(Apologies for the infrequent posts, and this may continue for the next couple of months. But I’ll post when I can)
Arthur C. Clarke’s death yesterday didn’t really come as a shock or surprise to me. The man was over 90 years old, so it was time. But his death did trigger some fond memories of his books, and the influence they had on me.
I got introduced to science fiction probably in my very early teens. But that was mostly through the “classic” science fiction writers, like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Verne in particular was (and remains) a huge favorite of mine. His stories were all about adventure, and to a teenager with an over imaginative mind, little could be more exciting than going off to the center of the earth or crossing oceans in a sea-monster shaped submarine. But somewhere around then, I decided that I wanted to read some novels where there was more science. At the time “cool” science meant space, so I wanted something to read that had space in it. Science fiction used to be hard to come by in those days, but luckily for me my school had a library well stocked with fiction. While rummaging through the shelves of books there, I came across a hardcover book which had a picture of a meteor and some planets in the background, with the irresistibly intriguing title of The Hammer of God. Pretty soon I was devouring the story, and I vividly remember being rather taken in by the Indian theme that ran in the background. A meteor named Kali bound to destroy earth seemed particularly apt. But I was more struck by the fact that many of the characters seemed to be of Indian origin (the hero of that novel was Robert Singh). That was perhaps the first time I had read a book by a non-Indian author where important characters had Indian names, but more importantly, their nationality didn’t matter. In other books by western authors, if at all there was a character with an Indian name, that character would be particularly Indian and often pander to some stereotype. But here the nationality or ethnic origin didn’t matter. The person just happened to have an Indian name, and it wasn’t the least bit odd. I thought that was just the way it should be.
That said, when I finished reading “The hammer of God” I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed. It was an interesting book, and kept me engaged through its pages, but nothing more. Still, it had been sufficiently exciting for me to want to read another book by Clarke. Rendezvous with Rama followed, and that book left me far more interested in the genre. From there it was but a few steps to exploring the worlds of Clarke, Asimov, Franz Herbert, Philip K. Dick and so many more. Science fiction became a wholly enjoyable part of my reading habits, and sometimes a valuable source of knowledge and information. And yes, I realized there was more to space than warp-speed, Captain Kirk and death-stars.
Of course, writing about Clarke without mentioning “2001: A space odyssey” is futile. Surprisingly, I’ve never read the book. Through high school and college I filled my head with trivia about the book and the movie, and the naming of HAL and whatever else, but some how never got around to reading the book. But I did see the movie in a most atypical way. Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, hosts what he calls “Ebert’s overlooked film festival” in the little college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In the year 2001, I actually went to this gem of a film festival, and was treated to a superb selection of films of Ebert’s choice. One of the highlights of the festival was, yes, a screening followed by a discussion of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. “Odyssey” and Urbana of course had the deepest of connections, as in the book the computer, HAL 9000, becomes operational in the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois (don’t ask me how I know that without reading the book. It is essential Odyssey trivia). I watched the movie, mesmerized, almost hypnotized by the surreal rolling colors and visuals of the movie, and the hypnotic voice of HAL 9000. In between I remembered scenes from “2010” (which I had seen earlier) and wondered about how Chandra, the Indian scientist who creates HAL, became a white dude in the movie. The discussion that followed the movie was unsurprisingly fascinating, since the room was filled with movie buffs and science and SciFi geeks, a dozen computer scientists who felt possessive about the movie (because Chandra and HAL were fictionally from Urbana-Champaign), and a benignly portly Ebert lording over all proceedings.
That was the last time I saw or read something by Clarke. I hadn’t read a book of his since then, and the only other time I thought about him was when I was with some friends and the conversation meandered towards the utility of space flights and then to how satellites (in a geosynchronous orbit) changed our world for ever. My only contribution in that discussion was that the geostationary orbit of satellites are in what is now called the Clarke belt. The man, like all great science fiction writers, was a visionary.
Today Arthur C. Clarke is dead. But thank you for playing a little role in nurturing and directing my fascination for science.