News of the death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is evoking a huge number of responses across the Internet — this is one of the most heartfelt. One of the very first books I bought with my own money was a 50-cent paperback edition of Clarke’s 1963 novel Dolphin Island: A Story of the People of the Sea, which introduced me to a wide and varied menu of things: hovercraft, cetacean communication, the joys of night-diving at the Great Barrier Reef and even an Australian ghost story. Not long after, I was thoroughly creeped out by his short story “Walking Alone” and greatly amused by “The Nine Billion Names of God,” a gimmick story with a great gimmick.
First and foremost, of course, I will always remember him with fond admiration for helping Stanley Kubrick blow my young mind with 2001: A Space Odyssey, my first totally immersive moviegoing experience, made all the more powerful for the solid conceptual foundation Clarke provided with his story “The Sentinel.”
To me, Clarke embodied all the best qualities of old-school SF: its boundless technological optimism (even the age-old enmity between dolphins and orcas gets resolved in Dolphin Island); its generous spirit (unlike, say, Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke never gave you the feeling there were back alleys of his mind best avoided after dark); and its eagerness to imagine new avenues for human ingenuity. He wasn’t the most graceful stylist in the world, but he was a nonpareil idea man — most famously as the forecaster of telecommunications satellites, but also with such mind-bending concepts as elevators into space. And he had a lyrical side that came out at unexpected moments. I’m glad I made an acquaintance with Clarke’s stories — his exalted view of man’s prospects in the universe can still have a tonic effect.