Given that “human,” in a biological sense, is just one step in some grander evolutionary process, Arthur C. Clarke wondered whether we might one day ditch our corporeal forms entirely and “live” forever as non-physical entities. One day, maybe, but not soon enough for the idea’s originator – Clarke is dead at the age of ninety.
The British-born author and inventor led as accomplished a life as any might hope for. He was a British knight as well as the Pride of Sri Lanka. An asteroid and a species of dinosaur bear his name. Most will remember him, though, for his 1968 film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey – which is a shame, since both are incredibly dull, even by the literary and cinematic standards of their own day. But listening to the book on tape while driving to a nerd camp that would get me started on a three-year flirtation with being an astronaut, Clarke’s lifestyle was encouraging, stylistic deficiencies aside.
Here was a man who dreamed up crazy stories and yet whose dreams laid the groundwork for innovations that would make any scientist – let alone a nerdy young boy – jealous. Clarke knew his technology to be sure, but it was just as often his fantastical literature that contained his most important ideas. The space elevators he thought would be his true legacy were first laid out in a short story, the sort of thing he published regularly.
That was how being a geeky dreamer worked sixty years ago. Anyone with a good head on his shoulders could build a better mousetrap – the tools to do so were simply floating around in the air. But times have changed. I might have listened with a smile as my dad told me how, at sixteen, he was able to fix every car on his block. And yet when I looked under the hood of my mom’s Prius, I was met by something so perplexing that we’d obviously have to ship it off to the manufacturer if it ever broke down. Technology isn’t ours anymore.
Following Clarke’s wake into the stars proved too difficult for me – not for lack of creativity, I like to think, but for the esoteric knowledge that is now a prerequisite. Ironically, it was Clarke who remarked, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But the thing about magic is it’s hard to figure out. And so dreaming is much less likely to come of anything. In Clarke’s day, any kid who liked science could dismantle his household appliances and think of real ways to improve them. But when my brother’s baby monitor broke, I opened it up to find wiring that was, though superior to its predecessors, leagues beyond the expertise I had gleaned from a twenty dollar circuitry kit.
Clarke’s death brings to mind the technological dreamscape that, apparently, once was – where a college kid’s geeky fancy might be the next generation’s jetpack or flying car. But for those of us nowadays who want to dream of space, there’s a sad ultimatum: science or fiction – choose one.