Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur Clarke

Dammit. Arthur C. Clarke died. He was one of the handful of people I had on my Want To Meet Before They Die list, along with Frank Sinatra and Stanley Kubrick (yes, I suppose it could use some updating). Of course, to tell you the truth, I kept thinking he was dead anyway and was always surprised to learn that he was still alive, but I guess I won't be making that mistake any time soon.

Clarke was totally my favorite writer, and I have more books of his than of anyone else. And I've probably read those books more than I've read any other books. I've always found his short stories to be better than his novels, and while I prefer just about anything he wrote before 1970 over anything he wrote after it; most of his stuff is pretty decent (with the exception of 3001). In fact, it's a pretty sad state of affairs that 3001 is still in print, while many of his best works seem to be out of print. Of course, it always chafes me to read that 2001 was his main book, as I always found it to be one of his lesser works. Great movie, but the book was fairly mediocre.

My personal favorite: A Fall of Moondust. It's got a lousy title and is somewhat reminiscent of a disaster movie (though I think it predates them, being published in 1961), but it's really quite good. It looks like it's not in print anymore, but I got mine at a used bookstore, like where I find all the rest of my sci-fi books. If you're interested in science fiction and want a page-turner, I totally recommend this book. The science in this one is a bit dated, which is understandable seeing as how we hadn't been to the moon yet when it was written, but the story is great.

Anyway, it was a bit inconvenient for Clarke to have pulled this kind of stunt before I had a chance to meet him, but I suppose I only have myself to blame for taking too long to get to Sri Lanka. I guess I'll just have to be a little quicker the next time around.


Anonymous said...

You would have hated him. He was a combination of Objectivism and his own sort self-created, conservative extreme ideology. In my youth, I was a big fan of his novels, I think starting with Childhood's End.

It was rather disturbing for me to discover he was more or less a right-wing fascist, and I stopped reading him. His SF novels were, probably, intended as philosophical treatises written to establish himself as Rand-like figure. But he could never quite manage to clearly express his extremist rhetoric -- "Childhood's End" was a diatribe against what we now call the Nanny State, but no one really got it -- and he became better known as a writer of mildly cautionary, eminently enjoyable SF stories.

Clarke is a pretty misunderstood character. He was a humanist and well-regarded for his positions on human rights and promotion of democracy. But what most casual, informal biographers -- even some more formal followers of Clarke's life -- fail to note is that the needle on his gauge of human independence was far in the red, his concepts of human rights being essentially those rights humans were inherently endowed with by succeeding at completely unregulated, laissez faire capitalism and individualism unhindered by protective social service of government, even when such social welfare was in the best interest of the humans in questions. He also was contrarian on the point of what we consider a basic human right of freedom of religion, as he felt for most of his life religious faith of any kind was a corruption of individualism.

Like Rand, if more people had followed him to the letter, if he'd ever attained real political power in a nation of any global significance, he would have been quite dangerous.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Wow. I had no idea. Perhaps that's one reason why I didn't really like anything he wrote after 1970. I wonder if he wasn't so bad, but started solidifying in his ways that were less strong when he was at his younger, more creative period.

I think the same thing happened to Larry Niven, who was a great writer with some bad thought patterns which continued to worsen over time. I don't like to read anything Niven wrote after the 70's; and find some of his later works to be completely incomprehensible.

Anonymous said...

Larry Niven was always a conservative, in the old-fashioned sense of being a dyed-in-the-wool Republican from a Republican family. His grandfather, after all, was Edward Doheny, the oil mogul of Teapot Dome fame. Whether his work deteriorated after 1970, I have no idea, because I stopped reading him about the time Ringworld came out. His take on women was ... irritatingly Heinleinesque, without Heinlein's snappy repartee. He did write some good fantasy short stories, though.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Yeah, I'm sure Niven was a full conservative and there is NO DOUBT he was totally mister sexist. But all the same, his earlier novels were decentish after Ringworld. I'm thinking The Protector, A World Out of Time, and his co-written books of Mote in God's Eye and Lucifer's Hammer were definitely readable; though far from great. But yeah, his short stories were much better. My point was more that he was becoming more reactionary, and increasingly had anti-liberal bias as the basis for his books. His earlier stuff was straight science, while his later stuff became so weighed down by ideological motives that it crippled the story and was embarrassing. Certain characters were obvious liberal stereotypes which, even if they existed in reality, reflected poorly on his skills as a writer to have included them in his books.

And the funniest part is that I think he often got it wrong. Like in Lucifer's Hammer. There was a clear emphasis on rugged individualism and survivor types; while mocking a hippy commune. Yet the true survivors were the ones who cooperated with others while the selfish individuals were killed; not rewarded. Just like you'd expect to see in real life. There's a reason why large societies flourish and engulf smaller ones. If anything, the community that prevailed at the end of the book was one conservatives would find abhorrent. It was obvious they were communists, even if Niven didn't use that word. The book was also unnecessarily racist, which wasn't saved by the black astronaut who I've always imagined looked like Clarence Thomas (don't ask me why). Having the bad guys as a horde of black cannibal looters probably wouldn't go over so well these days; which is too bad, as I've always wanted to make that one as a TV movie. But the main point is that the book wanted to emphasize individualism; but rewarded communism.

And speaking of Heinlein, I noticed the same thing in one of the two books of his I read. I can't remember the title, but it was something about a world where teens were forced to go to a rugged planet to survive, but something went wrong and they got stuck there for years. Again, the emphasis was on rugged individualism; yet the winners were the people who cooperated with others and the individualists died. But I never really cared much for Heinlein and didn't even like finishing the two books I read. I HATE reading bad books, as I've got to finish them but hate myself for doing so.

But overall, I think the big problem with sci-fi are novels. They're fine if you've got a good idea to go with, but too often, they're all a writer works on if they're famous enough to avoid short stories. Yet the genre lends itself much better to short stories. I liked Ringworld (though I just started reading it for the first time in years and am finding myself disappointed), but Niven's short stuff is WAAAY better than the long stuff. I just don't think he really knew how to plot long stories; and generally just has his characters go from place to place as a substitute for any real storyline. That worked in Ringworld, but it gets a bit annoying after that. The Gripping Hand was particularly annoying as the whole book consisted of him forcing the characters to go from place to place for reasons which made no sense, and before you know it, it's just over. There wasn't any real point to the activity at all, and if they had behaved rationally, even the meager excitement wouldn't have existed. It was a book about nothing which should have been about even less. I think he wrote it because of a contractual obligation and it shows.

And Clarke's stuff went downhill when he tried to get too serious; rather than the fun, almost childish earlier stuff. Of course with Clarke, I guess the problem was that he was only writing until people really went to space, and then lacked a good subject to focus on. Rendezvous with Rama was readable, but I kept waiting for something to happen or for a big explanation of everything. I suspect Clarke was too, but just couldn't find anything in the material that didn't sound underwhelming or fake. The younger Clarke would definitely have given us something. Hell, in The Sands of Mars, he gave us certain things which I won't mention in case you haven't read it; but which made it far more enjoyable than his more serious stuff like Rama.

But I think that was the problem; he wasn't trying to inspire kids into space anymore. Niven, on the other hand, stopped caring about cutting edge astrophysics and just wanted to win political arguments. And Asimov, who went to pot after the fifties (IMHO), started imagining he was a sci-fi writer instead of a sociologist who used sci-fi as a cool backdrop. His non-fiction became better than his fiction (particularly his guide to the bible). But in all cases, I think they started taking themselves too seriously once they became famous and left behind the stuff that inspired their better works. The Foundation trilogy, which is one of my favorites, would never have been made if publishers had been clamoring for Asimov's work. Later on, they begged him to write more in the series, and I consider all of those to be blasphemy and will never read them again. It remains a trilogy to me.

People need adversity in life, and if things are too easy, people get lazy. I think that's the biggest reason for why good minds start creating crap later on in life. Either that or it's old age, but that kind of depresses me as it's far less avoidable. I think they just got lazy because they could always find someone to publish their crap.