Sunday, 31 December 2017

Arthur C. Clarke’s Centenary

December 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of a British science fiction pioneer, Arthur C. Clarke. A prolific author and visionary who anticipated the moon landings and the use of telecommunications satellites, he is perhaps best known for his association with Stanley Kubrick’s seminal psychedelic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.



With an interest in mystery, science and space travel from childhood, Clarke became a keen fan of science fiction in his adolescence, when he avidly read the emerging American magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. His collection of these early sf publications totalled several hundred, before being dispersed during his travels in World War Two. In 1936, Clarke had moved from Somerset to London, where he worked in the Civil Service as an auditor at the Board of Education – he lived firstly at Newport Square, Paddington, and then from 1938 at 88 Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, where he shared a flat with his friend and fellow science fiction fan, Bill Temple. Already an active member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), of which he was eventually to become Chairman, Clarke wrote to Sam Youds that, given the flat’s spacious rooms and central location, “no doubt many SFA [Science Fiction Association] and BIS meetings will gravitate here eventually.” The address 88 Gray’s Inn Road shortly became the Society’s headquarters. It was also here that Clarke, now writing in earnest (though primarily non-fiction), met fellow enthusiasts, including several influential figures in the formative years of UK science fiction. Among the visitors were E.J. Carnell and Walter Gillings, John Wyndham (then known as John Benyon Harris) and Maurice Hanson, editor of the UK’s first fanzine, Novae Terrae; Carnell, Clarke and Hanson were co-editors from the November 1937 issue, and it was the former who re-named it as New Worlds on becoming sole editor in 1939.

Walter Gillings, Arthur C. Clarke & E. J. Carnell at Leeds, 1937

Clarke was a delegate at what has been described as the world’s first science fiction convention, in January 1937 at Leeds, West Yorkshire, together with Carnell, Gillings, Hanson and the author Eric Frank Russell. It was at that meeting that it was decided to designate Novae Terrae as the official publication of the SFA. Clarke’s first published short story, ‘Travel by Wire!’ appeared later that same year in a fan magazine, Amateur Science Stories, edited by another of the convention attendees, Douglas W.F. Mayer at Brunswick Terrace, Leeds 2. Clarke’s wartime work in the RAF on a classified radar project, the prototype Ground Control Approach system, introduced him to the potential of micro-waves and radar. He prided himself on basing his fiction on scientific fact and anticipating developments in technology, notably the exploration of the moon and the launch of geostational orbital satellites for telecommunications. After the War, Clarke consolidated his scientific credentials by taking a degree in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at King’s College, London.


His 1948 short story, ‘The Sentinel’, originally submitted (unsuccessfully) for a BBC competition, was later adapted by the American Director Stanley Kubrick as 2001: A Space Odyssey – Clarke worked extensively with him on the preparation and writing, having been installed in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel as early as 1964. Kubrick had abandoned the traditional screenplay; instead, as Michel Chion relates, he “decided to write a novel with Clarke that would serve as the basis for making the film.” As the production became ever more protracted, Clarke’s 2001 ‘novelisation’ was published separately, after the film’s release, to be followed by various sequels: 2010 (also filmed, in 1984), 2061 and 3001. He also gained wider recognition from well-received works such as Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars and Rendezvous with Rama.

Arthur C. Clarke with astronaut Neil Armstrong, 1970
Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1956, where he pursued a long-standing interest in deep-sea diving, but maintained his position as the UK’s best-known science fiction practitioner. The 1969 Moon landing, which Clarke had long predicted and regularly incorporated into his work, reinforced the scientific basis of his fiction, together with developments in telecommunications satellites. His status was confirmed by a knighthood in 1998 and, in his later career, lending his name to various TV shows investigating well-known mysteries and paranormal phenomena: Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994). He died in March 2008.


Photographs from the 1937 Leeds Convention were taken by Harold Gottliffe, and reproduced with thanks to his daughter, Jill Godfrey, and Rob Hansen, whose site is an invaluable resource on the history of UK science fiction fanzines.

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