Early on Wednesday morning (March 19, 2008), I was writing an article tentatively entitled “What is a Futurist?” when I heard on the radio of the death of Arthur C. Clarke. My first thought after hearing the news was that the world had lost one of the great modern futurists.
Clarke is perhaps best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the 1948 short story “The Sentinel” upon which the novel and film of 2001 were based. But Clarke also was known as a “prophet of the space age” because of how accurately many of his essays and science fiction short stories anticipated humankind’s first steps into outer space.
I grew up reading Arthur Clarke’s science fiction and even at a young age appreciated his skill for weaving entertaining, highly plausible stories. When the Apollo missions landed on the moon and everyone watched the grainy black and white footage being broadcast to the world, I filled in the fuzzy gaps with the pictures in my mind from all the Arthur Clarke moon stories I had read. As an adult, I came to appreciate Clarke’s talent for building his fiction on solid science.
Why do I consider Arthur C. Clarke a great futurist? He possessed the rare ability to take the science and technology of the current day and extend it to possible future developments. In an article in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World (three years before the launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite), Clarke described the vast potential for placing telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Clarke wrote a number of nonfiction books on rocketry and spaceflight — such as The Exploration of Space (1951) and The Promise of Space (1968) — that accurately anticipated much of the subsequent years of space exploration. Some of his predictions have yet to occur, but are considered possible, including the space elevator, moving asteroids and cryogenics.
Others also saw Clarke as a giant in the field of futurists. In a poll of futurists for the Encyclopedia of the Future (Macmillan, 1996), Sir Arthur C. Clarke was ranked sixth of the 100 most influential futurists in history — ahead of Jules Verne and Isaac Newton.
Ironically, shortly after Clarke passed away, NASA’s Swift satellite recorded four separate gamma ray bursts from deep space. One of the bursts is the largest ever recorded, and four bursts in one day is also a record. “Coincidentally, the passing of Arthur C. Clarke seems to have set the universe ablaze with gamma ray bursts,” said Swift science team member Judith Racusin of Penn State University in University Park, Pa. Perhaps 2001’s star child (aka: Dave Bowman) was saying his farewell to Sir Arthur.
On a personal note, I have the honor of being associated with three organizations that claimed Arthur Clarke as an important member: The British Interplanetary Society (Clarke served as the Society’s Chairman from 1947 to 1950, and again in 1953.), The World Future Society (Clarke was an early supporter of the World Future Society, participating in its first conference and ultimately joining its Global Advisory Council.) and The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (Clarke was a Founding Member of SFWA, was named SFWA Grandmaster in 1968, and over the years won several of the organization’s Nebula Awards for his science fiction.)