Q&A with Gary Westfahl, author of “Arthur C. Clarke”

Gary Westfahl, formerly of the University of La Verne and the University of California, Riverside, has now retired to focus exclusively on research and writing. His many books on science fiction include William Gibson and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction. He recently answered some questions about his new book Arthur C. Clarke.

Q. What fascinates you about Arthur C. Clarke and his writing?
Certainly, any science fiction reader has to be impressed with the sheer range of his imagination; his stories may casually leap millions of years into the future, and he has envisioned many amazing forms of alien life existing in very inhospitable places. Regarding humanity’s future, it seems as if he compiled a list of every single possibility and resolved to write at least one story exploring all of them, and communications satellites are only the most famous of the numerous inventions that he proposed. However, as I reread all of his novels and stories to write this book, I became less interested in Clarke’s ideas, stunning though they were, and more interested in his personality: he was such an open and friendly person, yet he was also a secretive and guarded person. And while very few of his works can be regarded as truly autobiographical, I gained a new appreciation for them as I came to view them as expressions of his unique character and proclivities.

Q. How does Clarke’s portrayal of his characters reflect and predict the lifestyle of people today?
Throughout his adult life, Clarke mostly lived without a partner, and the protagonists of his early stories also tend to be men without partners. Probably recognizing that such characters might seem odd to readers in the 1950s, he then developed the pattern of portraying couples who apparently were happily married yet spent most of their time separated from each other; thus they also lived largely isolated lives, but found fulfillment by forging close relationships with colleagues and remaining connected to their families and other friends by means of long-distance communication and occasional visits. And all of this, of course, recalls the way that Clarke remained an active member of the European and American science fiction communities while spending almost all of his time living halfway around the world in Sri Lanka. Both Clarke and his characters, then. can be seen as harbingers of the lifestyle that increasing numbers of people are now choosing; they are mostly solitary, but employ technology to keep in touch with a virtual community of friends and family members that may extend throughout the world. And as I said in the book, I now regard this as Clarke’s most significant prediction of the future.

Q. How did Clarke’s use of humor elevate his fiction?
When I was reading Clarke’s juvenilia, I was struck by the number of times that he found it amusing to describe people dying, so much so that I even suspected he might be showing a streak of cruelty. Yet everyone agrees that Clarke was a kind and gentle man. What I was observing, I concluded, was a key aspect of his personality: Clarke had the special ability to recognize that, looked at in a certain way, virtually anything could be funny. And while he did write some conventional humorous stories about star-crossed inventors – many collected in Tales from the White Hart (1957) – some of his best stories offer a jovial perspective on major tragedies. In “History Lesson” (1949), for example, the predicted extinction of the human race becomes amusing when readers learn that the sole surviving artifact of our civilization is a Mickey Mouse cartoon. And one of Clarke’s most underrated works, The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990), is essentially an extended joke about the persistent inability of people – and eventually, the persistent inability of aliens – to perform the simple task of keeping a boat afloat.

Q. Clarke is clearly interested in the concept of the unknown, between his fascination with both space and the sea. Would you say his writing confronts a possible fear of the unknown by creating fictional explanations?
I cannot speak for the attitude of his readers, but I think that Clarke himself did not fear the unknown, but was rather fascinated by the unknown, sought it out, and relished the mysteries it offered. He traveled extensively until illnesses forced him to become sedentary; he loved exploring deep underwater; and he longed to travel into outer space. He further recognized that there might be aspects of the universe that humans could never understand, so that many of his stories deliberately fail to provide complete explanations of the phenomena that his characters encounter. Audiences can never be sure precisely what the Star Child of the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is going to do, and similar mysteries about advanced humans and aliens are left unresolved in other stories. Far from familiarizing the unknown by accounting for it in terms people can understand, the usual strategy of other writers, Clarke repeatedly argues that what is unknown may always remain unknown, and that is something that people simply have to accept, and appreciate.

Q. How has Clarke’s writing influenced science fiction for later generations?
In the first place, one can detect the influence of some specific works – particularly Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001 – in scores of later novels and films, and some major writers, like Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, and Alistair Reynolds, have written their own sequels to Clarke’s stories. More broadly, in the 1950s, Clarke was a pioneer in arguing, by means of his stories, that writers should seek out and make use of the latest scientific information about other planets as a basis for their works, instead of simply inventing fictional worlds; this is why he consistently preferred to set his stories in the solar system, where he could employ recently acquired data to accurately describe otherworldly environments. In this way, and in his fidelity to science in other stories, Clarke can be regarded as one of the founding fathers of the subgenre of “hard science
fiction,” as later practitioners of the form like Benford and Baxter would readily acknowledge. Finally, Clarke gave generously to the science fiction community in ways that have had lasting impacts: he was long a patron of the Science Fiction Foundation, for example, and his name will live on in the award he created and has permanently financed, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually to the year’s best science fiction novel published in his native land.

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