It’s a sad day for lovers of science fiction, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. Clarke has always been one of my favorite authors, mostly on the strength of Rendezvous with Rama. Of course, I’m also a huge fan of his more famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. More than Asimov’s misbehaving robots, Clarke and Kubrick’s HAL with its baleful red eye fixed in the public imagination the dangers of creating machines that can think for themselves. Clarke is also credited with popularizing the idea of placing telecommunications satellites in geosynchronous orbit (often called “Clarke orbits”) in order to allow rapid global communication worldwide. Clarke was a man full of visions of the future. Some of them, like the satellites and a visit to the moon, have come to fruition already. Others, like the space elevator, functioning colony ships, or Pan-Am jets in space are somewhat further from reality.
Much modern science fiction is pessimistic, suffused with the idea that technology will always be misused, will always turn on its creators. Clarke certainly was not free of this idea: HAL is a cultural icon of advancement gone awry. Yet Clarke was always fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities that science opened for human beings. His worlds were ones in which imperfect people using imperfect technologies nonetheless managed to do great, amazing things. That’s a possibility we ought to keep in mind for ourselves, too.