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Arthur C. Clarke Essay, Research Paper

THE GARDEN OF RAMA (Bantam, $20) by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee is the third in a series of novels that began in 1973 with Mr. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama.” The original Rama was a massive cylindrical spaceship that blundered into our solar system and allowed itself to be searched by human explorers before blasting off again into interstellar space. Although its level of technology was far superior to anything on Earth, Rama was otherwise an enigma; there was no sign on board of its creators and no clue as to its ultimate destination or purpose. “Rama II,” by Mr. Clarke and Mr. Lee, published in 1989, brought Rama back for a second look; this time when the mysterious ship left the solar system (to avoid a phalanx of nuclear-tipped missiles launched from Earth) it carried three unwilling human passengers. The new novel begins with a birth. In her diary Nicole des Jardins, a life scientist and the wife of Richard Wakefield, a computer scientist, describes the delivery of a daughter with the help of Gen. Michael O’Toole, a sensitive friend of the family. The first hundred pages describe the attempts of this plucky little band to survive inside an alien artifact whose self-regenerating systems offer both life-saving resources and deadly dangers. Feeling an obligation to provide a more varied gene pool for their descendants, the three adults play a conscience-stricken game of procreative musical chairs. Just when it appears that they have succeeded in making their house in space a home, Rama arrives at a space station so vast that the state of Rhode Island could fit into one of its decks. Text: Here the humans (whose numbers have doubled through more births) learn that the primary purpose of the “Nodal Intelligence” controlling Rama and the enormous space station is “to catalogue life-forms in this part of the galaxy.” Pressed for further explanations, the Nodal Intelligence turns coy; it communicates with its guests through a biomechanical surrogate that resembles a human being with a feathered torso, the face of an eagle and more ways of saying “no comment” than a Presidential press secretary. But its own curiosity about humans is not to be denied. Repaired and refitted, Rama returns to Earth with Nicole and Richard (and four of the children); the humans have agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to help recruit a larger human colony for further observation. At this point the narrative switches gears, from the Swiss Family Robinson in space to political allegory. The new colony is named New Eden. Under the watchful eyes of the Nodal Intelligence, the 2,000 colonists re-create all the horrors of recent human history: repression, xenophobia, rape, war, self-destruction. Unfortunately the authors, who juggle technological marvels with aplomb, lack the resources to bring this sort of material to life. The result is a leaden morality play that takes up nearly half the book. Things begin to pick up again when Richard meets the intriguing aliens who share Rama with the human colony, and an outbreak of interspecies war rouses the Nodal Intelligence from its Olympian detachment. For those eager to find out what happens next, yet another sequel is in the works. Personally I intend to reread “Rendezvous With Rama” and see if I can experience again that little shiver of delight I felt on first reading the words “The long-hoped-for, long-feared encounter had come at last. Mankind was about to receive the first visitor from the stars.” Most science fiction stories follow one or another of the major literary archetypes, the most common probably being the Dr. Frankenstein story wherein humankind creates the instrument that threatens to destroy it. That was the main plot device of the 1968 classic ”2001: A Space Odyssey,” which Arthur C. Clarke wrote with Stanley Kubrick, who made the movie. In it, the space mission of Frank Poole and Dave Bowman is subverted by their supposed servant, the computer Hal, which is determined to follow its program to the end, no matter what the consequences. Text: In ”3001: The Final Odyssey,” Mr. Clarke’s third sequel, the archetype has to do with Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction of the world by an angry God. The differences are, first, that the God of ”3001” is a superior civilization from another solar system and, second, that humankind in Mr. Clarke’s novel figures out a way to save itself from destruction. Or at least, it buys itself another millennium, since Mr. Clarke’s superior civilization lives in so distant a part of the galaxy that it will take at least 900 years for it to learn that it has been stymied and to respond. Nobody will accuse Mr. Clarke of lacking imagination or of failing to relate his science fiction to the scientifically conceivable. Still, his new book, unlike the elevator in ”3001” that whisks people up a tower 23,000 miles high, never gets off the ground. One reason is that, by contrast with the giant space station and the insidiously clever computer in ”2001,” the various devices Mr. Clarke employs in this sequel seem forced and detached even from the inner logic that must prevail for science fiction to work. It is not only that you have to imagine Poole, last seen in ”2001” spinning uncontrollably away in space, recovered and restored to life after his millennium of drift. It is not just that Poole re-establishes contact both with Hal and with Bowman, who have become emulations in the gigantic memory of the mother of all Monoliths. The logical implausibility comes in the fact that the Monolith, though it has absorbed Bowman and Hal into itself, is blissfully unaware of the two of them plotting against it from within its own circuits. The Monolith, of course, is the rectangular structure that appears at crucial moments in evolutionary history, granting the gift of intelligence to living creatures. In ”3001,” a new Monolith has been discovered on one of the moons of Jupiter, and it is there that the spirits of Hal and Bowman have reposed for the last thousand years. But while the Monolith had a compelling, mystical-religious quality in ”2001,” its reappearance in this new book provides hardly a frisson. Mr. Clarke’s new book in this sense is full of whimsy about the world of the future. But it is so languid and unmysterious, so lacking in the elaboration of plot, character or concept, that it reads more like a proposal for itself than like a fully realized work. ”You taught me a phrase from your period that seems very appropriate now,” a character named Dr. Oconnor tells Poole in a typically wooden bit of dialogue. ”This is a can of worms.” Oconnor, it should be noted, is reacting to the news that a vastly superior force quite likely intends to wipe out Earth-based civilization. A wormy can indeed! The reason for this intended destruction is that the superior civilization has learned how terrible Earth’s 20th century was and has therefore probably elected to eradicate the inhabitants of the 31st. ”What bad — what incredibly bad! — luck that the final report went off, just after the very worst period in human history!” Oconnor says. ”3001: The Final Odyssey” comes with a ”Sources” section at the end in which Mr. Clarke explains concepts that he uses in his utopian fourth millennium society, like ” ‘inertialess drive,’ i.e., a propulsion system that acts on every atom of a body so that no strains are produced when it accelerates.” The glossary refers to a paper published in Physics Review that seems to relate, if vaguely, to inertialess drive. Still, Mr. Clarke’s science-fiction fantasies are just that, fantasies, and, again unlike Hal in ”2001,” or, say, the cloning technique of Michael Crichton’s ”Jurassic Park,” they are devoid of the sense of the eerie common to the best science fiction. The world that Frank Poole returns to after being revived from his long frozen condition (no imaginary medical details are provided as to how this feat was accomplished) is, needless to say, a technological marvel, though it is less different from that of the previous millennium than the previous millennium was from our millennium. The astronautical task of the time is to tow entire comets, which are 90 percent ice, to Venus and Mercury, where artificial oceans are being created. The planet Jupiter has been transformed into a subsidiary sun called Lucifer, which nurtures a seething caldron of Darwinian activity on one of the former planet’s moons, Europa. As one local wit says of Io, the major moon closest to Jupiter, ”Before the creation of Lucifer it had been Hell — now it was Hell warmed up.” This is Mr. Clarke in one of his more inspired moments. Mr. Clarke is at his best in this book as he describes Poole’s voyage from Earth to Jupiter and its vastly changed moons. And there are amusing touches, as when a member of the vegetarian society of 1,000 years hence refers to meat as ”corpse food,” not eaten anymore, or when he evokes genetically enhanced gorillas doing the hard work of excavation for anthropologists. But what ”3001” needs is not more clever gimmicks but a mystical soul, and that it sorely lacks. THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH By Arthur C. Clarke. 256 pp. New York: A Del Rey Book/Ballantine Books. $17.95. ARTHUR C. CLARKE breaks all the rules. He writes best sellers that have virtually no sex or violence in them, no family tensions, no conventional heroes or villains. Despite these drawbacks, more than two million copies of his last science-fiction novel, ”2010: Odyssey Two,” are in print. Before that his ”Fountains of Paradise” sold in the hundreds of thousands, and his best-known books, ”2001: A Space Odyssey” (co-written with Stanley Kubrick) and ”Childhood’s End,” are still in print after several decades. The secret of his appeal lies in his revival of the oldest form of how-to literature – philosophical fiction, which, borrowing tools from both logic and poetry, intends to tell us how to live and die with dignity. Text: ”The Songs of Distant Earth” takes place some 200 years after the sun blows up – right on schedule, according to a forecast made by a scientist at the beginning of the 21st century. The sentences summarizing this forecast show Mr. Clarke’s style at its purest: ”In the year 3600, plus or minus seventy-five years, the Sun would become a nova. Not a very spectacular one – but big enough.” With a millennium and a half of lead time, the human race manages to launch a fleet of ‘’seedships,” each carrying enough genetic material (frozen human embryos, plants, animals and microorganisms) to stock an entire planet, along with robot mechanisms to nurture the embryos until they can care for themselves. Since the seedships, with their ”primitive” propulsion systems, require centuries to reach even the nearest habitable planet, no living humans can make the journey. Mr. Clarke’s story begins seven centuries after the arrival of a seedship on the planet Thalassa, so called because it consists largely of ocean. The transplanted humans, having created an idyllic island society, now find themselves with unexpected visitors: a group of colonists aboard the Magellan, a late-model spaceship that left Earth just before its fiery destruction. The Magellan is headed for a planet named Sagan Two; it carries a million frozen survivors of Earth and a living crew of 161; all its captain wants from the Lassans (as the inhabitants of Thalassa call themselves) is 150,000 tons of ice to rebuild the ship’s protective nose cone. Where another author might explore the potential for conflict in this meeting, Mr. Clarke sees only an opportunity for friendly cooperation. The drama that interests Mr. Clarke is played out on a much larger canvas. It concerns the lures and limitations of knowledge, the destiny of mankind and the fate of the universe. He writes about these things with a confidence that readers accustomed to mincing ambiguities and ironical self-doubt must find bracing. His sentences are lean and declarative, his paragraphs uncluttered, his chapters short. He knows what few philosophers (or poets, for that matter) know – prolixity only diminishes big themes. Here is his description of the moment when scientists first discovered there was something wrong with the sun: ”The world as a whole neither knew nor cared; but the countdown to doomsday had begun.” This is what the departure of the Magellan from orbit looks like to observers on Thalassa: ”The entire horizon was ringed with fire. . . . Long streamers of flame reached up out of the ocean, halfway toward the zenith, an auroral display such as Thalassa had never witnessed before, and would never see again.” Mr. Clarke understands that, in the proper context, even big numbers become poetic. ”Since writing was invented, until the end of Earth,” a crew member from the Magellan tells a Lassan, ”it’s been estimated that ten thousand million boooks were produced. . . . We have about ten percent of that on board.” It is typical of Mr. Clarke to leave the final computation to the reader. The question of which books to save is a major theme of ”The Songs of Distant Earth.” The seedship that colonized Thalassa contained an electronic archive filled with information that the designers of the mission thought might be useful to the colonists. Before creating this archive, a committee of ”men of genius and goodwill” went over 10,000 years of history and purged it of ”the decay products of dead religions” – not just all holy books per se but also ”the immense body of literature – fiction and nonfiction – that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds.” Consigned to the flames were most of Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, Melville and Proust (who is referred to as ”the last great fiction writer before the electronic revolution overwhelmed the printed page”). Mr. Clarke takes some pains to distance himself from this act of pre-emptive censorship, while noting its salutary effect on Thalassa, where ”the very word ‘God’ has almost vanished” from the language and the people ‘’seem remarkably free from such unpleasant traits as envy, intolerance, jealousy, anger.” This is philosophical fiction at its narrowest and most prescriptive: how to build a better society; how to live in peace and harmony with your neighbors. If Mr. Clarke’s work were only this, I doubt that its appeal would be as broad as it is. THE key to his achievement is to be found not in his utopian fantasies but in his poetic evocation of human dignity in the face of death. Thinking of the ”tragedy of Earth” as the sun becomes a nova, a crew member of the Magellan remembers what he saw ”through the lenses of cameras that had survived a few minutes longer than the devoted men who had sacrificed the last moments of their lives to set them up”:

”The Great Pyramid glowing dully red before it slumped into a puddle of molten stone . . . ”. . . the floor of the Atlantic, baked rock hard in seconds before it was submerged again by the lava gushing from the volcanoes of the Mid-ocean Rift . . . ”. . . the Moon rising above the flaming forests of Brazil and now itself shining almost as brilliantly as had the Sun, on its last setting, only minutes before . . . ”. . . the continent of Antarctica emerging briefly after its long burial as the kilometers of ancient ice were burned away.” This is not a poetry that relies on fresh language or fresh insights; it is a poetry of perspective, of attitude; it invites us to forget our petty problems in the contemplation of a mortality so immense as to mimic immortality in scale. Nearly 10 years before ”Star Wars,” ”2001: A Space Odyssey” caught the spirit of the nascent revolutions in computation and space exploration. The story of an alien intelligence ensconced in a black monolithic slab and appearing to take a peculiar interest in stimulating human evolution at critical junctures, Arthur C. Clarke’s novella and the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film based on it were irresistibly beguiling. So was HAL, the personable supercomputer whose mutiny on a mission to Jupiter resulted in the demise of the crew members David Bowman and Frank Poole. Now, in ”3001: The Final Odyssey,” Mr. Clarke brings Poole back the way a television series resurrects a character killed off prematurely. Although his frozen body has been floating in space for a millennium, after a brief period of convalescence and education he isn’t much the worse for wear. He masters the use of the ”Braincap” and other gadgets, learns about Star City (a circular ring in space that girds the earth’s equator and from which four very long towers descend to the barely habitable surface far below) and bones up on 1,000 years of uneventful social history. In his absence a monolith has exploded Jupiter, turning it and its moons into a secondary solar system. One moon, Ganymede, is colonized by earthlings, but another, Europa, is watched over by a monolith that is either monitoring human affairs or spurring the development of the plantlike beings living under the frozen surface — or both. The situation turns grave when Poole learns from his old colleague Bowman, who along with HAL has become a program running within the Europan monolith, that the black slab’s superiors may have soured on humans and be up to something nasty. That’s enough of the plot. It hangs together reasonably well, although in this third and — the subtitle would suggest — final sequel to ”2001,” Mr. Clarke has to struggle to weave all the threads into a coherent narrative blanket. Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from other sources: the high-tech thingamajigs that often differ interestingly from their present-day analogues and the barely disguised commentary on issues like prison reform, Freudian therapy, clitoridectomy, terrorism, religious mania and, of course, computer security and complexity. Mr. Clarke was criticized for grossly underestimating the effort necessary to develop a computer with HAL’s ability to converse (and lip-read) by the year 2001. In ”3001” his attitude to consciousness and artificial intelligence appears to have changed; there are marvels aplenty, but the only real agents seem to be people. Amazingly, even the monoliths are not seen as conscious. The many social views implicit in the book are those of a sane, cultured man of the 20th century, those of, say, Mr. Clarke, whose interesting nonfiction addendum contains technical, historical and personal notes that reveal the author’s kindness and scientific knowledge. The hope, perhaps, is that such attitudes will become more dominant in the 31st century. As in much science fiction, the psychology of the characters is serene, straightforward and solitary. Unfortunately, this is not the case for some aficionados, who, with an air of overwrought erudition, have deconstructed and ascribed cosmic significance to virtually every aspect of the books. These fans will most likely embrace ”3001” no matter what; happily, readers who prefer science and fiction to science fiction may also find it appealing, albeit not Jupiter-shattering. The problem is that even a monolith lacks the computing power to catch a breaking wave in the turbulent sea of cultural change. That requires luck and timing. ”2001” had them, while ”3001,” despite its straining for a similar numerological resonance, probably doesn’t. Richter 10 by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay Two formidable SF talents converge splendidly in this disaster thriller, which offers sleek action-adventure writing, world-class tumult and a coherent near-future based on sound yet innovative social and scientific speculation. Thirty years ago, as a child, Lewis Crane was scarred physically and mentally by the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994. Now he spends his days tracking earthquakes to minimize their damage. He also harbors a secret hope that he can, through a daring plan to fuse the earth’s plates by exploding nuclear devices along their fault lines, stop the earthquake menace forever. Lewis is aided and stymied in these actions — and in his attempts to warn of the monster quake implied in the book’s title — by a gallery of realistic characters and well-developed political factions, including the suppressed but still potent Nation of Islam, a powerful women’s bloc and the Chinese business interests that now really run America. The plot permutations are as rich as the premise and settings, involving maturing characters, shifting allegiances, betrayals, open conflict and hidden agendas. Clarke’s trademark technological mysticism and McQuay’s tight plotting (as evidenced in his SF detective novels) make for a moving, convincing and engrossing yarn. One could never believe that such a piece as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” was written nearly 50 years ago. The story itself was far ahead of its time and will probably remain so forever. There are some who dislike or would rather not read science-fiction because of its highly idealistic writing and plot outlines. This novel is the greatest I’ve read of science-fiction as of yet. Taking consideration into the fact that I am a novice science-fiction reader, one could dismiss my statement as being naive. However, even if I am mistaken, Childhood’s End will remain inside my mind and heart as being the very best at playing out what contact in our world with a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial civilization and our purpose with them and the rest of the universe would be like. In the introduction Clarke wrote in 1989, he gives an account of a time when he and his late friend Val Cleaver were driving to London when they saw an awe-inspiring sight of silver barrage-balloons anchored above London. They were protecting against, “the present peril.” I’d like to think Mr. Clarke has not lost the appreciation for fiction and the human instinct to imagine incredible things since that time. I’ve heard recently that he has lost his interest in fiction and instead is concentrating on reality. How ironic that as Mr. Clarke is ascending (or descending) into the more realistic universe, the young 18 year-old kid is going in the complete opposite direction. I suppose Sir Isaac Newton has something to do with this. I am not denouncing Mr. Clarke’s realization of the fraudulence of humanity’s dabbling into the so-called “paranormal.” He is very much right. But I was glad to see that even he believes that there is something to it. “Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the ‘paranormal’ (it can’t all be nonsense).” One of things I had to tackle after reading Childhood’s End was what made humanity so special as to surpass the Overlords? Then it hit me. The one thing that made us special, the one thing that separated us from them…our ability to comprehend what was not logical, possible or even sensible. The Overlords, with all of their massive intelligence, vastly advanced technology and their ability to learn at a much faster and more efficient rate, still didn’t attain something we did. I’m not sure if it was just one thing as it is many parts of one thing. Imagination I suppose best describes it. The Overlords were practical, efficient beings. One could relate them to the Vulcan civilization. However this was not your average star trek. Oddly enough, Clarke to me seems to be the best at giving both sides of the story. As one sees the story unfold in his books, they get the feeling that they are receiving a very detailed, scientifically accurate account of everything described. Good, but sometimes hard to relate. He then redeems his genuine fiction writing by putting in the creative and wondrous ideas and descriptions of what the reader sees and the characters experience. He still remembers to make his stories interesting, in other words. At first glancing at the words, “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. The world was still living on the glories of a past that could never return,” I began to think that Clarke was wrong and beginning to get a little too idealistic. Then, I realized that just as humanity in the book is coming out of its childhood ways, I too must realize what can or can’t be. One must take the good with the bad. I found myself relating to the novel on a whole new level. I had to learn to understand why this was happening, and that ultimately, it was for the greater good. Clarke mastered the outline and sequences of the story so well that virtually any reader would find themselves in the exact same position as any person on Earth would, in the event that something like that would happen. Almost as if the book was Karellen’s captain’s log on his ship, dispelling everything that occurred and leaving the most enlightening part for the end. I truly believed that I was reading something that was beyond anything I had read before. Surpassing even the insight the late genius Carl Sagan made into Pi at the closing pages of “Contact.” While the descriptions of the Overlords’ home planet were somewhat trifling for my abilities to imagine inside my head, I had to re-read a few of the passages Clarke wrote. I’m sure even the character of Jan had difficulty taking it all in. I have, under much consideration, contemplated the production of this story into a full-fledged motion picture event. Each page keeps the reader addicted. I found myself reading the third chapter after ten minutes, at first only intending to read the first couple of pages. What an incredible movie it would indeed make! Very idealistic and daring, but so were many blockbusters in the past…Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Titanic, and the beautiful 2001: A Space Odyssey. (This young man hopes one day to see this on the big screen.) I’m sure Mr. Clarke is very interested in trying to make it into a movie. However, he gives his reasons why he might not happen, “According to information I’ve just received from the Hollywood Gulags, the current asking-price for Childhood’s End is more than two hundred times that of the perfectly satisfactory fee I received in 1956.” Money, of course is always the ultimate consideration in Hollywood. What is needed are sources in Hollywood that transcend the suits with their past creative successes. Such people include Clarke’s friend, Steven Spielberg, and collaborator Stanley Kubrick. Even I began to envision each of the scenes in a Kubrick way. Once done by Robert Zemeckis with Carl Sagan’s Contact, I to hope to see this film started before the set of Arthur Clarke. If this book is every made into a movie, I sincerely hope the screenwriter and director leave virtually every part intact. In the unlikely event that this essay is ever read by the great author himself, I’d like it known by him that his books and ideals carry on into the next millennium and that the young man writing this essay has made it a personal goal to do his best to show the story of Childhood’s End on the big screen. I say its time for Clarke to be recognized once again on film. The ending of the book, and I’m sure others would agree with me, had the greatest effect on me. I was able to envision every minute detail and emotion. The dreams and experiences of Jeffery, the realization of his parents that their child is no longer human, the gathering of the children going away. What an incredible vision I saw! It was so bold and so real that many times I found myself perspiring all over and even shedding a tear or two at how beautifully the story seemed to me. Jan, reporting back to the Overlords of what he was seeing and feeling…the mere thought of what might be going through his head was enough for me to stop reading. Yes, I’m sure that wasn’t Clarke’s intention. I found it too good to be true. The story continuously evolved onto a new level of comprehension and experience. The goose-bumps on my body now began to hurt after each page I turned. This was what science-fiction was all about! This is why I love science-fiction! Incredible events that captivate and entangle us unto a new level of comprehension and understanding. Jan was the last man on Earth and it was up to him to give his account of the end of the world. How impossibly exhilarating that would be. Seeing your own world disappear before your eyes, and you with it. But this isn’t a tragedy of mankind. Instead, I thought long and hard about how this book ended. About how humanity ended. A very noble and respectful way for mankind to end. Knowing that each event in the past was not spent in futility. Instead as a milestone on the ascending hill to infinity. Each step a part of the ultimate destination that was reached. True, one could say it wasn’t us that attained that final step, but it was. Perhaps not physically or psychologically, but it was our voyage that made it happen. The whole time, protected by those who see us shine and fly past them on their way to the top. Incredible! How symbolic of any young person’s voyage into the real world. At fist protected by their parents and mentors, they are taught how to deal with the powerful forces that lie beyond them. They are taught to accept the fact that old games and childish actions of their youth must leave them. They are taught that they have a destiny, and they would have to construct it on their own one day. Just think of how a young man, just beginning his voyage into the real world, can see this as being almost allegorical.

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