Arthur C. Clarke 100

di Fabio Pagan

Twice already the Trieste Science+ Fiction Festival has crossed paths with Arthur C. Clarke, the British writer and prophet of the space age born in Minehead, Somerset, whose hundredth birth anniversary will be celebrated on December 16th this year. The first time was in July 1966, during the fourth edition of the Trieste event, when Clarke himself participated to a panel on extraterrestrial life. That morning, in the middle of the summer season, the hall of the Chamber of Commerce was half empty. Sitting beside him, another science-fiction writer, his old pal Harry Harrison, and Margherita Hack, a few years into her assignment as director
of our astronomical observatory. Clarke improvised his speech, daring science and the audience with suggestions of a possible future of faster-than-light travels. He arrived from London, where he had just started his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odissey. And, in the dark of that stage theatre where at the time the retrospective section of the Festival was screened, he showed me the first stills from the set, with the two astronauts on board of the Discovery spaceship. Clarke was invited again in Trieste in 1971. Three years after 2001 hit the screens, his books earned him the richest contracts in science-fiction writing at the time. This time Clarke was president of the Festival Jury and found himself at the centre of a debate on the meaning of the film, which took place in the old headquarters of the Press Association, in Corso Italia. A debate amongst the usual few genre enthusiasts. No TV crews, no interviews, no photo shoots. Things were done that way, then. Today it seems impossible to think how little a media impact this kind of events attracted. Despite us living in the years of the Apollo missions to the Moon. Although Clarke’s most famous book still is 2001, which was written at the same time as the film screenplay, Sir Arthur (he was knighted in 1998) left us hundreds of other books, both novels and essays, translated in 40 languages. Novels inspired by the dream of space travel (The Sands of Mars, Prelude to Space); by the evolution of man (Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars); by the contact with aliens (The Rama cycle, A Meeting with Medusa); by near future technologies (The Fountains of Paradise, with the futuristic space lift).
But Clarke’s merits go well beyond science-fiction. He was President of the British Interplanetary Society and he published in 1945 a technical article on the Wireless World journal in which he suggested three space stations for global telecommunication could be placed in synchronous orbit. Today, that orbit 36 thousand kilometers far from Earth is also called Clarke orbit. And his 1951 book The Exploration of Space was used by Wernher von Braun to persuade President Kennedy that the mission to the Moon was possible. Three months before his death – he died on March 18th, 2008 in a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had been living since 1956 – he posted a video on Youtube on the eve of his 90th birthday (or better, as he preferred to say, of his completed 90th orbit around the Sun). Sitting on his wheelchair, he expressed three wishes: “I would like to see some evidence of extraterrestrial life. I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil and adopt clean energy resources. I dearly wish to see lasting peace establishing in Sri Lanka, my adopted country, as soon as possible”. Three wishes which are key to his very existence: the meeting with an alien culture, the trust in a better future because of technoscience, the love for the island that gave him the wonders of his underwater explorations along the coral reef and a Buddhist vision of life. Him, an agnostic to boot, but open to mysticism. Because, as he loved to say: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”