Science fiction writer, visionary

The Baltimore Sun

Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.

The author of almost 100 books, Mr. Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity's destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. It was a vision served most vividly by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic 1968 science fiction film he created with the director Stanley Kubrick and the novel of the same title that he wrote as part of the project.

His work also was prophetic: His detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight.

Mr. Clarke's influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke's writings with encouraging him courage to pursue his Star Trek project in the face of indifference from television executives.

In his later years, after settling in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mr. Clarke continued to bask in worldwide acclaim as a scientific sage and the pre-eminent science fiction writer of the 20th century. In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Clarke played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network of communication satellites. "No one can predict the future," he always maintained. 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.

Arthur Charles Clarke was born Dec. 16, 1917, in Minehead, England. While still in school, he joined the newly formed British Interplanetary Society, a small band of science fiction enthusiasts who held the view that space travel was not only possible but could be achieved in the not-so-distant future. In 1937, he began writing his first science fiction novel, a story of the distant 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 nonscience 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.

Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his Wireless World paper "the most important thing I ever wrote." In a wry piece titled "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 year 1945 also saw the start of Mr. Clarke's career as a fiction writer. He sold a short story called "Rescue Party" to the same magazine - now retitled Astounding Science Fiction - that had captured his imagination 15 years earlier.

All told, he wrote or collaborated on close to 100 books, some of which, such as Childhood's End, have been in print continuously. His works have been translated into about 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 postpolio syndrome, a progressive condition characterized by muscle weakness and extreme fatigue. He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair.

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. They had no children.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°