Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Songs of Distant Earth Sing On

A number of people have already written heartfelt and eloquent tributes to Sir Arthur C Clarke, who died last Tuesday (see, for example, here, here, and most particularly, here). I will not waste time repeating their sentiments, although I share many of them.
Irresistibly, in view of Clarke's request that there be absolutely no religious trappings at his funeral, I have a vision of a sprightly gent in wheelchair and glasses confronting the pearly gates:
Clarke: "Open the pod bay doors, Pete"
St. Peter: "I'm sorry, Art, but I cannot do that."
Like a lot of boys, I first discovered Clarke's writings in my early teens. I can remember borrowing a non-descript book from the local library without even paying particular note of the author's name. Its bland appearance held no clue as to the awesome breadth of vision contained within. Its name: 'The City and the Stars'. It remains one of the most timeless sf novels I have read. Highly unusual in a genre that seems intent on challenging reality to outdo it. While I may have missed the author's name at first, I nonetheless soon made the connection with that epic and other gems of wonder. Islands in the Sky, Profiles of the Future, and Report on Planet Three became my unofficial science textbooks during my high school years.

Ever the optimist, Clarke was no pollyanna. He was able to explore darker fates as well as lighter. One novel of Clarke's that will never be a favourite of mine is 'Childhood's End'. Reading the commentaries accompanying the tribues I have referre to above I would appear to be in the minority here, as many consider it one of his greatest works. It is certainly powerful, and I can appreciate the prose and vision, great as always. Nevertheless, I found the ultimate premise of a galactic overmind guiding humanity to a form of apotheosis not at all uplifting, indeed strangely repellent.

I have been pondering this in recent days. Is the idea so different from that of 2001? Clarke was seldom sentimental about his characters, and often killed them off near the end of the story. After all, it was a useful device to allow the conclusion to take on a much wider scope than a single point of view. So, why not apply the device on a much larger scale?

I suppose my problem was, in part, one of expectation. Some people who had read the book described it to me in hushed tones as 'just beautiful'. This recommendation did not prepare me for what is, in effect, one of the first 'left behind' novels. For that is the crux of my distaste: the depiction of the fruit of the younger generation being 'harvested' away from the vine of the older, which is then left to wither and perish, taking all its achievements with it.

The sum of all histories: worthless dust? No! I do not consider such a fate to be beautiful (and I don't know that Clarke ever described is as such either). It concerns me that many people do.

To more aspiring things. I believe Clarke said he wished to be remembered for 'The Fountains of Paradise'. This describes a very worthwhile endeavour: the building of a space elevator, which I have commented on before. Alas, while the idea is definitely being considered, it's most active proponents (Liftport) appear to have paid the price of aiming too high. Nevertheless, I find some solace from another tale that Clarke had to tell: the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

First attempted in the 1860's (after delays arising from a small civil disturbance in the colonies), two vessels met in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and proceeded to lay a couple of thousand kilometres of steel cable. After some months of dealing with bad weather, twists, kinks, and breakages (broken ends being dredged up to be re-spliced by groping around with a large hook on the end of several thousand feet of rope), the two ends finally made it to the opposite shores, and congratulatory telegrams were sent. Alas, with Maxwell's equations put to print only thirty years previously, the overall understanding of how electrical current might flow in a wire surrounded by salt water was not that well understood. In retrospect, it is perhaps astonishing that the line was able to transmit the paltry number of characters that it did before failing completely.


One of the messages sent cancelled a previous order dispatching Canadian regiments to quell the Indian mutiny; which was now under control. The savings of not having to ship and supply those soldiers halfway round the world and back again more than offset the huge cost and effort those few signals had required. Once the potential was demonstrated, other cables were successfully laid and, after that, progress was rapid.

So I think it will be with a space elevator. And Clarke's increasingly optimistic forecasts will stay on track.

So, I think an appropriate spot to end is with Bryn Terfel and Roberto Alagna singing 'In the Depths of the Temple' (the final song broadcast by the Magellan as it departs Thalassa forever).

And Earth sings on....



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