December 14, 2009


by Arthur C Clarke
266 pages, Orbit (2007)

Spaced and Time by Pat Black

Do you remember when 2001 seemed like an impossibly distant date? I’m trying not to think too hard about it. “Gee whiz, I’ll be like, in my mid-twenties!”

Arthur C Clarke might well think about this, too, if he wasn’t dead. The late elder statesman of the science fiction community enjoys a unique place in my psyche. He presented a TV show in the early 1980s called “Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious Worlds”. It had a weird parpy keyboard theme tune, something Vangelis would have produced had he spent an afternoon having a coffee with Doctor Who. It featured one of the South American crystal skulls as the main focus of the title cards, and it followed the paranormal, the supernatural and cryptozoology. There were poltergeists, ghosts, demons and sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion and telekinesis (drawing the line just short of werewolves and vampires, though it’s possible they covered zombies in Haiti one week).

I used to sit there and watch it on a Sunday afternoon with pens, crayons and paper, drawing pictures of whatever weirdy mcgeirdy stuff he would talk us through that particular week. UFOs, of course, featured heavily. One show had an artist’s impression of black-eyed, blank-faced aliens breaking into some guy’s house, a depiction of an alien abduction. I remember this image quite frightened me – and I didn’t even know about bum probes at the time.

But Arthur was always the most composed and reassuring of narrators, a somewhat cranky-sounding bald old buffer with glasses, sitting in his garden in Sri Lanka. I can hear this voice as I read through the foreword to this edition of 2001 – incredibly, the first time I’ve ever read Clarke’s work. In a way it’s a shame his TV show pandered to the sort of religion-substitute stuff that would make the X-Files so popular in the next decade, as we don’t quite get a feeling for what Clarke was really into - the science of speculation, taking into account what was cutting edge at the time and applying it to what may come in the future. He liked the hard stuff of sci-fi, but was never afraid to let his imagination have free rein. He was quite correct about a great deal of things.

Clarke begins the book by taking us on his own space odyssey in a foreword, his reflections on humanity’s first tentative steps into the cosmos. He begins with the astonishing statistic that for every human being who has ever lived on earth, there is a star shining for them somewhere in the universe. With every star comes a different possibility, any number of worlds in orbit around them, and Clarke almost has a sense of glee over these mind-blowing concepts of time, space, numbers and probability. Vast areas of space, eternity stretching out ahead of us. Keep the phrase “mind-blowing” to hand – we’re coming back to that.

He almost casually throws in his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick in the conception and writing of 2001 and its transition onto the big screen. If you’ve seen that movie, then you don’t need to know much more about the plot of the book; it’s the same, save for two lovely short stories at the end, including The Sentinel. It’s bitty and seems somewhat tacked together, like a collection of short stories with a shared theme – until you’ve read it all, and it makes perfect sense.

The novel starts with prehistoric apes getting some insight into how to master their environment and resources from a mysterious, geometrically-perfect obelisk which suddenly appears in their midst. Clarke’s prose style is superb, given the concepts he’s working with and the level of detail needed. Such a calm and economical sense of description, with very simple figures and uncomplicated sentence structure. You get a sense he could quite easily baffle you with physics and biology, but there’s nothing to fear in his writing, even for someone as scientifically silly as me.

This literary restraint works best when Clarke is straining against it in the second section, detailing a scientist’s journey from Earth to the moon to investigate a mysterious, geometrically-perfect obelisk which has been dug up from the crust of our closest celestial relative, pre-dating humanity by three million years. It’s a bit like when you speak to an academic in a specialised field, and they get excited, even giddy, at the possibilities of science and their own studies. Clarke takes us through Dr Heywood Floyd’s journey from Earth into the firmament and no detail is spared, from the Velcro soles of the shoes of zero-gravity space air hostesses to the centrifugal forces necessary to make sure we can visit the bathroom in outer space without mishap. There’s a delicious section where Dr Floyd opens up a “newspad” to click on “postage-stamp-sized rectangles” on-screen to get the newspaper headlines electronically; Clarke has basically envisaged not only the Internet, but Windows too.

To someone like me who automatically calls to mind disco laser guns and invaders from Mars when they think about sci-fi, this was a revelation. It might seem dull to some – essentially Clarke is talking about taking a journey by aeroplane and transplanting the situation to outer space – but every page is almost quivering with genuine possibilities. It’s the joy of travel, Jim, but not as we know it. What a tragedy it is that the man wasn’t born in an enlightened, advanced age where such journeys are possible, even commonplace. But then again, his writings are there to inspire the people who get to do such things; indeed, they already have. Clarke can’t restrain himself from a burst of pride in the foreword when the astronaut Joe Allen tells him that the author gave the space traveller the “writing bug - and the space bug” when he was a boy.

We go from the alien artefact TMA-1’s piercing car alarm-shriek on the moon to astronaut Dave Bowman’s mission to Saturn aboard Discovery, under the tight control of our old friend, Hal 9000. (Dave Bowman, in real life, is a former Scottish footballer who was notoriously tough on the field; it tickles me to think of this Dave Bowman attempting to unlock the mysteries of space and time.) Again, Clarke grapples with the realities and logistics of undertaking a mission into the far reaches of the solar system. One part in particular had me spitting out my coffee; Clarke notes that sea-faring men were “notorious” for getting their kicks from ladies of the night when they made port. Being so far away from home and separated from possible sexual partners on Earth, Clarke tells us that the crew of the Discovery were of course prone to the same urges, but bereft of the same opportunities for satisfying them. He informs us that technicians had “worked on this”... and then he leaves it at that.

Eh? Worked on it how? Were the spacemen given the same stuff Catholic priests and sailors stick in their tea? Did boffins provide outer space blow-up dolls, with special pneumatic conditions for zero-G shagging? Is there a centrifugal orgasm-chamber providing just enough of a gravitational field to stop any awkward substances floating around the spacecraft? Come on, mate! Don’t leave us hanging like that! Sometimes more is more.

And that’s as far as I’m going to explore the mysterious worlds of sex and Arthur C Clarke.

Just as I can hear Clarke’s voice in the foreword, we can hear Hal’s too in his calm intonations, his earnest familiarity with the crew. Hal’s like a touchy-feely team-buildery boss; he wants to be your mate but there’s something fundamentally wrong with that idea, a corruption of a normal power-relationship, something grinding the gears. But while we ultimately feel the same sense of pathos over the murderous Hal’s demise as we do in the movie (the disconnection scene is present and correct), there’s an added dimension in the book. Dave discovers that Hal has tried to kill everyone off for one astonishing reason; as a super-advanced artificial intelligence, Hal acts not out of some cold, remote and ultimately alien loss of sensitivity to the human condition, but precisely because he suffers from it himself. Hal makes a mistake, gets confused by a strange situation and contradictory instructions, and panics. We’ve all done that.

Clarke’s speculative side really takes off in this part of the book, as Bowman first deals with the threat of Hal then makes contact with another obelisk on the surface of a moon of Saturn. When he describes the possibilities of encountering alien life it’s something of a digression from the main storyline, but the speculation is so delicious we can forgive Clarke his indulgences. The idea that alien life can take any amount of forms comes from the fact that evolutionary progress can be something of an accident depending on the environment, the accidents and tragedies no-one can foresee or halt. Even the notion of human form being genetically perfect in some respects is rubbished – the “inconvenience” of unnecessary body parts such as the appendix is the example provided. What possibilities in terms of life are afforded by unknowable environments and conditions on strange planets? Do the differences perhaps even transcend physical attributes?

Clarke hints at the notion of humanity being one day free of its fleshy bonds; with minds being first of all downloadable (my phrasing) onto machines, and then finally unshackled from any physical constraints at all; at last, able to master time and space, completely free. Much as I’m way too attached to the physical realities of the world – sorry Arthur, there can be no joy without love - this is still a beautiful notion; utter freedom, untethered from physical requirements, entropy and death completely banished. In considering this idea, I think of Yoda: “Luminous beings, we are - not this crude matter.”

The secret of the obelisks is finally revealed; they’re a manifestation of super-advanced beings who prompt progress, intelligence and evolution on other worlds as they travel at will through the gulfs of space. The obelisks themselves are gateways to distant, alien parts of the universe; Dave heads through one of these gates, with that unforgettable last line to mission control back on Earth: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

And so we begin a trip of sorts. I don’t use that term flippantly. There’s one part of the book where Dave Bowman feels a peculiar euphoria as the ship passes close to Jupiter’s vast expanses, which he likens to an experiment where he was given hallucinogenic drugs. The dizzying journey through the star gate, where Dave transcends the known universe in an explosion of colours and lights, stripped of his adulthood and reduced to a state of perfect innocence in the physical form of a newborn baby, is familiar to us all from the movie. Here we get the same journey but in greater detail and arguably even more breathtaking. It’s a way of crystallising what seemed ineffable in Kubrick’s movie; and it is almost certainly made of the same stardust as a hallucinogenic drug experience.

I note that Dave views this spectacular display from the comfort of his chair in the space pod, and I can’t help but engage in a bit of speculation of my own: was Arthur C Clarke binned when he conceived this amazing voyage? Did he see much the same thing as Dave as he sat there in his armchair? It’s so, so tempting to think of Clarke and Kubrick, locked away in their hotel suite for days and days on end as they thrashed out the storyline, both deciding to drop acid and go to space in their own way as a means of exploring all the possibilities of the heavens. Could it have happened? Even such creative colossi as these two must have got a bit bored in that hotel room... you can’t help but wonder. Hey, it was the sixties.

It makes me smile to imagine this asteroid-collision meeting of minds and mind-bending substances, but it also seems proper, and even scientific, to assume that Clarke wanted to go one step beyond. He wanted to see and know things that no-one else did; he had to understand. We all have this curiosity, ingrained in our genes; it’s what got us out of trees in the first place (as the author points out) and got us wondering about those strange sparkling things that bewitch us from the night skies.

And who knows... we have to be alert to every possibility... what seems fantastic to us may be a matter of tedium to human life in the future... (Would a caveman be bored at an airport departure lounge?)... Arthur C Clarke might still exist, somewhere. He might be watching me typing this, now; he might be aware of you reading these words. He might exist in the future, living again through machines, and then transcending that physical reality again. We’ve got to be open to ideas, forever questing.

So, I’ve asked Santa for the 2001 DVD this Christmas; it’s going to be so much more beautiful now that I’ve read this extraordinary book. A couple more of Arthur C Clarke’s novels would be great, too, Santa. If you’re out there, listening to me.

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