Sunday, March 23, 2008

For Clarke, Issues of Faith Tackled Scientifically

March 20, 2008
An Appraisal
For Clarke, Issues of Faith, but Tackled Scientifically

“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90. This may not have surprised anyone who knew that this science-fiction writer, fabulist, fantasist and deep-sea diver had long seen religion as a symptom of humanity’s “infancy,” something to be outgrown and overcome.

But his fervor is still jarring because when it comes to the scriptural texts of modern science fiction, and the astonishing generation of prophetic innovators who were his contemporaries — Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury — Mr. Clarke’s writings were the most biblical, the most prepared to amplify reason with mystical conviction, the most religious in the largest sense of religion: speculating about beginnings and endings, and how we get from one to the other.

Stanley Kubrick’s film of Mr. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for example — a project developed with the author — is haunting not for its sci-fi imaginings of artificial intelligence and space-station engineering but for its evocation of humanity’s origins and its vision of a transcendent future embodied in a human fetus poised in space.

Even the titles of some of Mr. Clarke’s stories invoke scriptural language. “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth ...” tells of a boy on a lunar colony who is taken out by his father to see their mother planet rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war, an experience that inspires a dream of future return to be passed from generation to generation. In “The Nine Billion Names of God” monks of a Tibetan-like retreat believe that the very purpose of humanity is to write down the nine billion permutations of letters that spell God’s secret name, a project assisted by representatives of an I.B.M.-style company who indulgently supply the equipment so the project can come to its long-awaited close. As the computer experts fly home, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Religious symbolism is not always beneficent of course. In what may be Mr. Clarke’s most suggestive and disturbing novel, “Childhood’s End,” an alien race of Overlords, with apparent generosity, establish a utopia on Earth, eliminating human warfare and ushering in an era of plenty. But it is no accident that when the Overlords are finally described they have the appearance of Satanic creatures, complete with “the leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail.”

Whatever attitude comes through — and it is almost always fraught with ambiguity — religion suffuses Mr. Clarke’s realm. He demands the canvas of Genesis and upon it he enacts experiments in thought. All science fiction does this to a certain extent, trying to imagine alternative universes in which one factor or another is slightly different. What if carbon were not the fundamental element in life forms? What if a society existed that never experienced nighttime?

Mr. Clarke’s enterprise, though, is at the edges of the frame: trying to examine the moments when things come to be and when they come to an end. In the short story “Rescue Party” aliens come to save Earth from an imminent solar explosion. They find that humans, a primitive species that had known how to use radio signals for barely 200 years, had already saved themselves, launching a fleet of ships into the stars, knowing their journey would take hundreds of years.

The rescuers are shocked by humanity’s daring and determination. “This is the youngest civilization in the Universe,” one notes. “Four hundred thousand years ago it did not even exist. What will it be a million years from now?” The story foretells the dominance of this species even though it is outnumbered by the creatures of the heavens — a dominance that, as Mr. Clarke makes sure we feel, will not always be welcome.

Such apocalypse is the bread and butter of science fiction, but sometimes with Mr. Clarke it is also the communion, the sharing of a moment of transcendence in which some destiny is fulfilled, some possibility opened up. Hence the fetus of “2001.” That transformation may also not be something to be desired by current standards. The prospects are just too alien, like the ineffable Overmind in “Childhood’s End” that propels humanity to a new evolutionary stage, inspiring as much horror as awe.

This side of Mr. Clarke’s work may be the most eerie, particularly because his mystical speculations accompany an uncanny ability to envision worlds that are eminently plausible. It is Mr. Clarke who first conceived of the communication satellites that orbit directly over a single spot on Earth and allow the planet to be blanketed in a network of signals. There are many other examples as well.

But acts of reason and scientific speculation are just the beginning of his imaginings. Reason alone is insufficient. Something else is required. For anyone who read Mr. Clarke in the 1960s and ’70s, when space exploration and scientific research had an extraordinary sheen, his science fiction made that enterprise even more thrilling by taking the longest and broadest view, in which the achievements of a few decades fit into a vision of epic proportions reaching millenniums into the future. It is no wonder that two generations of scientists were affected by his work.

For all his acclaimed forecasting ability, though, it is unclear whether Mr. Clarke knew precisely what he saw in that future. There is something cold in his vision, particularly when he imagines the evolutionary transformation of humanity. He leaves behind all the things that we recognize and know, and he doesn’t provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize and know. In that sense his work has little to do with religion.

But overall religion is unavoidable. Mr. Clarke famously — and accurately — said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction, at least in his case, is nearly indistinguishable from religion.

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