The Sunday Times
Bathed in his own self-importance
Sir Arthur C Clarke is a science fiction riter, futurologist, essayist, amateur diplomat, propagandist for the “high frontier” of space and cult guru for every future-crazed gizmo-freak on the planet. Astronauts chat to him, governments and institutes shower him with awards – including last year’s knighthood “for services to literature” – and film-makers option his most fleeting ideas. There is nobody quite like him. But what is he?
His book Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays 1934- 1998 (Voyager £19.99) may help. It is a verbal photo album of this peculiar life. The essays are accompanied by introductions from Clarke himself and from his editor, Ian
T Macauley which effectively turn the whole into a disjointed autobiography.
This is a picture of Clarke at the age of 81, evidently as he would like to be known and remembered.
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But Arthur C Clarke does not light up Bryan Appleyard’s life.
So what do we see? The first answer is a man possessed of a harmless, comical but still amazing degree of selfregard. “I don’t quite understand,” he writes at one point, “how I managed to find time to complete what may be my most important work of non-fiction, Profiles of the Future.” And, dozens of times, he quotes himself to establish points, as if the highest possible authority can only be found in the mirror. He takes this to such lengths that the last four paragraphs of two of the essays are identical and, on this occasion, he doesn’t even find it necessary to point out that he is self- quoting.
The second answer is that we see a man almost entirely devoid of self-doubt, in spite of the fact that his position is paradoxical in the extreme. Clarke is a hard-headed atheist technocrat, and yet he is also an old Tory who longs for a lost world of myth, legend and social discipline. This paradox is resolved in his own mind by his lifelong conviction that our leap into space will restore the heroic and the epic – forms he implicitly, and occasionally explicitly, contrasts with the decadent modes of modern art and literature. Unfortunately, his idea of the heroic and the epic is pretty decadent too.
He starts this book with a homage to Lord Dunsany, an extraordinarily mediocre fantasy and sci-fi author. One long quotation from Dunsany he describes as “unbearably moving”. It is, in fact, an absurdly fey slice of literary pre-Raphaelitism, its prose inept and its thought banal. But it is precisely this vaporous nonsense that Clarke sees as the type of literature that will be unleashed once we start exploring the stars.
Clarke’s further misfortune is that he is a pretty bad writer. The one novel of his I ever tried to read I flung aside after a few pages, bewildered that it had found a publisher. Some of these essays are okay in a Reader’s Digest way – such as his account of the early attempts to get the technology of radar right – but most are absurd. One problem is the prose (which sounds like that of a speaker at a Rotary Club dinner) and the other related problem is that he has very little to say.
For example, as he frequently reminds us, his third law has become pretty well known. This law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is neither funny, interesting nor well put. Indeed, it is remarkably confusing – what is the status of magic in this sentence? All he appears to be saying is that people don’t understand how advanced technologies work, assuming, of course, that he is not according “magic” the status of technology. Somehow I don’t think he is. Almost every page of this book is full of such silliness. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
This is the kind of respectable-sounding pap that nerds want to hear and politicians, diplomats and astronauts like to feel is putting a little intellectual icing on the technocratic cake.
But I think it does matter, at least a little. Clarke is a powerful figure and his attitudes carry some weight among people who can’t or don’t want to think. So, for example, it is damaging in the real world when he ridiculously – and very unscientifically – says that the Catholic teaching on contraception is the cause of over-population. Or what are we to make of his view that gays should be kept out of the army because they are too brutal?
The real damage Clarke does is propagate a meaningless and inane faith in technology. He is all about forecasting the technological future. This book includes yet another list of prophecies; they are too boring for me to repeat here. He is said to be clairvoyantly accurate, although I cannot see this. Any decent, well-informed engineer or scientist could have scored as many hits, and his misses such as the use of atomic energy in rockets – seem pretty crucial.
But what these forecasts are about is an idiot fascination with the idea of the future as a purely technological phenomenon. This is infantile. Any fool can babble on about rockets and computers. The wise man knows such things are of little account; only the human world matters. Occasionally, Clarke sees this. He moans that he can’t write as quickly as he used to because his concentration is now destroyed by faxes, e-mails and “other seductive electronic distractions”.
Elsewhere, he dimly glimpses that new technology may, perhaps, not be creating his new, heroic world, but rather a world of glassy-eyed techno-freaks, too stupid to answer the call of the stars.On the whole, what we have here is a not very bright man whose childish enthusiasm for the future has found a not very bright global audience as determined as he is to ignore the real depths, glories and complexities of human experience. Clarke, in a word, is anti-human. On the whole I don’t think you should read this book.
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