We lost a giant today.
There's no other way to describe the death of Arthur C. Clarke. It wasn't unexpected, I suppose, but that didn't make getting the news any easier. It didn't make the denial any easier.
I actually got the news in two installments. The first time was at the tail end of a news broadcast in which I didn't hear the name, but knew what it was about. The second time was on the radio. The main Zarathustra theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey started up and my first thought was, "Maybe it was actually Stanley Kubrick who died." It wasn't. Come to think of it, Kubrick might have beat Clarke to the hereafter.
The denial didn't last much longer than the thought itself. But even though I realized it made sense for a ninety year old man's body to finally fail, I still took the news poorly.
I don't actually read all that much fiction. In general, I believe that the real stories about things that have happened or are happening are far more interesting. It's an ironic attitude, I guess, since I've wanted to write fiction for a long time. There are, however, few fiction writers I genuinely appreciate. Arthur C. Clarke's name is at the very top of that list.
Arthur C. Clarke had a larger footprint on the development of the human race than almost any other writer, especially the writers of fiction. I firmly believe that in a hundred years he will be mentioned in the same breath as Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Dante simply because he had the foresight to look beyond the mundane to the possible and the willingness to put what he saw to paper. In some ways, I believe his foresight will eventually define the 21st Century as historians look back on it from the 22nd Century and beyond.
We already know that Clarke envisioned satellites before Sputnik. We also know that he foresaw the Y2K problem in the book Rendezvous with Rama. Over the next few decades I believe we will realize he envisioned a lot of other things that we are only now beginning to think about. For one thing, he believed that the internet would create something of a hive mind for the interconnected generation. I think that we saw the first dose of that at the beginning of this year with the Anonymous v. Scientology War on the Internets or whatever they called it. It probably won't last long enough to accomplish much, but the collective organization and sheer global scope of a protest planned by people who were best known for propagating lolcat macros, goatse, and that hilariously overblown news report that equated taking down a MySpace page with global terrorism and that iconic yellow van exploding every five seconds was downright impressive. I tracked down whatever news I could of the protests the day after the Lisa McPherson anniversary ones in February. As I read, I contemplated tracking down Arthur C. Clarke's contact information just so I could send him an email I assumed he would never read that said, "Hey, you called this one."
I kind of wish I had. It would have been cool to say I'd done it and now I won't get that chance again. It's sad, too, since I'm guessing there will be many times in my life I'll see something and think, "Hey, Arthur C. Clarke called this one."
I always used to think of Clarke as being sort of naively utopian. His books tended to end well and involved little or no warfare. It was only recently that I realized he wasn't really a utopian, but an optimist and a progressive in the most basic sense of the word.
Arthur C. Clarke lived in the future. He saw the possibilities of tomorrow more clearly than a lot of us see today and better than some people see yesterday. In tomorrow he saw a never ending string of puzzles and challenges, each on capable of destroying the human race. He believed, in the end, that humanity would rise to each of the challenges and figure out how to survive and even thrive.
In this he presented one of the clearest possible cases for continuing human evolution, not just biologically but sociologically. I don't think he ever believed we would overcome the petty jealousies and discriminations to which we are prone, but I think he believed that we as a race will constantly try to grow out of our superstitions and fears. Yes, there will be new ones around the corner, but we can't deal with them until we deal with the ones we have here and now.
I think Arthur C. Clarke was constantly amazed by the potential of the human race. I believe he saw us as awkward adolescents groping blindly towards adulthood. I think that's exactly where we are and, quite possibly, the most optimistic way of looking at us, the most hopeful.
On some level, though, the news of Clarke's death is a low note on what is an otherwise amazing day. I haven't been able to tear myself away from news about Barack Obama's speech on race. I am shocked, amazed, and heartened by what he said today. I keep seeing some sort of reprint of an internet idiot who called it a bunch of "gobbledygook" and I can't help but wonder if that guy actually understands the English language or he's just been brainwashed to believe that eloquently spoken ideals are useless somehow.
Honesty isn't "gobbledygook." Ideals are not somehow useless. We haven't seen a political candidate like Barack Obama since at least Bobby Kennedy and maybe Abraham Lincoln. We've certainly not seen anything like it in the seven years of George W. Bush.
Still, Obama's speech today was something I think Clarke would have appreciated. It was honest, acknowledged that prejudices exist and called everyone who heard to understand that we don't have to be defined by those things any more.
We don't have to be defined by the things we once were. That might not change today or tomorrow, but if we work at it, it will change.
In Arthur C. Clarke's world change is an inevitability. The only sensible response to changes is to rise to the occasion. In doing so, we all grow up just a little bit. I don't think anyone believed this more than Clarke.
So long, Arthur C. Clarke. You will be missed, but never forgotten.