I was an early reader; able to get through children’s books by the time I was three. I had my own card for the Schaumburg Public Library before I went to kindergarten. We’d go almost every week. I would go downstairs and find some small books that interested me while my parents perused the adult books on the main floor.
One evening, I hadn’t found anything I was particularly interested in and came back upstairs empty handed. My mom asked me if I wanted to look around in the adult books for a change.
The big books? Wow!
I wandered into the science non-fiction and a large format book caught my eye. The front piece was a picture of the planet Saturn as seen from one of its moons. The book was named Beyond Jupiter and it was the first “grown up” book I ever read. Written by Arthur C. Clarke and full of paintings by Chesley Bonestell, it described a possible voyage by a spacecraft in the late 1970’s that could travel to all of the outer planets as they would all be on the same side of the sun.
By the time this spacecraft of the imagination had been transformed into Voyagers 1 and 2, I had read other books by Arthur C. Clarke. Dolphin Island was an early favorite; a boy is shipwrecked and friendly dolphins take him to a science station where marine biologists are beginning to truly speak to dolphins using computers. It was the first time I had ever heard of binary – a number system that uses only two digits. We have ten fingers: we count in tens. Dolphins use binary because they only have two flippers.
As the Voyagers passed Jupiter and Saturn, their photographs eventually matching and even surpassing the Bonestell paintings in terms of originality, I continued reading through the books of Clarke. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey and saved up my allowance to buy 2010: Odyssey Two (in hardcover no less!).
As Voyager 2 prepared to beam back pictures of Uranus, I discovered the short story collections of Arthur C. Clarke. I had a video camera and my friends and I made our own version of “Security Check”; a short story about a science fiction television producer whose special effects are a little too good. I was writing by then and several of my short stories were directly inspired by him. I even got in the habit of writing down where I had written the story at the very end… similar to his stories in The Wind from the Sun and The Nine Billion Names of God.
Voyager 2 passed Neptune when I was sophomore in college. While I wasn’t quite yet an English major, I was reading and writing an awful lot: everything from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Maya Angelou. For some reason science fiction was not looked upon favorably in the hallowed halls of the English department. No matter. I could put away yet another Thomas Hardy novel and curl up with a good book by Arthur C. Clarke as the pictures of an alien world were beamed back two billion miles to air on NASA Select television.
While Clarke had a reputation of “hard” science fiction, describing realistic voyages to the moon and planets, in his novels there were always pauses to replenish a reader’s spiritual sense of wonder. It was as if the author was the driver of a tour bus, and he would find a nice place to stop along the way; let the reader get out and stretch before continuing on. I have to admit I was a little impatient when I was younger, but as Voyager wrapped up its primary mission, I could appreciate the moments of beauty and awe in his writing. In 2010, Clarke takes a chapter to describe a gentle plunge through the atmosphere of Jupiter, to ultimately land on the surface of a diamond the size of the Earth. In The Light of Other Days, scientists are able to trace someone’s lineage back through time… through ancestors, then through earlier species: hominids, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, sea creatures and protozoa and then… well, if you haven’t read the book, I won’t ruin it for you.
Voyager is still going, searching for the edge of interstellar space. While the data these days aren’t as flashy, the old pictures are all available on the Internet. And Arthur C. Clarke, hobbled by post-polio syndrome and old age had slowed his writing down considerably, but almost all of his old books are still in my collection down in the basement. All except one. My wife bought me a copy of Beyond Jupiter a couple of years ago for my birthday. That sits out like a coffee table book in our family room.
Arthur C. Clarke passed away this week at his home in Sri Lanka. He was 90 years old. This weekend, we’re expecting six to nine inches of snow in Belvidere. I think I’ll spend some time curled up with a good book, revisiting an old friend.