Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008) is considered one of the preeminent futurists, science popularizers, and space visionaries, as well as being one of the most recognizable names in science fiction today. He was able to predict many aspects of space travel accurately, and may have even actually influenced those aspects. His writings deal with time, particularly his best-known novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey (which spans human evolution from apelike protohumans, through our own species, to a conjectured future “star child”).
Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Somerset, England. He grew up quickly, working on the family farm and helping the family, especially after his father died when Arthur was 13 years old. At this early age, Clarke was already showing interest in both science fiction and astronomy, which included the construction of his own rockets and telescopes. He also joined the British Interplanetary Society in 1934, and was later its chairperson.
After a brief career as an auditor, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force and eventually became a radar specialist. During the final days of his war duties, he published an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays” in the October 1945 edition of Wireless World. This article showed the importance of, and laid the groundwork for, geostationary satellite communications. His idea to synchronize satellites (so they appeared to be stationary from the earth) made possible all forms of global communication throughout the world, including television, radio, and (now) cellular phone technology.
Due to the cost involved, Clarke was not able to attend college until after his stint in the RAF. He earned degrees in mathematics and physics from King’s College after World War II and worked briefly as an assistant editor for Physics Abstracts before turning to writing full-time. Many of his early, nonfiction published works were on space travel, such as Interplanetary Flight (1950), The Exploration of Space (1951), and The Exploration of the Moon (1954). However, Clarke also continued to write fiction. During his college years, he wrote The Sentinel, a story that some readers have identified as the core of the idea for his most famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was also contributing to the major science fiction magazines of the time, including Fantasy, Astounding Stories, and New Worlds.
During the 1960s, Clarke began his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. The screenplay for the movie was actually being written while the novel was being written, so there are differences between the two. The success of this masterpiece of science fiction led to several other works, most notably 2010: Odyssey Two, which was adapted for the film 2010: The Year We Made Contact. Again, Clarke showed his prowess for predicting space travel and future events.
Clarke became increasingly well known for his knowledge of space through his television appearances with reporter Walter Cronkite for the coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, as well as some of the other Apollo missions. His expert analysis regarding the future of space travel during these events was astonishing in its accuracy. Clarke moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956 and maintained dual citizenship in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. Toward the end of his life he became almost completely wheelchair-bound due to post-polio syndrome.
Clarke’s published works include numerous science-fiction short stories and novels, as well as nonfiction books (including works about the ocean: scuba diving was another passion). His fiction mirrors his nonfiction in that he wrote from a strong background in the sciences; in addition, it demonstrates his uncanny ability to predict the course of scientific advancement and space travel.
See also Bradbury, Ray; Novels, Time in; Space Travel; Verne, Jules; Wells, H. G.
Bizony, P. (1994). 2001: Filming the future. London: Aurum Press.
McAleer, N. (1993). Arthur C. Clarke: The authorized biography. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
Scorsese, M. (2000). The making of 2001: A space odyssey. New York: Modern Library.