Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

It was reported today that Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of 90. Clarke wrote many science fiction classics: Childhood's End, Against the Fall of Night, The Fountains of Paradise, Rendezvous with Rama, and, perhaps the story best known even to non-science fiction fans, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unlike Clarke's other novels, 2001 was written with the specific purpose of being adapted into a screenplay, starting from his short story, "The Sentinel". Director Stanley Kubrick had significant input into the story, but the novel was not completed before the screenplay, and differs in some details from the movie version. Clarke's account of collaboration was published in 1972 as The Lost Worlds of 2001. He describes the creative process that lead to the scene with the monolith teaching pre-human hominids how to use tools, which was inspired in part by the ideas of anthropologist (and screenwriter) Robert Ardrey. He didn't stop there, though, continuing to consult with both Kubrick and other anthropologists. From Clarke's diary:
October 2. Finished reading Robert Ardery's African Genesis. Came across a striking paragraph which might even provide a title for the movie: "Why did not the human line become extinct in the depths of the Pliocene? . . . we know that but for a gift from the stars, but for the accidental collision of ray and gene, intelligence would have perished on some forgotten African field" True, Ardrey is talking about cosmic-ray mutations, but the phrase "A gift from the stars" is strikingly applicable to our present plot line.
November 20. Went to Natural History Museum to see Dr. Harry Shapiro, head of Anthropology, who took a poor view of Ardrey. Then had a session with Stan, arguing about early man's vegetarian versus carnivorous tendencies. Stan wants our visitors to turn Man into a carnivore; I argued that he always was. Back at the Chlesea, phoned Ike Asimov to discuss the biochemistry of turning vegetarians into carnivores.

November 21. Read Leakey's Adam's Ancestors*. Getting rather desperate now, but after six hours' discussion Stan had a rather amusing idea. Our E.T.'s arrive on Earth and teach commando tactics to our pacifistic ancestors so that they can survive and flourish. We had an entertaining time knocking this one around, but I don't think it's viable.
Ultimately, they went with tool use. Originally, the story had an alien named Clindar who came, observed that Earth's hominids had the potential for intelligence, and decided they were worth teaching. That chapter was cut, but was resurrected in The Lost Worlds of 2001:
It was a wonder they had survived, and their future did not look promising. [. . .] But Clindar, with the experience of many worlds behind him, knew that appearances could be deceptive. These unprepossessing near-apes had one great advantage over all he other creatures of their planet. They were still unspecialized; they had not yet become trapped in any evolutionary cul-de-sac. Almost every animal could beat them in some respect - in strength, or speed, or hearing or natural armament. There was no single skill in which the hominids excelled, but they could do everything after a fashion. Where the other animals had become virtuosos, they had specialized in a universal mediocrity - and therein, a million years hence, might lie their salvation. Having failed to adapt themselves to their environment, they might yet one day change it to suit their own desires.
Here's the dawning of tool use as depicted in the movie version of 2001:

The use of tools allowed our distant ancestors to more reliably obtain food and defend themselves, which in turn likely led to an increase in brain size and increased intelligence**. Several million years later, here we are. Clarke makes clear in 2001 that our current state is not the end of evolution. Astronaut David Bowman has an encounter with another monolith, which molds his mind anew. Bowman becomes the Star-Child, returning briefly to Earth to clear the skies of orbiting nuclear weapons before he explores the universe. I like to think that's the direction evolution will take the human race.

R.I.P Arthur C. Clarke

* There's an interesting article at Talk Origins about the inaccuracies in Leakey's human ancestral tree as published in Adam's Ancestors in 1934. The Smithsonian has a more up to date version.

** See, for example Flinn MV, Geary DC, and Ward CV. "Ecological dominance, social competition, and coalitionary arms races: Why humans evolved extraordinary intelligence." Evolution and Human Behavior 26: 10-46 (2005) (pdf)

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  1. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Thanks for this, Peggy.

    There was no single skill in which the hominids excelled, but they could do everything after a fashion. ... Having failed to adapt themselves to their environment, they might yet one day change it to suit their own desires.

    sends a shiver down my spine.

  2. A befitting obituary on the doyen of sf world by you Peggy,Thanks.
    Indians science fiction writers pay heart felt tributes to his outstanding loyalty and commitment to the genre.
    Please tell what prefix RIP to his name stands for ?

  3. rpg: One of the things I love about Clarke is his optimism about the human race.

    Arvind: RIP stands for "Rest in Peace". It's often written on grave stones.

  4. Also, Arthur Clarke was the first, who suggested in 1945 to use geostationary orbit (h = 36,000 km) for global satellite communication,

    Now this region named as Clarke Ring or Clarke Belt...


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