Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke): superficial and deferential treatment of major sci-fi writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke)” (2011)

Having never read any of Arthur C Clarke’s fiction, perhaps I’m not the best person to review this episode of the “Prophets of Science Fiction” TV series with respect to whether the author is fêted appropriately. Certainly the later years of Clarke’s life before his death in 2008 were under a cloud as an interview in which he admitted to having engaged in pedophilia was published shortly before his knighthood ceremony in 2005. Anti-pedophilia activists in Sri Lanka (where Clarke spent much of his life) were livid at their government’s apparently soft treatment of this British celebrity in their midst as the country’s anti-pedophilia laws passed in 1995 are strong and carry heavy penalties. Now that Clarke is dead (and presumably getting his just desserts from his maker), we have his literary and other output from which to draw his outlook on life and vision for the future which is the chief focus of this episode; the good thing is that Clarke’s optimism and enthusiasm about humanity’s future, based heavily on technology, space travel and space colonisation, together with his speculation on the evolution of human consciousness, are acknowledged as the main themes that inform the writer’s work. (For the record, Clark decried organised religion and was interested in the paranormal.)

For all his considerable output (over 30 novels and about 117 short stories / novellas), the program concentrates on just three of Clarke’s novels (“Childhood’s End”, “The Foundations of Paradise” and “Rendezvous with Rama”, the last co-written with Gentry Lee) and his screenplay “2001: A Space Odyssey”, demonstrating how each of these works gave rise to a scientific innovation or idea that has been realised or is in the process of realisation:respectively, these ideas are the further evolution of humans, especially human consciousness; a cable built with a super-material that goes to heaven (the genesis of the space elevator); an asteroid-warning system; and artificial intelligence. One significant innovation mentioned in the film is the geostationary communications satellite, conceived by Clarke while working as a radar specialist during the Second World War. These innovations barely scratch the surface of the ideas Clarke expressed in his fiction: among other futuristic ideas Clarke has been credited with are videophones, iPads and the personal laptop linked to other computers, through which the network of communication links that forms as a result will enable online banking and shopping.

In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Clarke conceives perhaps the most remarkable notion: that of a super-computer (HAL 9000 in the film) so sophisticated that it not only outstrips human intelligence and memory but acquires self-consciousness and knowledge, and becomes neurotic as well. Another breath-taking light-bulb notion, comparable and perhaps superior to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, is Clarke’s Three Laws of Prophecy: if a scientist well-known and respected in his/her field says something is possible, the thing will happen; if the same scientist says something is impossible, eventually it becomes possible; and one person’s technology will appear to someone of a less technological background as magic.

Through a mix of interviews with writers, film director Ridley Scott and various scientists including Michio Kaku, a voice-over narration, dramatic re-enactments and computer-based animation, the film paints a positive portrait of Clarke, blithely ignoring any dark side to his personality (only his brief marriage is mentioned in such a bland way that viewers not familiar with Clarke would never know that he had been gay) or scandals he might have been caught up in. On the whole, the film is enthusiastic about its subject and very reverential towards him but it might have been a much better documentary if viewers could have seen something of Clarke’s less attractive qualities. For all his intellectual brilliance and scientific knowledge, Clarke was still fallible and in some ways blind to aspects of his nature and human nature generally, and it would reassure people that he was like us and not a flesh-and-blood version of HAL 9000 without the neuroses.

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