Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

Arthur Charles Clarke discusses science fiction

BROADCAST: Jan. 27, 1959 | DURATION: 00:21:08


Arthur Charles Clarke discusses science fiction and his books "Childhood's End", "Prelude to Space", and "the Deep Range".


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Across the microphone is [the?] Mr. Arthur C. Clarke, the man described by a good number of critics, highly respected critics as 'the colossus of science fiction'. It'd be hard to enumerate the various facets of Mr. Clarke's Mr. Clarke's interests, so many. He's the past president of the British Interplanetary Society, lectures, skin diver, globetrotter, explorer. But perhaps even above that, observer of the of the human comedy that is - Mr. Clarke, I feel very guilty during this interview to be, because I know very little of science fiction of your work. And this is a sign of my particular benightedness because I know that you are a highly respected man in this field, sir. Now wh- what is the British Interplanetary Society, of which you a past president?

Arthur C. Clarke Well, the British Interplanetary Society, which was started in 1933, was an organization that tried to convince people there was something in this space nonsense. And of course no one took it seriously until about, well after the Second World War when the V-2s started arriving, and still more after the satellites and Sputniks. It was a scientific society and it still is. It's quite a large one now, about three or four thousand members. It is in fact the largest organization in the world devoted specifically to space problems.

Studs Terkel So this group, which was thought a scientifically avant garde-ish, has now become accepted as just a--

Arthur C. Clarke Indeed almost old fashioned.

Studs Terkel [laughter] old fashioned. You touch - I I understand from reading some of the reviews very rapidly here, and I know that I've got to atone for this very soon, for my own sake read your works. "Childhood's End" is considered one of your finest science fiction books.

Arthur C. Clarke Yes, it it is generally, and it has had an extraordinarily wide acceptance, often among people who say almost proudly, "Well I've never read any other science fiction [laughter], but I like to think 'Childhood's End' is quite a remarkable book." This happens a lot and in Sydney last year I sold it to Hollywood. I don't know what they're going to make of it. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Well the question arises: you, the writer of science fiction, you yourself are a physicist, are you not sir?

Arthur C. Clarke Well I took my degree at King's College London in physics and mathematics. I've never done any scientific of research, but I did become a scientific editor of a leading physics journal, and that I did for a couple of years until I found that my writing was earning more than my editing and so I gave up the editing.

Studs Terkel Now and the matter of - before we touch upon the number of books you've written, various ones like "The City and the Stars" and "Earth Light", as well as "Childhood's End" and some of the nonfiction works. And the - the book, the deep range. But what about the writer of science fiction today? Is it true that he can he can make more comment, more pungent comment about our society and the world than say a writer of conventional fiction?

Arthur C. Clarke That's very true and that's one of the attractions of science fiction. And in fact it has been for many years. If you go - indeed many centuries - if you look back in the history of literature, you'll see a lot of writers like Defoe, [Dean?], Swift, used media which we would now call science fiction. "Gulliver's Travels", for example, is an early form of science fiction. And they were able to poke fun at their societies and satirize conditions - political, religious, moral - in a way which was very effective, and also is much safer for the writer than if you took an obviously recognizable portrait of his home society. And this is happening right now, and it has happened all through the last decade. For instance, some of the most trenchant criticism of certain trends in American politics in the last few years - I'm thinking of a certain dead senator--

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Arthur C. Clarke Appeared in some of the science fiction stories, which extrapolated these trends and showed what they might lead to.

Studs Terkel And, in short, this is beyond censorship because a man cannot condemn your writings since you deal with a society that is not here.

Arthur C. Clarke Exactly. In fact I don't I don't think there's a single theme which hasn't appeared in science fiction. I mean the themes that couldn't possibly be touched in main stream that have been touched on and examined more or less dispassionately in science fiction.

Studs Terkel Well with all this talk today of of man and other planets, man in other spheres and still not having solved so many the problems of this sphere, the question comes up: don't do your books sometimes become dated? That is you speak of some- something that seems so fantastic, yet becomes real, suddenly real?

Arthur C. Clarke That's true. [Then?] science fiction has two aspects: first you might say there's technological aspect. There's a story which is mainly concerned with some invention or discovery and its effects on people. Well that's a kind of story can easily become dated. Let me give an example. One of my first novels, "Prelude to Space", was about the launching of the first spaceship to the moon, and I wrote that I think in 1947 and I put it about 30 years ahead of that time. Well now since I wrote that story and almost half the things I've described have taken place, and there have been different changes of emphasis. For example, I never imagined when I wrote the story that Russia was going to play the leading part in space exploration as she has and is going to do. And there are certain shifts of technical emphasis. Well these things change and do in a way date a story. But the other aspects which might you might say, the philosophical aspects of stories, discussing the future. They don't necessarily come out of date. For instance many of Welles's stories, indeed many of Vern's stories - there are lots of ideas in them which are still quite valid now.

Studs Terkel And here here then the the science fiction writer is something of a prophet, is he not?

Arthur C. Clarke He can be a prophet, though again I should stress that he doesn't set out to be a prophet. Like all writers he should set out to entertain and make people think. So to stretch their imaginations. And sometimes he does prophecy but that is accidental.

Studs Terkel You say he sets out to entertain, at the same time you would not describe science fiction as escape literature.

Arthur C. Clarke No, on the contrary, this is a common canard which I'd like to refute if one does refute a canard. People - the critics who often have [never?] read any of it, say so- "Well, science fiction is escapist." Well this is absolute nonsense. In fact at the moment I've got an editorial of John Campbell's in front of me. Campbell is the editor of Astounding Science Fiction which, despite its title is about the one of the most literate magazines fiction going. And he says how annoyed he's been with people who call science that can escape literature because he said it's not and it never has been. And in fact he says "science fiction is just about the only non-escape literature available to the general public today." Then he goes on to criticize the "soft almost formless nearly pointless stories found in the mass circulation magazines are a wonderful retreat from reality" and he goes on to say that science fiction is concerned, it's concerned with real things that are happening right now and their effects on society.

Studs Terkel Far, you mean far, far closer to us, to our lives, and to our feelings--

Arthur C. Clarke Quite.

Studs Terkel Than say, a "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" type.

Arthur C. Clarke Well that's [a kind?] of reality, but the kind of escapism is this, is the private eye, the historical novel. You name it they're all over the place. That is fantasy--

Studs Terkel The "Forever Amber" type.

Arthur C. Clarke That is pure fantasy ins- yes.

Studs Terkel Fantasy, though, you mean allegedly dealing with humans dealing with cardboards, where--

Arthur C. Clarke Right.

Studs Terkel You seemingly dealing with unrealistic--

Arthur C. Clarke Quite.

Studs Terkel Come much closer to us.

Arthur C. Clarke And for this reason, as a matter of fact, there's been a re- quite a slump in science fiction because a lot of people went into it thinking that it was escape, and they suddenly found to their horror that isn't. In fact, to quote from Campbell's editorial again, "There's probably nothing as so deeply disturbing as to have a nice safe, fantasy wake up, stretch immense muscles, yawn and start looking around, all on its own and not controlled by your imagination anymore." And he's referring to what's happened to atomic power and space travel, which a lot of people thought were pleasant fantasies they could play with, and they suddenly realize these are the most real things in our world.

Studs Terkel The case of a man's imagination suddenly leading to a pavement reality.

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel What about the requisites for science fiction writers? You yourself are a scientist. You mentioned something earlier, we - I brought up the name of Ray Bradbury, a noted writer of what I thought--

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel Was science fiction. You call it fantasy.

Arthur C. Clarke Well now Ray is a very fine writer, but he does not write science fiction. He writes a type of fantasy which is being strongly influenced by science fiction themes. He's difficult to define - [I pray?] you might say that all good writers are probably difficult to define - but he is not on the mainstream of science fiction. He's been affected, often negatively, affected. In other words he dislikes many of these science fiction ideas and his stories are are against, are anti-scientific in some ways.

Studs Terkel I see. You mentioned something, a negative viewpoint. There there is something here in the review of your book, "Childhood's End", by William DuBois DuBois of "The New York Times". He writes of you, Arthur Clarke: "He is equally at home in the outer galaxies and the troubled psyche of modern man. And if he seems to agree with Norman Cousins that modern man is rather obsolete, his pity for that same homo sapiens never wavers. When he rings his curtain down, man as we know him today is as dead as all man's pathetic schemes for self-destruction. But no one can escape the conviction that the phoenix just risen from the ashes is destined for high things." Does this mean, sir, that you're an optimist?

Arthur C. Clarke Yes, fundamentally I am and I've expressed this in most of my books, about man going out and colonizing, conquering, and colonizing space, at least the nearer planets of the sun and setting up new societies, new civilizations they are which may far exceed anything on this planet. And I I have stressed the point that what we are seeing now is possibly a new renaissance. This is the main theme incidentally of my next book, "The Challenge of the Spaceship", deliberately Toynbeean title, which is a collection of my essays and articles from "Holiday" and "Harper's" and elsewhere, discussing the impact - largely the political and social and philosophical and religious impact - of space travel on human society. I think it's going to be, on on the whole, overwhelmingly to the good.

Studs Terkel You feel that through man's inventiveness, man's advances scientifically, that man in a human sense, too, can sociologically or socially--

Arthur C. Clarke Yes. Because it's going to give us a much more accurate perspective. When we can see this earth of ours as it really is, a rather small pebble floating among the stars, then many of our present tribal squabbles will become as, appear as ridiculous as they are.

Studs Terkel Tribal squabbles.

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Arthur C. Clarke That's all they are now.

Studs Terkel In contrast to the to to what awaits us--

Arthur C. Clarke Contrast to the cosmos.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of something I - you speak of a cosmos, and I think of big things - this is wandering for a moment - something you mentioned earlier about members of the nonhuman world. You speak of man's - our our treatment of the whale today, the the big fish.

Arthur C. Clarke Yeah.

Studs Terkel Now you spoke of the whale becoming - you speak you speak of the whale farm being something of a future.

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Arthur C. Clarke Well I'm rather - this may seem a bit of a digression, but it's really all part of the same pattern. I've got very interested in the sea and so I've spent most of my time underwater. I've done two expeditions now, one to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and another one to Ceylon, where in fact I now live in Colombo. And there you're going to an alien world and meeting strange creatures as we are out in space, which is probably the reason why I'm interested in it. And I got interested in whales, partly because of this, and part because I suppose "Moby Dick" had a greater impact on me than any other novel I ever read. And I did a book called "The Deep Range", which is about whale ranching, whale farming, which is a definite possibility in the near future, and I was amused to see a long article in "The Wall Street Journal" touching on it only yesterday. I mean these things, these ideas are getting around. We are, still, as far as the sea is concerned, in the state that primitive man was when he was a hunter, before he'd invented agriculture. We go out and hunt these creatures, not only whales but fish. We haven't yet started to farm the sea. And this is a matter of desperate necessity as our population increases. And these things will be done. I believe in the near future forms of agriculture on the sea, growing crops and conserving, breeding, and treating the animals, fish and whales, of the sea as we treat animals on land.

Studs Terkel I mean there are food values--

Arthur C. Clarke There are food values, but apart--

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] and

Arthur C. Clarke the seaweed-- Yes, but I'm also not concerned with the food values as far as whales are concerned these are fascinating beasts. Probably the most, the second or third most intelligent animals on on the earth. They're somewhere between the chimpanzee and the dog in their intelligence. They're cattle, of course, and can be certainly controlled like cattle. They have a language of their own. We've recorded it, and I say that can communicate by sounds, and we can definitely herd them if we wish to, and well I'm interested in the conservant- and the conservancy angle too. And I'd like to see these creatures preserved, not just hunted to extinction.

Studs Terkel At the moment the whale, you feel, is going the way of the buffalo.

Arthur C. Clarke Well there is a danger of that and there are attempts now to cut down the r- the slaughter by international agreement. But--

Studs Terkel There's something else you're touching upon here that intrigues me, your attitude toward the whale that's beyond an attitude of man toward beast here. I think this may be connected with with your reference, your passing reference to "Moby Dick" being the book that most inf- is there a moral aspect to it here somewhere that intrigued you? With Melville.

Arthur C. Clarke Oh yes, very much. In fact rather I think I let it get out of control in "The Deep Range", possibly because of the influence of Buddhism on my thinking. I live in a Buddhist community. All my friends and neighbors are Buddhists in Ceylon. And in fact in "The Deep Range" I did - I ended up the book with the whole whale slaughtering campaign being stopped by the Buddhist hierarchy and now [unintelligible] you can only conserve the whale, you're not allowed to kill them any more. This is probably a little bit impractical. But that's the way I feel about it. I I I'm let's see. I'm probably a moral vegetarian even though I, in fact, I hate vegetables and only eat meat when I can get it [laughter].

Studs Terkel But spiritually you're a vegetarian.

Arthur C. Clarke I'm a spiritual vegetarian.

Studs Terkel As much as Shaw was physically--

Arthur C. Clarke Yes, quite. Well I love a nice steak [laughter]. Whether it's a whale's steak or a cow's steak.

Studs Terkel Mr. Clarke your interest is so varied and so many, I know there are so many facets of yo- of your of your way of thinking we'd like to delve into, perhaps an all inclusive question. This is not to wind up this conversation, I'm just reaching out because I know so little of your writings. I'd like to know more. Your credo, as a scientist, as a novelist, as a writer of science fiction, as an adventurer a sociologist, too. What, what about - oh, before we touch that - Oh, your credo and then perhaps we'll touch upon space travel.

Arthur C. Clarke Well I suppose space travel is really part of my credo. I adopt the scientific humanist outlook. I don't - I'm a complete agnostic. I don't have any religious faith and I believe that it's a few thousand years premature to arrive at any religious face. We are rather like islanders somewhere in the middle of an enormous ocean on a little island,and we've never been off this island, we don't know anything about the great wide world. What's that - what other races, what other species are there. And it's obviously futile for us to try and speculate about the purpose of the universe and - when we don't even know a thing about it. So I think all our religious speculations so far are just ch- literally childish. But I have an article in "Horizon" magazine, this new "American Heritage's" companion "Horizon", on the impact of spaceflight on religion and philosophy, and in the long run it's going to be pretty overwhelming.

Studs Terkel You say that you think we're a couple of thousand years premature in the matter of--

Arthur C. Clarke This may be been an underestimation.

Studs Terkel Arriving at a faith - an underestimation. Your point is, I'm just trying to I'm I'm trying to understand your point. In order for us to have a faith about ourselves and about the univ- we've got to know more about the universe itself?

Arthur C. Clarke Yes. Well, let me put this perhaps in more concrete terms. You see, the only real, the only certain knowledge we have of the universe around us has in fact been arrived by scientific methods. I'm using the word science in the widest possible sense. Science after all means knowledge. It doesn't necessarily mean technology and test tubes and [unintelligible], but it does mean knowledge. And in the past we've seen what the overwhelming effect scientific discoveries have had on philosophical and religious ideas. Let me just mention the Copernican Revolution, which simply shattered the theological framework for the Middle Ages. The Darwinian Revolution, which had an equally great impact, in fact a greater one because it affected men personally a hundred years ago, in fact more recently than that in Tennessee.

Studs Terkel That's true.

Arthur C. Clarke And now in about - and in this century, the the Freudian Revolution, there's others to come, and space travel is going to be one of them. Particularly when, as I think will happen eventually, though perhaps not for a long time, we come up against really superior races.

Studs Terkel You you you feel that - you say superior races - you mean you have no idea of course what form these beings will take.

Arthur C. Clarke But I mean when you look out of the universe, there are a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy alone, and if only say one in ten has got planets, that may mean that to every single person on this earth, there's somewhere an inhabited world. That's about the number of inhabited worlds in this universe: one to every man, woman, and child on this earth. Well it seems very unlikely that on many of those won't be races that would regard us as somewhere back in the Stone Age.

Studs Terkel I'm curious to this comment - superior race as you said. You mean--

Arthur C. Clarke Well I mean morally, intellectually, philosophically--

Studs Terkel No wars [unintelligible]--

Arthur C. Clarke Scientifically, technologically. Well a superior race cannot have war, because war is a self-liquidating activity.

Studs Terkel Well you're a man, sir, who who sees more than, let us say, a co- a conventional pavement-pounder might see here. You feel, then, there will be a revolution as far as religious beliefs are concerned, [unintelligible].

Arthur C. Clarke Yes, I think I think in fact eventually that what we call religious beliefs will cease to be held by intelligent men.

Studs Terkel But they will have a faith of a sort, you feel.

Arthur C. Clarke Well yes, I mean obviously you have to have a certain faith. I mean, you have to have faith that life is worth living. I mean, that's a fa- in a basic sort of way of faith, and some people haven't got that nowadays [laughter].

Studs Terkel Well I think I think that you, Mr. Clarke express a great deal of faith perhaps in what is most important of all, in the human being and in this destiny. And it's certainly been a delight for me to have you as a guest on this program and for listeners WFMT. And I think we should - I think for all of us we should brush up on some of your works, "Childhood's End" is one of your books, "Earth Light" is another of your novels, and "The Outer Side of the--

Arthur C. Clarke No, "The Other Side of the--

Studs Terkel "The Other Side of the Sky". Is this fiction, too?

Arthur C. Clarke Yes, that was my last collection of short stories. Harcourt Brace are doing all my fiction now, and sometime later this year they're putting out a big anthology of about 600 pages with "Childhood's End", and "Earth Life", and about 20 short stories. Clifton Fadiman is going to do an introduction to this.

Studs Terkel Are you--

Arthur C. Clarke I hope it'll have quite an effect.

Studs Terkel Perhaps the the last paragraph of the review, of "The New York Times" review of "Childhood's End" might paint an interesting picture of you here. "This review can only help the stimulation Mr Clarke's novel offers. Above all it must be emphasized this is not a gloomy book despite its holocausts. It is true the invader's an outer space managed to steal the big scenes. But homo sapien fights back to the end with resourcefulness and wit. What's more, he rarely allows himself to be upstaged even when he's faced with his own extinction." And perhaps on this note Mr. Clarke, one last word from you. Are we faced with our own extinction?

Arthur C. Clarke Obviously we are faced with it, but I don't think it is inevitable. I hope that we will make the wise choice, because everybody has agreed that the choice has to be made and that extinction is a possibility of our generation, the first generation of mankind that's ever had this possibility in front of it. And I'm optimistic about the outcome.

Studs Terkel Either to be - either to destroy himself or to be perhaps even more noble than ever, is that it?

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel So the choice is ours.

Arthur C. Clarke The choice is ours. And it's really a privilege to be born in this age, the most critical in the whole history of mankind.

Studs Terkel A bit discomfiting but exciting.

Arthur C. Clarke Discomfiting but exciting. I remember the old Chinese proverb: "May you live in interesting times." Well, it is rather a Chinese curse. May you live in interesting times. Well that curse has been visited on us, but I don't think it really is a curse. It's a privilege.

Studs Terkel And it could be a blessing, too.

Arthur C. Clarke Could be.

Studs Terkel Mr. Clarke, thank you very much for being our enlightening guest. Very enlightening indeed. Thanks a lot.

Arthur C. Clarke Thank you. [Glad to have been?/glad to be?] here.