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Location: Arlington, Virginia, United States

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke & Sci Fi

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) died. RIP.

As a pioneer in Science Fiction, Clarke left a huge cultural footprint (though buried now beneath layers of sediment). You could argue that without his 2001: A Space Odyssey, there would be no Star Trek, Star Wars, and their myriad offspring.

He's considered one the "Big Three" pioneers of sci-fi, with Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) and Isaac Asimov (1920?-1992). One is tempted to include Ray Bradbury (b. 1920) in that sci-fi pantheon, but in his own words:
First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time—because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
That distinction is what puts the Big Three in their own modern-day--or perhaps Postmodern-- category, but the distinction is a fine one, and you can argue that categorical "Sci-fi"--of "the real"-- itself has been around for a long time.

In the 19th century, we had Jules Verne's (1828-1905) uncannily prescient From The Earth To The Moon (which had three astronauts blasting off from the Florida peninsula) and Paris in the 20th Century(which included depictions of air conditioning, automobiles, television, and the internet), and of course Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, which featured an electrically-powered submarine.

What separates Verne's "unreal" depictions from Bradbury's more modern "depictions of the real" as pioneered by "The Big Three" is that the science of Verne's day and even the speculative science he uses could not possibly live up to the accomplishments in his novels and were more imaginary, however rationally-based.

Nevertheless, that should in no way diminish his vision for what the pursuit of science could someday accomplish.

The English H.G. Wells (1866 –1946) also wrote Science Fantasy novels that included titles like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr Moreau.

Another visionary. The Island of Dr Moreau, for example, is brought to mind with some of the experiments we see today happening in the biotech field (like the mixing and matching of human genetic codes with that of animals), but Wells often uses the futuristically and/or scientifically fantastic settings and situations as crucibles for his contemporary social commentary.

The Time Machine (1895), for example, deals with the future consequences of class divisions between the leisure class and working class, as allegorized by the effete Eloi and the subterranean working class of Morlocks.

Parts of the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution and its driving class struggle between aristocracy and proletariat can be read into that allegory-- as can, perhaps, or own present-day society with its illegal immigrants doing much of the hard labor, but it would require stretching.

Nevertheless, whether "Science Fictionalists" or "Science Fantasists," Verne and Wells--preceding "The Big Three" by entire eras-- have each been referred to as "The Father of Science Fiction."

That may be unfair to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), whose Gothic Horror novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (first published in 1818)--though certainly fantasist--has been identified as the first "Science Fiction" novel.

The monster was not assembled by disparate parts of corpses and resurrected by some eldritch sorcery, but by a "scientific" physician and the use of electricity-- though the latter was delivered by lightning which had some eldritch, life-engendering quality to it. That itself is not so fantasist, however, when considering that, even today, natural lightning is a candidate for the catalytical creation of life on earth (in lieu of supernatural Divine Intervention).

Shelley would not be surprised that she's short shrifted as "The Mother of Science Fiction" in favor of "Fathers" who came after her: She's the Mother of Modern Feminism, and so would understand patriarchal primacy.

Well before all of them, however, from the 2nd Century, there was Lucian of Samosata (c. A.D. 125 – after A.D. 180), one of the first novelists in Western Civilization.

In A True Story, a narrative of prose fiction, he wrote about voyages to the moon and Venus, E.T.s, and interplanetary wars.

He was making fun, however, of the fantastic tales spun by Homer in the Odyssey--still taken literally by many-- and popular fancies making their rounds in his day.

Yet he, too, has been called "The Father of Science Fiction."

But that would be unfair to the Biblical Ezekial (c. 6th Century BC), and his "Wheels in the Sky" vision, which UFO enthusiasts claim is an early eyewitness account of a UFO, which brings us back to Arthur C. Clarke...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for them to do Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy. I had hoped that "I, Robot" was going to kick off a new era of great science fiction movies, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

btw - What do you think of his "In Search of Ancient Astronauts"? I can't make up my mind whether it would be better to further mythologize or de-mythologize science. Perhaps if we admitted a bit more of the former, the Global Warming crowd wouldn't be as self-righteous as they act today. After all, that's one science myth that seems to have begun to metastasize into a form of secular religious dogma.

11:13 AM  
Blogger John said...

RE: Ancient astronauts.

Put me in the open-minded but skeptical column.

Did UFOs help us with the Internet? No, every step of its conception and progress is known (unless you think Bill Gates is an alien), yet this invention is far more complex than a pyramid.

The miracle is the human mind.

10:39 PM  
Blogger John said...

The belief in ancient astronauts and their intervention in the technological progress of the human race doesn't end with the ancients.

UFOlogists believe that the Roswell incident in the mid-Twentieth Century and UFO sightings in general account for all sorts of technological leaps, like the SR-71 Blackbird and stealth technology.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I wasn't so much interested in whether you thought that they were "real" or not so much as how the "idea" that "might" have visited earth has affected people's perceptions about science's ability to answer such questions. And so people break into camps of believers and skeptics, much as they do on the global warming issue.

The question is, does this process always advance (or can it retard) human knowledge, for as in the case of global warming, the answer (if definitively affirmative) has the potential to side track human economic and technological development substantially...

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For example, if wreckage from an ancient spacecraft were unearthed... how would it impact man's pusuit of science from this point on? Would we begin to channel technological development into the search for these ancient explorers? Would we begin a massive SETI project? Would we begin to seriously concentrate on technologies that would help us break the light-speed barrier?

And what if it later turned out that the archeological evidence had been faked... like a twenty-first century piltdown man...

6:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops. Clarke didn't write "Ancient Astronauts"... that was Erich von Däniken. My bad.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The miracle is the human mind.

You ain't just whistling Dixie...

6:53 AM  
Blogger John said...

Still, when you think about the feats of engineering those guys did with an abacus, hammers, chisels, ropes, and raw muscle, you wonder sometimes if they had a little help...

Nah. People underestimate the ancients. First of all, their brain capacity was the same as ours is. Secondly, the scientific Dark Ages in the theocracy of Mediaeval Europe tends to make people assume that all scientific knowledge--like comprehension of a spherical earth-- came after that period.

(and that's being unfair to the encyclopaedic brains of the Mediaeval Period Scholastics and a mind like Chaucer's).

But ancient Greeks like Eratosthenes figured out the earth's diameter (to less than 5%error), and Aristarchus calculated the moon's diameter (to less than 10% error) and proposed that the earth moved around the sun over a millenium before Copernicus proved it, and not by religious revelation, but by maths.

I don't know how they figured it out, but I think having huge cranial capacities, self-consciousness, and two hands with four fingers and an opposable thumb on each adding up to ten digits--for starters--had more to do with it than an E.T.

9:20 AM  

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