Arthur C. Clarke,
a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic
imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in
Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.
Rohan de Silva, an aide to Mr. Clarke, said the author died after
experiencing breathing problems, The Associated Press reported. Mr.
Clarke had post-polio syndrome for the last two decades and used a
From his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945,
more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight, to his
co-creation, with the director Stanley Kubrick,
of the classic science fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mr. Clarke
was both prophet and promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay
beyond the confines of Earth.
Other early advocates of a space program argued that it would pay
for itself by jump-starting new technology. Mr. Clarke set his sights
higher. Paraphrasing William James, he suggested that exploring the
solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent” of war, giving an
outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust.
Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was
acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by
scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television
producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving
him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of
indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.
In his later years, after settling in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mr.
Clarke continued to bask in worldwide acclaim as both a scientific sage
and the pre-eminent science fiction writer of the 20th century. In
1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
He played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network
of communication satellites. “No one can predict the future,” he always
But as a science fiction writer, he couldn’t resist drawing up
timelines for what he called “possible futures.” Far from displaying
uncanny prescience, these conjectures mainly demonstrated his lifelong,
and often disappointed, optimism about the peaceful uses of technology
— from his calculation in 1945 that atomic-fueled rockets could be no
more than 20 years away to his conviction in 1999 that “clean, safe
power” from “cold fusion” would be commercially available in the first
years of the new millennium.
Mr. Clarke was well aware of the importance of his role as science
spokesman to the general population: “Most technological achievements
were preceded by people writing and imagining them,” he noted. “I’m
sure we would not have had men on the Moon,” he added, if it had not
been for H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. “I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.”
Arthur Charles Clarke was born on Dec. 16, 1917, in the seaside town
of Minehead, Somerset, England. His father was a farmer; his mother a
post office telegrapher. The eldest of four children, he was educated
as a scholarship student at a secondary school in the nearby town of
Taunton. He remembered a number of incidents in early childhood that
awakened his scientific imagination: exploratory rambles along the
Somerset shoreline, with its “wonderland of rock pools;” a card from a
pack of cigarettes that his father showed him, with a picture of a
dinosaur; the gift of a Meccano set, a British construction toy similar
to the Erector sets sold in the United States.
He also spent time “mapping the Moon” through a telescope he
constructed himself out of “a cardboard tube and a couple of lenses.”
But the formative event of his childhood was his discovery, at age 13 —
the year his father died — of a copy of “Astounding Stories of
Super-Science,” then the leading American science fiction magazine. He
found its mix of boyish adventure and far-out (sometimes bogus) science
While still in school, Mr. Clarke joined the newly formed British
Interplanetary Society, a small band of sci-fi enthusiasts who held the
controversial view that space travel was not only possible but could be
achieved in the not-so-distant future. In 1937, a year after he moved
to London to take a civil service job, he began writing his first
science fiction novel, a story of the far, far future that was later
published as “Against the Fall of Night” (1953).
Mr. Clarke spent World War II as an officer in the Royal Air Force.
In 1943 he was assigned to work with a team of American
scientist-engineers who had developed the first radar-controlled system
for landing airplanes in bad weather. That experience led to Mr.
Clarke’s only non-science fiction novel, “Glide Path” (1963). More
important, it led in 1945 to a technical paper, published in the
British journal “Wireless World,” establishing the feasibility of
artificial satellites as relay stations for Earth-based communications.
The meat of the paper was a series of diagrams and equations showing
that “space stations” parked in a circular orbit roughly 22,240 miles
above the equator would exactly match the Earth’s rotation period of 24
hours. In such an orbit, a satellite would remain above the same spot
on the ground, providing a “stationary” target for transmitted signals,
which could then be retransmitted to wide swaths of territory below.
This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the
Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.
Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his “Wireless World” paper “the
most important thing I ever wrote.” In a wry piece entitled, “A Short
Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare
Time,” he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a
patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals
from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.
But Mr. Clarke also acknowledged that nothing in his paper — from
the notion of artificial satellites to the mathematics of the
geostationary orbit — was new. His chief contribution was to clarify
and publicize an idea whose time had almost come — a feat of
consciousness-raising that he would continue to excel at throughout his
The year 1945 also saw the launch of Mr. Clarke’s career as a
fiction writer. He sold a short story called “Rescue Party” to the same
magazine — now re-titled Astounding Science Fiction — that had captured
his imagination 15 years earlier.
For the next two years, Mr. Clarke attended Kings College, London,
on the British equivalent of a G.I. Bill scholarship, graduating in
1948 with first-class honors in physics and mathematics. But he
continued to write and sell stories, and after a stint as assistant
editor at the scientific journal Physics Abstracts, he decided he could
support himself as a freelance writer. Success came quickly. His primer
on space flight, “The Exploration of Space,” was a Book-of-the-Month
Club selection in 1951
Over the next two decades, he wrote a series of nonfiction
bestsellers as well as his best-known novels, including “Childhood’s
End” (1953) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). For a scientifically
trained writer whose optimism about technology seemed boundless, Mr.
Clarke delighted in confronting his characters with obstacles they
could not overcome without help from forces beyond their comprehension.
In “Childhood’s End,” a race of aliens who happen to look like
devils imposes peace on an Earth torn by cold war tensions. But the
aliens’ real mission is to prepare humanity for the next stage of
evolution. In an ending that is both heartbreakingly poignant and
literally earth-shattering, Mr. Clarke suggests that mankind can escape
its suicidal tendencies only by ceasing to be human.
“There was nothing left of Earth,” he wrote. “It had nourished them,
through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the
food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs
toward the Sun.”
The cold war also forms the backdrop for “2001.” Its genesis was a
short story called “The Sentinel,” first published in a science fiction
magazine in 1951. It tells of an alien artifact found on the Moon, a
little crystalline pyramid that explorers from Earth destroy while
trying to open. One explorer realizes that the artifact was a kind of
fail-safe beacon; in silencing it, human beings have signaled their
existence to its far-off creators.
In the spring of 1964, Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his triumph with
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,”
met Mr. Clarke in New York, and the two agreed to make the “proverbial
really good science fiction movie” based on “The Sentinel.” This led to
a four-year collaboration; Mr. Clarke wrote the novel while Mr. Kubrick
produced and directed the film; they are jointly credited with the
Reviewers at the time were puzzled by the film, especially the final
scene in which an astronaut who has been transformed by aliens returns
to orbit the Earth as a “Star-Child.” In the book he demonstrates his
new-found powers by harmlessly detonating from space the entire arsenal
of Soviet and American nuclear weapons. Like much of the plot, this
denouement is not clear in the film, from which Mr. Kubrick cut most of
the expository material.
As a fiction writer, Mr. Clarke was often criticized for failing to
create fully realized characters. HAL, the mutinous computer in “2001,”
is probably his most “human” creation: a self-satisfied know-it-all
with a touching but misguided faith in its own infallibility.
If Mr. Clarke’s heroes are less than memorable, it is also true
that there are no out-and-out villains in his work; his characters are
generally too busy struggling to make sense of an implacable universe
to engage in petty schemes of dominance or revenge.
Mr. Clarke’s own relationship with machines was somewhat ambivalent.
Although he held a driver’s license as a young man, he never drove a
car. Yet he stayed in touch with the rest of the world from his home in
Sri Lanka through an ever-expanding collection of up-to-date computers
and communications accessories. And until his health declined, he was
an expert scuba diver in the waters around Sri Lanka.
He first became interested in diving in the early 1950s, when he
realized that he could find underwater “something very close to
weightlessness” of outer space. He settled permanently in Colombo, the
capital of what was then Ceylon, in 1956. With a partner, he
established a guided diving service for tourists and wrote vividly
about his diving experiences in a number of books, beginning with “The
Coast of Coral” (1956).
All told, he wrote or collaborated on close to 100 books, some of
which, like “Childhood’s End,” have been in print continuously. His
works have been translated into some 40 languages, and worldwide sales
have been estimated at more than $25 million.
In 1962 he suffered a severe attack of poliomyelitis. His apparently
complete recovery was marked by a return to top form at his favorite
sport, table tennis. But in 1984 he developed post-polio syndrome, a
progressive condition characterized by muscle weakness and extreme
fatigue. He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair.
Among his legacies are Clarke’s Three Laws, provocative observations
on science, science fiction and society that were published in his
“Profiles of the Future” (1962):
¶“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something
is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that
something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
¶“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
¶“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Along with Verne and Wells, Mr. Clarke said his greatest influences
as a writer were Lord Dunsany, a British fantasist noted for his
lyrical, if sometimes overblown, prose; Otto Stapledon, a British
philosopher who wrote vast speculative narratives that projected human
evolution to the furthest reaches of space and time; and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
While sharing his passions for space and the sea with a worldwide
readership, Mr. Clarke kept his emotional life private. He was briefly
married in 1953 to an American diving enthusiast named Marilyn
Mayfield; they separated after a few months and were divorced in 1964.
One of his closest relationships was with Leslie Ekanayake, a
fellow diver in Sri Lanka, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1977.
Mr. Clarke shared his home in Colombo with Leslie’s brother, Hector,
his partner in the diving business, Hector’s wife Valerie; and their
Mr. Clarke’s standard answer when journalists asked him outright if he was gay was, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”
Mr. Clarke reveled in his fame. One whole room in his house — which
he referred to as the Ego Chamber — was filled with photos and other
memorabilia of his career, including pictures of him with Yuri Gagarin,
the first man in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on
Mr. Clarke’s reputation as a prophet of the space age rests on more
than a few accurate predictions. His visions helped bring about the
future he longed to see. His contributions to the space program were
lauded by Charles Kohlhase, who planned NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn: “When you dream what is possible, and add a knowledge of physics, you make it happen.”