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Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! by Arthur C.…

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!

by Arthur C. Clarke

Other authors: Ian T. Macauley (Editor)

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354347,685 (3.47)1
In the definitive work of his brilliant career, Arthur C. Clarke has collected his most prophetic nonfiction essays, lucidly demonstrating that he not only anticipated many of the 20th century's greatest scientific innovations, but he in fact helped to shape the path to come.From predicting the future role of geosynchronous satellites in his early pieces in the 1940s, to his groundbreaking reporting from The Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s, to anticipating the Internet literally decades before it happened, Clarke has acted as both technological prophet and cultural conscience.Arranged chronologically by decade, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! is inarguably the crowning achievement of an unrivalled personal odyssey.… (more)



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Arthur C. Clarke

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!:
Collected Essays, 1934–1998

HarperCollins/Voyager, Hardback, 1999.

8vo. xviii+558 pp. Edited by Ian T. Macauley. Acknowledgments [xv] and Preface [xvii] by Arthur Clarke, 1999. Sources and Index [pp. 541-555]. A 16-page insert with black-and-white photographs between pp. 270 and 271.

First published thus, 1999.



Part I. The 1930s and the 1940s: Rockets and Radar
Introduction [Astounding Days, 1989.]
Dunsany, Lord of Fantasy [1944]
Rockets [1944]
The Coming Age of Rocket Power [1945]
Extraterrestrial Relays [1945]
The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth [previously published, source unknown?]
The Challenge of the Spaceship [1946; rev. in The Challenge of the Spaceship, 1959.]
First Men in the Moon [1947]
The Problem of Dr. Campbell [1948]
The Lackeys of Wall Street [1949]
Voyages to the Moon [1949]
You're on the Glide Path, I Think [1949]
Morphological Astronomy [1949]
The Conquest of Space [1949]

Part II. The 1950s: Beneath the Seas of Ceylon
The Effect of Interplanetary Flight [1950]
Space Travel in Fact and Fiction [1951]
Review: Destination Moon [1950]
Interplanetary Flight [Interplanetary Flight, 1950.]
The Exploration of Space [1951]
Review: When Worlds Collide [1952]
Review: Man on the Moon [1953]
Flying Saucers [1953]
Review: Flying Saucers Have Landed [1954]
Undersea Holiday [1954; chapter 12 in The Challenge of the Sea, 1960.]
The Exploration of the Moon [The Exploration of the Moon, 1954.]
Eclipse [1954]
Astronautical Fallacies [1954]
The Star of Bethlehem [1954; The Challenge of the Spaceship, 1959.]

Capricorn to Cancer
Keeping House in Colombo
The Reefcombers' Derby
Rest Houses, Catamarans, and Sharks
The First Week
A Clear Run to the South Pole
[The Reefs of Taprobane, 1957.]

The Isle of Taprobane
The Great Reef
Winding Up
[The Treasure of the Great Reef, 1964.]

Part III. The 1960s: Kubrick and Cape Kennedy
Failures of Nerve and Imagination
We'll Never Conquer Space
Rocket to the Renaissance
The Obsolescence of Man
[Profiles of the Future, 1962.]
Space and the Spirit of Man
The Uses of the Moon
The Playing Fields of Space
Kalinga Prize Speech
[Voices from the Sky, 1965.]
More Than Five Senses
Son of Dr. Strangelove
Possible, That's All!
The Mind of the Machine [1968]
God and Einstein [1968]
[Report on Planet Three, 1972.]

Part IV. The 1970s: Tomorrow's Worlds
Satellites and Saris
Mars and the Mind of Man
The Sea of Sinbad
Willy and Chesley
The Snows of Olympus
[The View from Serendip, 1977.]
Writing to Sell [1984: Spring – Choice of Futures, 1984.]

Part V. The 1980s: Stay of Execution
The Steam-Powered Word Processor [1986]
Afterword: "Maelstrom II" [Maelstrom (Arthur Clarke's Venus Prime), vol. 2) by Paul Preuss, 1988]
Mother Nature Got There First [1990]
Message to Comsat, February 18, 1988 [previously unpublished]
Graduation Address: International Space University [previously unpublished]
Back to 2001 [2001: A Space Odyssey, ROC edition, 1993.]
Coauthors and Other Nuisances [Expanded version of "Rama Revisited" from Rama II, 1989.]
The Power of Compression [1998]
Live in the Fax Lane [previously unpublished]
Credo [Living Philosophies, ed. Clifton Fadiman, 1991.]
The Colors of Infinity: Exploring the Fractal Universe [1990]
Close Encounter with Cosmonauts [1980]
The Century Syndrome [Chapter 4 from The Ghost from the Grand Banks, 1990.]
Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf? [1984: Spring – Choice of Futures, 1984.]
My Four Feet on the Ground [My Four Feet on the Ground by Nora Clarke, 1978]

Part VI. The 1990s: Countdown to 2000
Marconi Symposium [previously unpublished]
Introduction to Charlie Pellegrino's Unearthing Atlantis (1991)
Tribute to Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988) [Astounding Days, 1989]
Satyajit and Stanley [previously unpublished]
Aspects of Science Fiction [previously unpublished in English]
Save the Giant Squid! [1992]
A Choice of Futures [1992]
Gene Roddenberry [1992]
Introduction to Jack Williamson's Beachhead [1992]
Scenario for a Civilized Planet [1992]
NASA Sutra: Eros in Orbit [1992]
Minehead Made Me [1992]
Good-bye, Isaac [1992]
Encyclical [Chapter 17 from The Hammer of God, 1993.]
Letter from Sri Lanka [previously unpublished]
Message to Mars [The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars, 1994.]
Preface: The War of the Worlds [1993]
Preface: The First Men in the Moon [1993]
The Joy of Maths [previously unpublished]
Tribute to Robert Bloch [1995]
Spaceguard [1994]
Foreword: Encyclopedia of Frauds by James Randi [1995]
Bucky [previously unpublished]
Homage to Frank Paul [previously unpublished]
Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! [1992]
The Birth of HAL [1997]
The Coming of Cyberclysm [1995]
Tribute to David Lasser [1996]
Toilets of the Gods [previously unpublished]
When Will the Real Space Age Begin? [1996]
Review: Imagined Worlds by Freeman Dyson [1997]
Eyes on the Universe [1997]
Walter Alvarez and Gerrit L. Verschuur [1997]
The Gay Warlords [previously unpublished]
More Last Words on UFOs [1997]
Carl Sagan [1997]
For Cherene, Tamara, and Melinda [1992]

Part VII. Postscript: 2000 and Beyond
Science and Society [1998]
Is There Life After Television? [1997]
The Twenty-First Century: A (Very) Brief History [1999]

About the Author
About the Editor

* In square brackets: year and place of first publication (the latter for books only!), or other relevant bibliographical information. See Sources for more details.


I wish I could give this book six stars out of five. Another impossibility is to count the sleepless nights I have spent over it. Never mind.

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! is a formidable collection of 110 non-fiction pieces spanning the nearly unimaginable period of 55 years (1944–1999) and ranging from a single page to, seldom, ten pages or so. The range of subjects and forms is another matter. Arthur Clarke's interests may not be as staggeringly catholic as those of Isaac Asimov, but they are still quite impressive. There are here book reviews, obituaries, appreciations, scientific papers (simplified), addresses, or just essays on subjects that range from science fiction and space exploration to underwater adventures around Sri Lanka to human nature, mankind and the future of planet Earth. Now, obviously, book of such stupendous scope clearly and completely defies anything as mundane as a review. What follows are some random thoughts, reflections and observations, in no particular order and pretending to be nothing more than personal.

One of the most beautiful things about this book is that it was Arthur Clarke, nearly 82 years old in 1999, who made the selection himself: so mammoth a task, that he wonders how he was persuaded ever to undertake it. In addition to the general preface, Clarke also wrote introductions to each part save the postscript. These are gems of conciseness, putting the major events in the author's life against the background of the zeitgeist of each decade. Indeed, most of the essays also have few newly written introductory paragraphs (or concluding ones) in which Clarke deals with publication and personal history as well as, more interestingly, with what he was right about and what (and why) he got wrong. The editorial work of Ian Macauley, a lifelong friend of the author to whom the early novel Islands in the Sky (1952) was dedicated, is apparently limited to very short, but erudite and pithy, notes printed in italics before each piece. They give an excellent idea what you are about to read in the next few pages.

One of the many ways to read this book is paying attention to Arthur Clarke himself. As every great writer, he has a very personal, and deceptively simple, writing style. Moreover, most of his introductions and notes are largely concerned with events from his own life; quite a few of these occur in many of the essays as well. I daresay some people may find this appallingly self-serving – but I am not one of them. For my part, I am fascinated to read about Clarke's love for Sri Lanka, where he lived for more than half a century, yet no more than six months each year for otherwise the income tax would have ruined him, or about the closest meeting with death in his life when he once panicked underwater. In the aforementioned introductions there are many poignant passages about, for instance, the death of his mother or the horrible 1986 when he was wrongly diagnosed and told that he had just two years more to live. He refused to believe and, as it turned out, the diagnosis was plain wrong and Clarke was to live, not 2, but 22 years more. In the last introduction he is naturally occupied with old age, which he had to spend in a wheelchair due to post-polio syndrome (the right diagnosis), but his mind remained as nimble and insatiable until his death as it was during all his life.

There are tons of charming Clarke-trivia between these pages, too. My favourite bit is his claim that "annoyingly large number of people" still consider Childhood's End (1953) his best novel. Since I don't, I can't help mentioning that I am as pleased as Punch that Clarke agrees with my assessment of this fine but somewhat immature work.

Clarke's opinions and beliefs are always clearly stated and there are at least two major and often recurring motifs: his great optimism in the future of mankind as a space race, so to say, and his implacable atheism. A fine illustration of both, coupled with another eternal conundrum, occurs in "Space and the Spirit of Man":

Space will, sooner or later, present us with facts that are much more stubborn, and even more disconcerting. There can be little reasonable doubt that, ultimately, we will come into contact with races more intelligent than our own. That contact may be one-way, through the discovery of ruins or artifacts; it may be two-way, over radio or laser circuits; it may even be face-to-face. But it will occur, and it may be the most devastating event in the history of mankind. The rash assertion that "God made man in His own image" is ticking like a time bomb at the foundation of many faiths, and as the hierarchy of the universe is disclosed to us, we may have to recognize this chilling truth: if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.

The essay "Credo" is perhaps the most powerful exposition of Clarke's lack of belief in anything that might safely be called God; it is probably safe, too, to call it atheism, not agnosticism, tenuous as the line between them may be, because Clarke seems perfectly convinced that the Almighty simply does not exist. This naturally leads to scornful dismissal of Creationism as well – and rightly so. Clarke addresses the subject but a few times, yet each one of them is totally devastating. Probably the greatest lashing occurs in the foreword to James Randi's Encyclopedia of Frauds where the author is a little disappointed that his colleague does not tackle Creationism. But Arthur does, calling the notion "blasphemy" and one of "the most pernicious of the intellectual perversions now afflicting the American public". Did these people, Clarke asks, think that God hoaxed the fossil record? Needless to say, Clarke is merciless towards all junk about reincarnation, UFO, psychic powers, etc. that is constantly poured over televisions and in pulp writings. He doesn't even bother to deal critically with such nonsense, and I quite agree with such approach.

Clarke's attitude to the numerous people he mentions on these pages ranges from deep affection and great generosity to gentle criticism and good-natured barbs, but it never ventures in the realms of personal animosity. Indeed, this attitude of his has won him accusations of name-dropping. This is really very silly, to say the least. Clarke is at least as famous as his illustrious colleagues in the genre Asimov and Heinlein, with both of whom, but particularly with the former, he enjoyed firm friendships for many years. I guess a good case can be made that Arthur Clarke is actually more famous than the two most famous men in the history of space age, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, both of whom take prominent place in the piece "Close Encounters with Cosmonauts". Who else – Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg? Both are mentioned several times and rather casually, but in his own field Clarke was – and is – every bit as successful as these legendary directors. The small army of illustrators, scientists, literary agents and who not would actually have been much less well-known, if not entirely forgotten, had they not been mentioned by Clarke, here or at many other places. The bottom line is that Clarke's mentioning of names, much more often than not, is actually "name-lifting".

Although for many pieces in the collection this is first publication in book form, or ever, a substantial number of essays had previously appeared in other collections. Just another fascinating aspect of Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! is that it gives an excellent overview of Clarke's nearly forgotten today non-fiction writings. It is a startling contrast indeed. His voluminous fiction – including some 19 novels (excluding co-authorships!) and over 100 short stories – is still very much in print and quite a few works have become classics. On the other hand, Clarke's non-fiction is almost completely and hopelessly out-of-print. Yet if you check ISFDb (Internet Speculative Fiction Database), you will find a formidable list of more than 20 (!) titles, excluding collaborations and minor publications.

Now Arthur Clarke never was a scientist, that's for sure, but he did have a solid education, tremendous erudition and awe-inspiring ability to explain complex concepts in a simple way. Above all, he had a scientific outlook, for science (like art, incidentally, though in a very different way!) really is much more concerned with the way one looks at the world, rather than with such mundane stuff like experiments or data. Clarke did have that rational outlook, and coupled with his lucid and amusing style, it has made him a major figure in the field of popular science. Besides, Clarke lived through the most astounding times in the human history, at least as far space exploration is concerned: he was there long before Gagarin and the first orbital satellites, and remained there through the Moon landing, the robot missions to Mars and Jupiter, and many, many more. And he was not just there. He observed closely, analyzed thoroughly and wrote immediately about all these landmark events. Significantly, this collection of essays contains excerpts from no fewer than ten major non-fiction works:

Interplanetary Flight (1950)
The Exploration of Space (1951)
The Exploration of the Moon (1954)
The Reefs of Taprobane (1957)
The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959)
Profiles of the Future (1962)
The Treasure of the Great Reef (1964)
Voices from the Sky (1965)
The View From Serendip (1977)
1984: Spring – Choice of Futures (1984)

Two of these titles can immediately be set apart as they are quite untypical of Clarke. I didn't even know he had written so much about the other vastly unexplored area, almost as unknown and dangerous as the space but lying in precisely the opposite direction: the depths of the sea. Clarke never went deeper than several tens of meters actually, for pretty much all of his life he was a passionate scuba-diver – just another reason, among many others, why he found his home "ten thousand kilometers from the place I was born".

Especially during the 1950s, together with the photographer Mike Wilson, Clarke spent a great deal of time underwater exploring either the Great Barrier Reef or the smaller, but by no means poorer, coral formations around Sri Lanka (then still Ceylon, or Taprobane or Serendip if you prefer more exotic names). The result was a series of three lavishly illustrated and beautifully written books, and I am truly amazed that the chapters selected for reprinting here have been described by some readers as "tedious" and "dull". They are neither. Clarke's style is as readable and entertaining as always. And his scope is typically wide: from shark shooting (with camera) and fishing with dynamite (by the natives) to exploration of shipwrecks (one of them with real treasure aboard!) and getting the best living conditions in Sri Lanka (a tricky business indeed). One thing is certain: the complete books are definitely worth reading. Apart from the two already mentioned, these also include The Coast of Coral (1956) and The Challenge of the Sea (1960).

But Arthur Clarke, of course, is in his element when he reflects on space exploration. Interestingly enough, he appears to have achieved a conspicuously high level in this field with his very first book. Interplanetary Flight (1950) was quite a success for non-fiction writing on a subject considered more or less pure science fiction at the time. Reportedly, by his own admission, it was a turning point in the scientific development of Carl Sagan himself. Somewhat disappointingly, though, Clarke has chosen to reprint here but the last few paragraphs of the book. But these are quite impressive indeed. He finely says that the author of technical works should avoid purple prose, but he makes – rightly – no apologies for these passages. I am probably the last man in the Solar System who would enjoy purple patch, yet I find the last two paragraphs of Interplanetary Flight so moving that I cannot resist quoting them:

The dream of flight was one of the noblest, and one of the most disinterested, of all man's aspirations. Yet it led in the end to that silver Superfortress driving in passionless beauty through August skies toward the city whose name it was to sear into the conscience of the world. Already there has been half-serious talk in the United States concerning the use of the Moon for military bases and launching sites. The crossing of space may thus bring, not a new Renaissance, but the final catastrophe that haunts our generation.

That is the danger, the dark thundercloud that threatens the promise of the dawn. The rocket has already been the instrument of evil and may be so again. But there is no way back into the past; the choice, as Wells once said, is the universe – or nothing. Though men and civilizations may yearn for rest, for elysian dream of the lotus-eaters, that is a desire that merges imperceptibly into death. The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race is drawing to a close. Humanity will have turned its back upon the still untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea.

Very unusual prose for Arthur Clarke indeed! Speaking of "lotus-eaters", I wonder, non sequitur, if Clarke had read Maugham's short story "The Lotus Eater". He probably had read "Rain" though. At one place he remarks that during the monsoon season the rain in Colombo "comes down in the best Somerset Maugham tradition". Charming that.

Going back to Clarke's space-orientated non-fiction, the main treasure in this collection are the four chapters/essays from Profiles of the Future (1962), all of them gems with tons of provocative reflections. Apparently, it is not for nothing that Clarke calls this book "what may be my most important work of non-fiction". On the basis of the three excerpts from it, I would certainly put in this category Voices from the Sky (1965) and, judging by the early but magnificent eponymous essay, The Challenge of Spaceship (1959) as well. It is devilishly difficult to summarize the immense scope and the cornucopia of stirring reflections that each of these pieces contains. But since they are, so to say, the heart of the book, I feel compelled at least to try to give any idea about their contents.

"The Challenge of the Spaceship" is an exceptional piece, surely one of the highlights of the volume, and the fact that Clarke wrote it when he was not yet thirty, and more than a decade before Gagarin, makes it all the more amazing. Its only ''drawback'' is the very misleading title – unless ''spaceship'' is taken to be analogous to ''seamanship''. Clarke doesn't waste any time on the physical aspects of our future spaceships, but he goes and catches the bull directly for – the horns. He concentrates entirely on the individual and social driving force behind space exploration, and how the latter will affect us profoundly in every aspect: personal, economic, artistic, you name it. One really can't do better than to quote:

There are still some scientists who consider that there is no point in sending man into space, even when it becomes technically possible; machines, they argue, can do all that is necessary. Such an outlook is incredibly shortsighted; worse than that, it is stupid, for it completely ignores human nature.

Though the specific ideals of astronautics are new, the motives and impulses underlying them are as old as the race – and in the ultimate analysis, they owe as much to emotion as to reason. Even if we could learn nothing in space that our instruments would not already tell us, we should go there just the same.

Some men compose music or spend their lives trying to catch and hold forever the last colors of the dying day, or a pattern of clouds that, through all eternity, will never come again. Others make voyages of exploration across the world, while some make equally momentous journeys in quiet studies with no more equipment than pencil and paper. If you ask these men the purpose of their music, their painting, their exploring, or their mathematics, they would probably say that they hoped to increase the beauty or the knowledge of the world. That answer would be true, and yet misleading. Very few indeed would give the simpler, the more fundamental reason that they had no choice in the matter – that what they did, they did because they had to.


Interplanetary travel is now the only form of ''conquest and empire'' compatible with civilization. Without it, the human mind, compelled to circle forever in its planetary goldfish bowl, must eventually stagnate.

We all know the narrow, limited type of mind that is interested in nothing beyond its town or village and bases its judgments on those parochial standards. We are slowly – perhaps too slowly – evolving from that mentality toward a world outlook. Few things will do more to accelerate that evolution than the conquest of space. It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men begin to see the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe among the stars.

Stirring and beautifully written lines. As a general rule, the later the piece, the more qualified Arthur's optimism becomes. Yet he never wavered much from the above until the end of his life – well over half a century later. However, I cannot help thinking that Arthur did overestimate human nature. History since has made a ''world outlook'' today virtually an impossibility, and the space exploration didn't help the matter at all. Indeed, the situation with the latter is much worse than it seems. More than forty years have passed since man first walked on the Moon, yet we still don't have a single permanent resident there. Our technological progress seems to have been scaled down rather painfully. Our PCs become more versatile, our Internet faster and our mobile phones smaller, but the stars remain totally unaccessible. Could it be that we just need more time to develop in this direction? Let us hope so, for the alternative is chilling. Could it be that the mind-numbing vastness of the universe has proven much too much for man? I hope not, but I don't really believe so.

Unfortunately, quotations from the other pieces are impossible. There is hardly anything not worth quoting. Therefore, short and inept summaries will have to do.

In the excerpts from the 1960s Clarke has a number of powerful arguments to support his theory that future cannot really be predicted, by science fiction writers or anybody else. And it is good to keep in mind Bradbury's remark that he doesn't try to predict the future but to prevent it; if Clarke didn't agree completely, he wouldn't have quoted it himself. This is the subject of "Failures of Nerve and Imagination". Although the difference between both types of failures is somewhat tenuous, Clarke eloquently shows that speculating about the future is a dangerous business indeed. He obviously relishes poking fun at all those fellows who used to claim, all through the first half of the twentieth century, that nothing heavier than air would ever fly and that space exploration is the purest form of fantasy there is. Amazingly, the future proved these guys wrong, not just within their lifetimes, but ''sometimes while the ink was scarcely dry from their pens''.

(Speaking of alternative futures, the essay "A Choice of Futures", first published in 1992, is a most absorbing thing to read. Clarke's method, as usual, is compelling: let us go back a century and a half and try to predict our future, relying as much as we can on reasonable speculation upon the most advanced science at the time. The results are startling, to say the very least. Of course it is easy to "predict" great expansion for the steam in terms of ships and trains, and that strange thing in the labs – "electricity" they called it, I think – may well turn out to be of some use. But how could one, Clarke asks, reasonably speculate – in 1842, if I may remind you – about such amazing things as telephone, automobile or airplane – to say nothing of more modern wonders like atomic power and Internet? Speculation, after all, must be based at least on some scientific ground, tenuous as it might be; but without any, it degenerates into mere fantasy. Well, let's see how we will look back in 2111 – if we survive until then.)

One legitimate, but mild, accusation against Clarke, as confirmed by history so far, is that sometimes he is slightly too optimistic as far as human exploration of space is concerned. However, his optimism never degenerates into mere fantasizing. In this respect, "We'll Never Conquer Space" makes a poignant and sobering read. Here Clarke examines the tremendous social impact of deep space exploration. Just imagine – if you can! – travelling to the nearest star (other than the Sun, of course), then sending a message to your family and waiting for an answer – well, waiting for ten years, unless the signal travels faster than light (perhaps not impossible, but surely very unlikely). Small wonder that space may well turn out to be the limit of our civilization, rather than the beginning of a new one. Clarke makes a very good case that even if we could travel faster than light, we would never conquer space all the same. Imagine for the sake of the argument, Clarke invites us, that we can travel instantaneously to every place in the whole universe. This will reduce the size, certainly, but not in the least the complexity of the system. Roughly speaking, and assuming optimistically low numbers, our telescopes can observe something like 10 to the power of 20 stars, the closest one being nearly five light years away. Space really is unimaginably huge and, it seems, perfectly unconquerable for now, and for us. Yet Clarke finishes the essay with an inspiring speculation that mankind, in the very distant future, might at least give rise to as many different interstellar societies as groups of people venture into deep space, never to return.

"Rocket to the Renaissance" continues to explore the social impact from every possible point of view you may think of. Clarke starts with the obvious statement, but well supplied with arguments nonetheless, that colonization of the Solar System, no matter how complete, is very unlikely to ever solve the problem of overpopulation. He then goes on a highly speculative but incredibly fascinating discussion about the impact on arts that space must inevitably have. Imagine Swan Lake on Mars where the gravity is just one third of Earth's – or still better on the Moon, where it is twice lower than that. (For once the dance may just match the grandeur of the music, I should think.) If that is a trifle fanciful, Clarke's tackling of the eternal question about the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence certainly is not. Instead of close encounters, the speculation here is mostly concerned with ''electronic archeology'', which is of course by far the most likely variant of the first ''contact''. I cannot but be reminded of that great movie Contact (yes, it's high time to read Carl Sagan's book!) and I am pretty sure that Arthur Clarke would have had the same one-and-only question to ask the aliens as the character played by Jodi Foster: ''How did you do it? How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourselves?''

"The Obsolescence of Man" is a compelling discussion of the inevitable collision between man and intelligent machines that is bound to happen one day. Continuing the movie analogy, we are speaking of The Matrix and Terminator 2 now. Well, not quite. Clarke, for one, is convinced that man and machine can live together and to mutual benefit – particularly ours, including everything from taking photographs to carrying dangerous missions in space. Of course Clarke goes way deeper than that, exploring the nature of the mental process often vaguely described as ''thinking'' and why he himself has no doubt that one day machines may well replace humans in (almost) everything. For better or for worse, half a century later this speculation is still very much in the realms of science fiction. It must be added that Clarke is positive that if the often encountered in the literature scenario about a war between man and machine really happened one day, it would be ''easy to guess who will start it.'' Ironically enough, only a few years later Clarke drew the ('')character('') (with or without quotation marks, take your choice) of the most famous mutinous machine in fiction: the board computer HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. To Clarke's credit, though, just as in The Matrix it remains obscure who started the war, it is never made clear in the novel whether HAL's behaviour is due to deliberately planned mutiny or simply to an inherent mistake in his/its programming. The point is well worth reflecting upon.

The three excerpts from Voices from the Sky (1965) have even greater scope. "Space and the Spirit of Man" is yet another psychological study of the huge impact that space must have when our race evolves from ''space-conscious'' to ''space-minded''. Even though today this is very far from being the case, I do not hesitate to describe the essay as profound. Sadly, "The Uses of the Moon" is just as far from reality. Here Clarke makes a spectacular case how the numerous uses of the Moon – from meteorological predictions to space exploration – can easily override any technical or financial objection. Just imagine – if you can! – spaceships leaving the Moon without burning any fuel at all, just accelerating to ten gravities on a nineteen miles long horizontal track. The same thing on Earth would require 400 miles long track and this of course makes it unthinkable. But on the Moon – with nearly perfect vacuum instead of atmosphere and six times weaker gravity – it all sounds awfully plausible. Although such low gravity and airlessness are very difficult to imagine, Clarke's calculations look very convincing. Finally, to have some fun, "The Playing Fields of Space" expounds the ''anathema'' that the space is not only hard and dangerous work, but it can be terrific fun as well. Clarke's speculations about stupendous records in athletics on the Moon or space yachting are not as far-fetched or flippant as you may think.

Sad to say, but some half a century or so later, though at first glance the wildest dreams of the 1940s have been achieved, virtually none of Clarke's daring speculations about colonizing of the Solar System (the inner planets at any rate) or the cultivation of much more mature, space-inspired outlook, in which severe mental diseases like superstition or bigotry have no place, is anywhere near reality as he thought. This often brings condescending remarks from conceited folk that he is "dated", or "obsolete" to use a heavier word. I myself sometimes mentally exclaim "Come off it, Artie! This is tosh, and you know damn well it is!" But I do wonder if this really is the case. It is only too easy to criticize harshly with the benefit of hindsight – so easy it is, indeed, that one easily gets carried away and forgets how utterly pointless it really is. And there is another point of view that needs to be kept in mind.

After all, even if Clarke's predictions are far from reality today, very few of them, if any indeed, have been proven wrong or exchanged for alternative solutions. So, it all boils down to one rather difficult question. Is Clarke really obsolete or is he simply still ahead of our time? There is some evidence in both directions: in either case we are in trouble. If the former concept is true, we are indeed in a huge trouble, for that would simply mean that our space quest has come to an end; for all of our glorious technological progress during the last few decades, space has turned out to be too big – almost, but not quite, literally – a lump for mankind to swallow. Had he been alive today, Sir Arthur, I am absolutely sure, would have taken issue with such a view, declaring that we simply need more time. Or would he?

So much for the "heart" of the book. Now few words about the other ''organs''.

One of the hallmarks of every great writer is that he can make every subject, no matter how abstruse or alien to you, absorbing and inspiring. This is certainly the case with Arthur Clarke. Even when he writes of Indian politics ("Satellites and Saris") or mathematics ("The Joy of Maths"), or some rather untypical for him subjects such as somewhat unusual sensory systems ("More Than Five Senses"), or legendary sci-fi illustrators I have never heard of (say, Chesley Bonestell), Clarke is only very slightly less amusing and stimulating than when he is in his element.

Arthur has another precious quality that I firmly associate with great writers: he says a lot with very few words. Many of the pieces in the book are very short, yet hardly any is entirely without value. Perhaps the shortest one is the obituary to Asimov ("Good-bye, Isaac"), but the fact that it is merely half page long only makes it all the more poignant. My favourite in this category is the little over one page long "God and Einstein". Now this is a very thought-provoking piece, especially coming from a confirmed atheist. If we assume that God does exist and, moreover, is not hampered by the sluggish speed of light, he is everywhere, and this would mean that Einstein was very wrong indeed. But if we assume the far more probable idea that God does exist but is limited to the mere 300 000 km/s, then he may well be late when he is needed on Earth.

A word about the photographs. There are sixteen pages of them, all in black-and-white and ranging in quality from good to excellent. The range in time is impressive: from 1943, when the 26 years old Clarke was an RAF radar officer, to 1998, when he met Prince Charles on the latter's visit to Clarke's beloved island and in the company of the president of Sri Lanka (a swarthy and sultry lady indeed). There are quite a few charming photos. Some of my personal favourites include Arthur Clarke and Neil Armstrong shaking hands and laughing their heads off. Another hilarious shot shows Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, the latter with his trademark whiskers, both wearing horn-rimmed glasses and grinning like – well, like sci-fi masters; Clarke is actually measuring on Asimov a T-shirt with the charming slogan "Underwater Safari" (actually the name of his own scuba-diving company). This may be (not) a little fanciful of me, but I find the photographs rather illuminating. Arthur Clarke looks exactly as he writes: almost always benignly smiling or grinning, sometimes with mischievous twinkle but more often with profound seriousness in his eyes.

Last but certainly not least, abundant examples must be given what huge fun that book is. Clarke in general is almost constantly highly entertaining, even in the most cases when he is dead serious. Occasionally, however, he indulges, no doubt deliberately, in tongue-in-cheek tone or unabashed flippancy that can almost choke me with laughter. Now let me make this clear before any misunderstanding arises. Clarke is a very serious author. But he is also extremely clever. He knows perfectly well when, how and to what degree to introduce some fun into the narrative, or when to treat a whole subject facetiously. Of course he is also smart enough to realise that too much fun easily becomes tedious and even more unreadable than the painful dryness of an entirely humourless prose. That said, I find it difficult to imagine a better combination of flippancy and profoundness. I hope I have given enough examples about the latter above, therefore some quotes as regards the former follow below:

[One of my greatest favourites: a delicious, good-natured fun at the expense of Asimov's stupendous productivity and versatility. From the beginning of "Writing to Sell".]

I'll tell you exactly how it happened. It began with a phone call to Scott [Clarke's literary agent] from my dear friend Isaac Asimov. "Scott," he said desperately, "I'm only one hundred fifty books ahead of Arthur – he's catching up. If you can slow him down just a bit, I'll give you the Lower Slobovian Second Serial Rights of Asimov's Guide to Cricket – without TV residuals, of course."
"Throw in that illustrated braille
Kama Sutra I know you're working on," Scott replied instantly, "and you have a deal."
"Done," said Isaac, whereupon Scott merely threatened to give my address to 589 people who want to know the real and secret message in
2001: A Space Odyssey and here I am...

[Another stupendously hilarious excerpt from the very same piece is concerned with advice for young authors; I give only the first example, but you may imagine what the other three look like.]

Now, to give you inspiration, here are a few ideas about books that I feel somebody ought to write. They cover a pretty wide range – biography, history, crime, science fiction, medicine – with a couple of guaranteed best-sellers thrown in:

Jonathan Livingstone Sea-Slug

The inspirational saga of one of nature's humblest organisms, an adventurous Abominable Sea Slug (Mucus Horribilis). Jonathan, born – or rather, fissioned – in a sewer outlet off Flushing, feels a dim impulse for higher things and conceives the brave ambition of slithering upward to the glorious world above the waves. Unfortunately, despite the amazing camouflage that makes him almost indistinguishable from his surroundings, Jonathan is eaten by an even more revolting creature, the Squamous Scavenger Fish (Scatophagus Vomitous), before completing his odyssey.

[From "Coauthors and Other Nuisances", an excellent combination of uproariously funny irreverence and some not altogether flippant opening sentences.]

Writing is a lonely profession, and after a few decades even the most devout egotist may occasionally yearn for company. But collaboration in any work of art is a risky business, and the more people involved, the smaller the chances of success. Can you imagine Moby-Dick by Herman Melville and Nat Hawthorne? War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Freddie Dostoyevsky? (With additional dialogue by Van Turgenev?)

(To dispel any worries that all of Clarke's numerous literary references are of this nature, consider his casual remark that Huxley's ''unfortunate string of asceticism prevented him from appreciating'' that there is nothing wrong with a society which is uninhibited and hedonistic ''so long as it is not the only answer.'')

[From "The Reefcombers' Derby". On the dismal public transport in Colombo.]

As for the buses, they were unspeakable. Elephants are supposed to have a mysterious graveyard where they all go to die, and the same is true of London Transport's unwanted derelicts. That graveyard is Colombo.

[While we are on the subject of buses, a short excerpt from "The Sea of Sinbad".]

I vividly recalled a Ceylon Transport Board bus that once shed its entire transmission fifty meters ahead of my car. As one hundred kilograms of metal bounced closer and closer, I unselfishly prayed that the world of letters would not sustain a major loss. I happened to have Gore Vidal riding beside me.

[Finally, the opening paragraph of what is probably the funniest of all these 104 pieces: "Space Travel in Fact and Fiction".]

There are, it seems to me, two obvious ways of tackling the subject that the title of this paper is so careful not to specify too exactly. The first might be called ''Ph.D. or Bust'' method. It would involve the reading of some hundreds of books and thousands of short stories, and a prolonged incarceration under the dome of the British Museum Reading Room. At the end of a few years' labor the patient researcher, if still sane, might be able to produce a comprehensive analysis of the interplanetary story since Lucian of Samos – little knowing what he'd started – first tried his hand at this theme in A.D. 160.

[By the way, did you know that the roots of science fiction go back to A.D. 160? I didn't. Yet another fine example that there is a lot to learn from Clarke in terms of facts, too.]

My qualms about Greetings,... are so minor that they are hardly worth mentioning at all. Still, it is good to be prepared for some things, even though I do consider degrading the value of the book because of them to be one of the purest forms of idiocy there is.

The chief caveat one should be warned about are quite a few repetitions, sometimes even in the very same words. For my part, I would rather have a writer who often repeats his best lines (cf. Somerset Maugham), than a fellow who constantly tries to be original, often at the expense of lucidity and almost always at the expense of substance. Besides, pretty much all of Clarke's repetitions are well worth re-reading and pondering upon.

Another minor caveat is that a few articles are slightly more technical than they should have been. These include even the final and most simplified version of "Extraterrestrial Relays", the paper in which Clarke presciently expounded the concept of geostationary satellites and which he flatly, and not without some wry irony I think, calls "the most important thing I have ever written." Another fine example about certain obscurity is "Possible, That's All!" which is actually a friendly fencing with Isaac over the eternal conundrum about the speed of light: can it be exceeded, or can it not? It may be that my obtuseness as regards Einstein's revolutionary theory is the reason to find this piece unsatisfactory.

As I have said in the beginning: never mind.

If there is but one message to ''take home'' after reading Clarke, it is this one: think twice before using words like ''impossible'' or phrases like ''it can't be done''. He is often quoted that he wishes to be remembered as a writer who has entertained his readers and stretched their imagination at least a bit. Well, he does both in this book. I do not claim to have read every single piece, but I do claim to have read something between 80 and 90% of them. They are not all of equal merit, of course, but I cannot recall a single piece that is entirely valueless – and this includes the deliberately light and flippant ones. Indeed, most essays here are minor masterpieces. They are ''minor'' because they are short and ''masterpieces'' because they entertain immensely and stretch the imagination to an amazing degree.

The book is out of print but second-hand copies in excellent condition are embarrassingly cheap. So what are you waiting for? ( )
6 vote Waldstein | Aug 8, 2011 |
The most visionary and versatile thinker of his age gathers together in a single volume his most significant and prophetic non-fiction writings to present a personal view of the twentienth century. Each essay has a new introduction by Clarke.
Witness the awesome workings of Clarke's intellect as he predicts the role of geosynchronous satellites decades before they existed; anticipates the internet decades before it happened; reports from Kennedy Space Center; scripts the best sf movie ever made; discusses Star Wars, giant squid, and numerous other fascinating topics.
Clarke has been both a technological prophet and a cultural conscience for many decades of his century, celebrating the great scientific powers of man -- and simultaenously warning of the perils of a world where power and greed reign unchecked. Clarke can provide a unique coda for the last century of the second millennium.
  rajendran | Feb 10, 2008 |
A comprehensive anthology of the essays of Arthur C. Clarke, one of my "big three" of the science-fiction pantheon. Clarke, though, is more than just a sci-fi novelist. He began his career as a mathematician, an engineer and science writer, and is also a technological prophet, with great faith in the powers of science and technology to solve man's problems - even the problems they have created. Largely, I share this faith, and welcome Clarke as a voice of reason and intellect in today's wilderness of New Age and Fundamentalist thinking. It was Clarke who first sugested using geostationary satellites for worldwide communication, and he anticipated the Internet decades before its fruition. Among the writings here are tributes to the many other giants of the field he has known, his dealings with Stanley Kubrick while collaborating on "2001: A Space Odyssey" and his hopes for man's return to space in the near future. The final chapter is a - sort of - tongue-in-cheek prediction of the coming century, which is worth the price of admission alone. For all our sakes, I hope it comes true. ( )
1 vote burnit99 | Jan 4, 2007 |
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