Sir Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke’s

Photo Credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

During more than 60 years of creative endeavours, Arthur C Clarke was prolific. He produced a vast and regular output of books, essays and speeches in several areas of expertise – space travel, telecommunications, undersea exploration, and humanity’s future shaped by science and technology.

He collaborated with dozens of others in co-authoring books, co-writing movie screenplays, hosting TV shows and creating digital content. His legacy thus spreads across genres and media formats.

This diversity also makes it harder to assess his overall contributions.

“No one in recent times connected the synapses in the left and right lobes of their brains as did Sir Arthur,” says author and futurist Joseph N Pelton. “He was at once an artist, an inventor, a scientist, a creator, a systems synthesizer and a futurist par excellence.”

Pelton, who knew and worked with Arthur C Clarke for decades, wonders in his 2015 book, The Oracle of Colombo: “Why was he able to create some of the world’s most compelling science fiction literature, make extraordinary films, envision the geosynchronous communications satellite, help discover radar systems for automated takeoffs and landings, explore and write about the oceans in great depth…and also find the time to make some of the finest predictions of the 21st century – all within the constraints of a single brain?”

The Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, based at the University of California San Diego, was set up in 2013 to probe this big question. Its multidisciplinary research aims to find how to spot the future Arthur C Clarkes.

Early start

Growing up in rural England between the two world wars, young Arthur C Clarke more than made up with enthusiasm and hard work what he lacked in resources and opportunity.

He cut his teeth writing for the school magazine at Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton, which he attended from 1927 to 1936. His earliest pieces – written under own name, as well as pseudonyms like ‘Clericus’ and ‘Ego’ — were instantly rewarded with sweets by the English master who edited the magazine.

Decades later, David Aronovitz compiled these early pieces in a collector’s edition titled Childhood Ends: The Earliest Writings of Arthur C Clarke (Portentous Press, 1996). It comprised a mix of skits, essays, and semi-fictional pieces, some of it written tongue-in-cheek.


Young Clarke in London, circa 1937

The one influence that most ignited young Arthur’s imagination was science fiction ‘pulp’ magazines coming over from the US, and sold for cheap at the local store. He used his lunch money to buy second-hand pulps which transported him across space and time.

“I was hooked on science fiction, by the fantastic tales that appeared in the ‘pulp’ magazines of the early Twentieth Century, and it was in that genre that I acquired my writing skills in the 1930s and 1940s,” he later said.

He was no passive reader, however. While still a teenager, he established contact with some magazine editors. Once, he wrote pointing out technical errors in a story, and the editor asked him to write stories of his own if he could do better.

As a young man of 18, Clarke went to London looking for work and new horizons. While doing a civil service job, he made contacts with fellow enthusiasts of space travel and science fiction – which most considered synonyms at the time.

He kept writing both fiction and non-fiction, with early pieces appearing in fan magazines with limited reach. It was not until the mid 1940s that he was able to sell his work. Then there was no turning back.

Within a few short years, aided by much practice and persistence, he was making a modest but regular living off his writing. So he took a chance and became a full time author in 1950.

Art and Science

Clarke is best known and most admired for his hard science fiction – stories which always stay within the realms of technical plausibility. Unlike many story tellers, he also produced elegantly written essays of science fact.

This combination made him well suited to be a leading chronicler and philosopher of the Space Age, whose first half century he witnessed and influenced.

His fiction was informed by science, but never too immersed in technicalities. As he insisted: “The primary function of any story is to entertain — not to instruct or to preach. Promoting a particular scientific concept or technology or a utopian worldview should only be the secondary aim of a story.”

“ Somewhere in the literary landscape, science fiction merges into fantasy, but the frontier between the two is fuzzy. I have suggested an operational demarcation: Science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though often you wish it would. ”

– Arthur C Clarke

“ Somewhere in the literary landscape, science fiction merges into fantasy, but the frontier between the two is fuzzy. I have suggested an operational demarcation: Science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though often you wish it would. ”

– Arthur C Clarke

Science fiction writer George Zebrowski, a friend of Clarke and a recognized expert on his work, writes: “Clarke fulfilled the ambitions of science fiction (SF) in both intellectual and artistic terms. His work met Isaac Asimov’s definition of SF as a literature dealing with the human impact of changes in science and technology. It is these changes that make the work science fiction but the human impact that makes it literature.”

He adds: “Clarke’s views about the universe and human possibilities were not merely present in his science fiction; they shaped it by selecting its dramatic possibilities. His SF was imbued with authenticity lacking the arbitrariness too often found in lesser works of the genre.”

Clarke’s Advice
to Authors

“Read at least one book a day, and write as much as you can. Study authors’ memoirs. (e.g. Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook.) Correspondence courses, writer’s schools, etc. are all useful — but all the authors I know were self-taught. There is no substitute for living; as Hemmingway wisely remarked, writing is not a full-time occupation.”

[from the reply form Arthur C Clarke used to deal with most frequently asked questions]


Gregory Benford, physicist and fellow science fiction writer, offers another perspective. “Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Clarke achieved a unique rendering of the aesthetic that combines the signal qualities of scientific endeavour: intelligence, tenacity and curiosity. His fiction has few villains, neglecting conflict and the broad spectrum of emotion. For Clarke’s purposes these were pointless, even regrettable, diversions. A cool, analytical tone, springing from a pure, dispassionate statement of facts and relationships, pervades his writing. But the result is never cold, and indeed is often aphoristically witty.”

For a detailed exploration of Clarke’s fiction writing, see this entry in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

More than a wordsmith

Yet Clarke was much more than a gifted wordsmith with an inexhaustible imagination. He led a life of adventure and exploration, the experiences of which enriched his creative process. His scuba diving, first at the Great Barrier Reef and then in the seas around Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), resulted in several travelogues and documentaries. Those first hand experiences and insights also provided authenticity to his science fiction short stories and novels with oceanic themes.

Clarke hobnobbed with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, media moguls, world leaders and global entertainers with ease. Equally well respected at NASA and the Russian space agency, he counted dozens of astronauts and cosmonauts among his friends or fans. He once famously demanded “10 per cent of profits” from CNN founder Ted Turner whose global network used geostationary communications satellites first envisaged by Clarke in 1945.

And despite his unconcealed criticism of organized religion, he maintained good relations with religious leaders and scholars. For example, Pope John Paul II invited him to lecture at the Vatican in 1984, and the Dalai Lama once wrote him a fan letter (reacting to the short story ‘Nine Billion Names of God’).

Clarke remained an ardent optimist in spite of dismal news from near and afar filling the airwaves. He lived in Sri Lanka through the country’s bitter civil war, and held out hope for ‘lasting peace’ (which he never lived to see).

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself,” he once said.

So he wrote cautiously about utopias (as in Childhood’s End). As he explained: “To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. Although I know that most — that many science fiction writings have been anti-utopias — 1984, as an example. And the reason for that is that it’s much easier and more exciting to write about a really nasty future than a — placid, peaceful one.”

"Happiest Writer I have ever met…”

In 1970, English novelist, playwright, scriptwriter and broadcaster J B Priestley (1894-1984) was on a brief visit to Ceylon and met Arthur C Clarke at Unawatuna in the company of Lankan artist and architect Ismeth Raheem.

Priestley later described Clarke as “bursting with self-confidence and creative energy and completely unaware of any hostile island atmosphere. Clearly he could live anywhere but had enthusiastically fixed his choice on Ceylon.. I think he is the happiest writer I have ever met. He lives just where he wants to be; he writes exactly what he wants to write; and he is successful; and I doubt, if a new planet offered itself, he would do more than pay it an exploratory visit. He is a nice chap and I liked him, and I trust he will not take offence if I suggest he is so happy there in Ceylon because he has the heart and outlook of an enthusiastic boy about 16.”


Sri Lankans Remembering Arthur C Clarke