Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Nine Billion Thoughts of Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke's death this past week made big news. Clarke is one of those science fiction writers whom nearly anyone who's read science fiction has read -- whether it's one of his novels (such as CHILDHOOD'S END or RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA) or one of his many short stories (mainly from the era before his books became big sellers). Non-science-fiction readers likely have seen, or at least are aware of, his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Clarke was never a great literary stylist; just a solid storyteller. His stories excelled in combining a nearly supernatural sense of vast unknown wonder with a solid grounding in known laws of mathematics and physics. They may seem a bit stodgy, especially since the characters were generally subordinated to the plots and ideas; but once you buy into his approach, his works are immensely entertaining.

When I heard of his death, the story of Clarke's that sprang to my mind was one of his earliest: "The Nine Billion Names of God." As with many of his stories, it dealt with man using technology to reach beyond the limits of science into the realm of the cosmic. Yet it also featured a pessimism that I seldom saw in Clarke's other works: Man discovers the unknowable, but the act of doing so literally ends the universe. As a metaphor, it carries both promise and warning. Perhaps that is Clarke's legacy.

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