Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, December 16 1917 - March 18 2008

Like many of my generation, my first experience with the genius of Arthur C. Clarke was with his epic Stanley Kubrick motion picture co-conspiracy, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It would only be several years later that I would read the stories upon which it was based; I don't recall the names, but the tales themselves will stay with me forever.

The first was about two astronauts on a moon-base, bored and playing games with the AI computer that ran the station. One of the astronauts posed the following dilemma to the computer: Everything that I say is false, including this statement. This statement caused the computer to melt down, plunging the astronauts into darkness as the station's power, communications and life support failed.

The second story was also about an astronaut, who discovers an artifact on the moon. The artifact is protected by some sort of shield, which, no matter what he tries, the astronaut cannot penetrate. Finally, he does succeed in breaking through the barrier around the artifact, and a massive and powerful radio signal blasts out from the device. The astronaut is left pondering who the signal was sent to, what will happen when the signal reaches its destination, and why the object was shielded from making that transmission, to begin with.

The ominous natures of these stories taught me an invaluable lesson: just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should do it.

There was also a novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, written prior to the film. The elements of the previous two stories are demonstrably a genesis both for the themes and key plot points of both the book and the movie. The only difference between the book and the film is that in the book the Discovery is not en-route to Jupiter, but Saturn. It travels first to Jupiter in order to use a slinghot manoeuvre through Jupiter's upper atmosphere to travel on to Saturn. Kubrick felt that this concept would be too difficult for moviegoers to understand, so the story was altered to send the Discovery and her ill-fated crew to Jupiter, instead.

The movie was ground breaking; the science behind the fiction bang-on accurate, the special effects remain among the best ever done on screen. The science fiction films that followed in its wake, the Star Wars and Star Trek series, the countless other space epics, good and bad still cannot live up to the level of convincing reality that the ships, space stations and moon bases of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the best of Lucas' computer F/X looks like cartoonish artifice beside the Discovery, or the Tycho Moon Base.

It is worth noting that other than the chronology of the story, absolutely nothing else that Clarke has predicted has proven impossible or outdated. Though we do not yet have permanent bases on the moon or orbital hotels, these things are not only within our reach but could be done today, if only there was the political will and the financial backing to do it.

As to AI computing, HAL, the HAL-9000 series computer that was the operational nerve centre of the Discovery is not likely far from reality. HAL's memory and processors were "holographic", in other words optical data stored in a three dimensional crystalline matrix. Researchers are already experimenting with this sort of data storage, which would be the next logical step from existing optical data, namely CDs, DVDs, and fiber optics.

As to artificial intelligence, it would seem to be an inevitability in computing. The processing power of computer chips increases exponentially every "generation". Researchers are exploring quantum-state computing, which would replace outmoded binary digital processing. Computer sentience is not that far off...I dare say that many of us will live long enough to see it happen.

Clarke's status as a visionary extends well beyond the writing of science fiction. He is the man who came up with the concept of geostationary radio satellites orbiting the earth to make real-time radio communication possible; he wrote as much scientific nonfiction as he did science fiction, and he coined one of the most widely recognized terms in our modern lexicon: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The man was brilliant, and though I did not enjoy everything he wrote (I advise everyone to stay away from 2061 and 3001, two of the most awful pieces of work he created), the Rama series (of which I only ever got around to reading the first two) are among my favourites, and are, along with the work of genius Babylon 5, by J. Michael Straczynski and Carl Sagan's Contact, the strongest influences on my own work, The Unearthing. However, I am but a small man, standing in the shadow of giants in comparisson to those three men. The tallest of those giants died today.

This isn't an obituary or a eulogy for Arthur C. Clarke. I'm not up to the task of summing up such a man as he. This is merely a small tribute to him. An offering of thanks to a man who inspired and influenced me, and thousands more like me; an offering to a man whose work will continue to inspire many thousands more, for generations to come.