Known as a member of science-fiction’s “big three” alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke had a penchant, not only for writing superb science-fiction stories, but also for anticipating what sort of role technology would play in future societies.
His work as a science fiction writer (particularly his screenplay and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey) has stimulated endless conversation about the role technology plays in our day-to-day lives and the degree to which it reflects our propensity to transcend our genetic inadequacies as a species.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke was born on December 16, 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, England, UK. At a very early age, he was exposed to (what were at the time) cutting edge communications technologies by his mother, who was a radio operator in England. He was also blessed with an amazing imagination that allowed him to see things more as they could be, instead of how they were.
But although he had demonstrated a high capacity for abstract thinking, Clarke also showed a propensity for natural sciences, and he was adept at navigating technological interfaces. During World War II, he served as a radar specialist with the elite Royal Air Force of Great Britain. After the war, he took up studies in mathematics and physics and earned a degree from King’s College London. Most of his writings during this time were non-fiction science books about the possible future of rocket technology and space flight. The influence of his time in the Air Force became very evident.
In the late 1930s, Clarke began writing science-fiction pieces about space travel and futuristic technology for fanzines. In the “The Sentinel” (1948), he suggests that alien life forms could be vastly superior to humans. This theme would be central in many of his future novels.
Here on Earth, he believed that technological advancements would be made that would help man “re-engineer” other species. He thought that perhaps chimpanzees could be trained as “useful servants” to help in factories or do household chores. This kind of prediction came from his belief that man had pretty much reached the end of his evolutionary cycle, and it was time to explore ways that animals and technology could expand man’s horizons.
In the October 1945 issue of Wireless World, he published an article entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?” which proposed a system of compact, portable space-stations equipped with radio communication capabilities that would have no bounds. Televisions and radio signals could be transmitted from space back to Earth. He had, in essence, predicted geostationary communication satellites. That was a bold prediction considering the fact the world was still more than a decade away from sending the first spaceship into space. If it wasn’t for Clarke’s conceptual contributions to the development of satellite technology, it’s possible that transcontinental television broadcasts and rural internet options simply wouldn’t exist today.
In a 1964 documentary shown on BBC, he updated many of his prior beliefs and predictions. He predicted a communications network that would allow people from all over the world to communicate (audio and visual) through the use of radio signals and satellites. People could work from home with complete autonomy and visit anywhere in the world without leaving their homes. Sound familiar?
During this same documentary, he spoke about the use of cryogenics (or suspended animations), which could be used to freeze people with illnesses, until such a time as a cure was available. He also spoke of space travel where humans would be confronted by superior beings.
All of these elements are apparent in his books. His writings would take readers to places that challenged traditional beliefs, but were believable because he used science to explain why it was viable. He wasn’t writing science fiction as much as he was using science-fiction literature as a device to probe and generate dialogue about the future.
Clarke made a few dazzling prediction in the years shortly before his death, but whether or not some of his predictions will be proven true remains to be seen. Among the last predictions Clarke made was that in the future, human beings will be able to “transfer” memories like data. Had dementia finally taken over, or will we have to wait once again for technology to catch up with the staggering genius of Clarke?