Arthur Schopenhauer said “To read is to think with somebody else’s mind.” It’s a nice idea, but it takes a pretty good writer to bring it off. Arthur C Clarke, who died in March 2008, was such a writer.
After his death many words were spent discussing the Clarke ego, and the fact that he was gay. So what? All that really matters are his words, and these endure.
Margaret Attwood, in the days before she grew disdainfuly of SF, said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is fourteen. If you are going to be an SF fan, that’s when you find out. That’s the age when it changes you forever. What a delight it was for me, as a teenager, to visit the village library after school and discover a new volume of those yellow Gollanz Science Fiction books. In England, before publisher Victor Gollanz got SF between hard covers, it was not really considerd respectable reading material.
ACC, at his best, in a collection such as ‘The Other Side of the Sky’ was the master of the Science Fiction short story. He made it seem so effortless that I was dismayed to discover that a lot of other writers couldn’t come close. In his hands the SF short could be polished, memorable and beautiful.
ACC had very strong views on religion and declared that at his funeral there should be no hint of any religious rites. He’s also known for the memorable quote, "One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion."
Many of his stories touch on religion in a unique way. ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ is one of the best known. In this story Tibetan monks have been engaged for centuries in a search for the ultimate - correct name of God, the quest involves writing out all possible words that may be derived from combinations of characters in a special alphabet. After labouring with pen and parchment, technology becomes available and the monks buy a computer to hash through all the remaining word combinations.
We follow along with a couple of techies who are the site support for the machine. One of them has discovered that it is the belief of the monks that once all possible names are written down man’s purpose will be complete. Rather than risk a possibilty of confronation with an angry mob they decide to leave before the machine has made it all the way to letter combination nine billion. As they journey down a dusty mountain road, well let ACC tell it his way:
‘Look ,’ whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything)
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
The narrative has taken us from the mundane here and now, - a computer factory in Manhattan, via a monastery on the side of a Tibetan mountain, to a universe where a rather petulant god can, at will, terminate the whole of creation. Not a bad trip, for a man with a typewriter and a few sheets of A4.
Now if Schopenhauer is right, after you’ve read these words, you will have got to think, just for a moment, with the mind of ACC. That fact that he’s dead and gone matters not. A little part of his conscious just had a moment inside your head.
ACC disdained all religions and was dismissive of an afterlife. Yet some aspect of the mind of ACC lives on everytime one of his books is read. Of all the after lives that men have speculated on, I think that is one that ACC would approve of.