Arthur C. Clarke, creator of "2001: a space odyssey"


* Arthur C. Clarke, creador de "2001: una odisea espacial"

Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of 90 years old, the writer who along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein was considered one of the "Big Three" of science fiction of the twentieth century. Very famous after his Oscar nomination for the screenplay of the film "2001", Clarke published over 70 titles, which explored the role of Science and Technology in the future of the human species.

Arthur C. Clarke was born in the coastal town of Minehead, England, on 16 December 1917, into a family of farmers. He finished school in his home community, and moved to London in 1936. There he pursued an interest in space sciences by joining the British Interplanetary Society. He was a columnist for the Bulletin of the Society, an experience that led him to write his first works of science fiction.

This vocation was discontinued in 1939 with the arrival of World War II. Recruited by the British Air Force, his skills led him to join one of the groups experimenting at the time with radar and other novel electronic equipment for air navigation.

After the war, he returned to London and its collaboration with the British Interplanetary Society, so prominently that eventually became its president between 1947 and 1950, and again in 1953.

He got money and went back to school, graduating in Physics and Mathematics at King's College, London, in 1949.


Arthur C. Clarke published in 1945 the idea of placing radio and television transmission equipment in artificial satellites, high enough to enable them to be visible from two separate continents simultaneously. The signal would be sent from one continent to the satellite, and then from the satellite, re-transmitted to another continent. Clarke thought it would be very helpful to place these satellites into large orbits, with periods of 24 hours, so they would move accompanying the rotation of the Earth. Once placed over a particular spot on the surface, the movements of the planet and the satellite will be synchronized, and people (or antennas) from that surface spot will always have the artifact in sight.

At one point Clarke consulted a lawyer about the possibility of patenting the idea, but the lawyer said that without the technology to materialize it, it would have been rejected. By 1954, the post-war development of rockets made concrete solutions for the placement of small satellites in orbit abundant in scientific publications. But now it was too late for Clarke: the initial idea was already widespread, so they could not grant him exclusivity.

Either way, he worked with scientists and engineers in the development of spacecraft and launch vehicles. He also had the opportunity to speak at the UN during the debate on the peaceful use of outer space.

A more recent idea from Clarke, and that is still far from being materialized, is the "space elevator", 36 000-km-high from the ground up to space, through which astronauts and cargo could directly enter into orbit without rockets.


Clarke already began living exclusively from his articles and books around the year 1951. The first story he sold professionally was called "Rescue Party", written in March 1945 and published in the May 1946 issue of the magazine "Astounding Science Fiction". From there on, a career of more than 70 titles in total began. Among his highlights in the non-fiction category are "The exploration of space", 1951, "The making of a moon", 1957, and "Profiles of the future", 1962; among his works of science fiction, "Childhood's end", 1953, "Rendezvous with Rama", 1972, "The fountains of paradise", 1979, "The songs of distant Earth", 1986, and of course the immortal "2001: a space odyssey", 1968, whose success led to the sequels "2010", "2061"and "3001", became classics.

In 1964, he began working with famed director Stanley Kubrick, who has just released "Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove". The starting point of this collaboration was a story written by Clarke in 1948, called "The Sentinel". Initially Kubrick asked Clarke to write a screenplay, but time passed and Clarke could not move forward with the literary techniques of the film industry, so it was agreed that he would write a novel first and then Kubrick would make the adaptation. Actually, they ended working in parallel, and in fact Kubrick finished the film version first. The writer's version, released after the movie, has some differences, with a more active monolith and an ending more comprehensible.

What Clarke and Kubrick share in common, however, is their fondness for "hard science fiction", that is, as realistic as possible without resorting to magic or esotericism, or solutions too fantastic that break the credibility (and suspense) on their adventures. Everything they describe respects natural laws, and can happen someday. (If the U.S. had kept the pile of money for space at 5% of the federal budget, as in the 1960s, we would have been on Mars by 1980 and at Jupiter by 2001). Its is worth remembering that "2001" is one of the few movies where explosions in space do not make noise, and yet are dramatic.

In these type of works, the source of awe and wonder for the viewer comes from one of the most famous observations of Arthur C. Clarke, called by himself his Third Law (published in "Hazards of prophecy: the failure of imagination" in "Profiles of the future", revised edition, Harper & Row, New York, 1973) which holds that a demonstration of a certain technology would seem virtually identical to a demonstration of magic if the technology in question is sufficiently advanced.


In 1981, he wrote and presented a TV series of 13 episodes titled "Arthur C. Clarke's mysterious world", which explores big questions and bizarre aspects of the natural world around us. This series was followed by "World of strange powers", in 1984, where he pries on parapsychological phenomena.

Clarke visited the island of Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean, in December 1954, and he liked so much both its beaches and underwater life, that he moved permanently to this nation. He lived in the southern region and then in the capital Colombo for his next 52 years.

In the last decades of his life, Arthur C. Clarke remained confined to a wheelchair, weakened by a polio case he had suffered many years ago. However, his production as a writer did not diminish because of this, nor with advancing age.


There is an anecdote regarding the filming of the movie "2001: a space odyssey." The screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke and the director Stanley Kubrick confessed a serious setback they were having: how to illustrate alien beings as realistically as possible. After some consultation, they were presented with a thesis known in the scientific community: any alien civilization that would have the ability to travel between the stars and reach the Earth would have to be much more advanced than ours, so it would be very different. Also, because it is impossible to know what paths biological evolution might have followed on a planet other than Earth, it would be almost impossible that these likely beings, product of this other evolution, would resemble us. Chances are that they would have a biological, physiological and anatomical constitution very different from ours. Therefore, any extraterrestrial biological entity (a term apparently coined by Dr. Detlev Bronk) that the director could make for the film would certainly be pure fantasy. Aided by this consultancy, Kubrick decided not make any E.B.E. appear on screen: he would satisfy himself by simply (or as happened afterwards, masterfully) just lead to intuit their presence, indirectly, through a passive monolith.

Actually, the idea of the monolith-observer comes from Clarke himself, since it is a centerpiece of "The Sentinel". Even scenes like the discovery of the artifact on the Moon, and the archaeological evidences proving its age of many millions of years, were recycled for "2001". Here Clarke had anticipated to mainstream science.

One detail that many viewers failed to appreciate is that "2001" describes the history of the evolution of the thinking Universe. It begins four million years in the past, with the ape-men, moves to the present time (the "Space Age"), and ends, by way of the aliens, millions of years in the future, if not literally, at least in the form of a transfer of knowledge, accumulated by this ultra-futurist civilization through millions of years of exploration of the Universe.

On the other hand, the book's style is the style of Clarke, when compared with other works like "Rendezvous with Rama"; while the style of the film is Kubrick's style, as evidenced by the similarity to other films such as "The shining" or "Eyes wide shut", with predominantly visual and musical language at the expense of dialogue, or even "A clockwork orange", which explores the influence of animal instincts on supposedly civilized and modern beings.

In his book "2001" Clarke explains the ending with all the letters. However, Kubrick chose to be guided by mainstream science and leave everything in a mystery. The truth is that the contact between two civilizations so different in development, one of which is 4 million years more advanced than the other, is more like an attempt of dialogue between Homo sapiens and chimpanzees. So if "2001: a space odyssey" seemed to you a movie, as they say, "incomprehensible", it was probably so because that was exactly what the director wanted to show.

With the death of Arthur C. Clarke, on 19 March 2008, the world lost a great visionary. The future stands now, ironically, a little more distant.

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color on 13 April 2008. Photo: Arthur C. Clarke in his home office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 28 March 2005. Credit: Amy Marash, with permission.