has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. An aide told the Associated Press that Clarke had been suffering from breathing problems and had been in and out of the hospital.

It didn’t seem possible that we would ever hear such news: Didn’t Clarke seem timeless? As unchanged as the monolith discovered on the moon in the story ‘The Sentinel’? That story was later expanded into the novel ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ He was as prolific (the A.P. estimates that he authored more than 100 books) as he was optimistic about science and technology. His name is everywhere.


In his characteristically sniffy manner, critic Thomas Disch once called Clarke’s ‘2010,’ a followup of sorts to ‘2001,’ as representative of the science fiction genre’s ‘meat-and-potatoes mid-range.’ He also grudgingly pointed out that Isaac Asimov and Clarke were ‘as close to household words as any writers in the field.’

Clarke certainly reached the mainstream, but not only because of his speculations about the future. I think it was also because readers detected something else dominant in some of his work: the presence of religious questions, even though Clarke himself was opposed to organized religion. That’s what has always drawn me to him, and that is what has always startled students in my writing classes when, near the semester’s end, I ask them to read a brief story of Clarke’s called ‘The Star.’ A starship’s chief astrophysicist, who also happens to be a Jesuit priest, undergoes a religious crisis when he realizes that a star that went supernova 3,000 years ago, annihilating the peace-loving inhabitants of a nearby planet, was the same star that brought the magi to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus. The priest’s realization of this is moving and ironic: It never disappoints students.

If there’s any legacy that Clarke has left us, it is that science doesn’t solve the problems of the human condition. In fact, science forces us to wrestle even more deeply with our beliefs, choices and what we understand about ourselves. Clarke struck notes that were poignant and challenging, as with this final, anguished question which ends ‘The Star’:

‘There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?’

Nick Owchar