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Good Letters

I think Reihan Salam is correct in dubbing the novels of the late Arthur C. Clarke “devotionals,” and his characters are indeed “wooden,” though that doesn’t take anything away from Clarke’s beguiling and seemingly unbounded imagination.

This past summer, on whim, I picked up Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and thought it an impressive feat that Clarke was able to seduce me with wonder in spite of his utter inability to craft a beautiful sentence or conjure depth of emotion in almost any of his characters. I remember being less entertained when I first saw the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey on television, as a child of five or six. I had known ahead of time that this would be a space movie, but I was expecting something like the Star Wars adventures that I had seen before, an action movie with lasers wielded by space heroes like those very same Star Wars action figures my aunt had bought for me the previous year. But 2001 felt boring, the sequence with the primates baffling, the pace slow, the classical music odd—boring in the way that church was boring.

But as with church, I had a faint awareness that something deeper was going on in the film, something my father did not want to explain to me (saying instead that it’s too complicated and for grown-ups), but something that I would eventually understand. I developed a sort of (somewhat pretentious) reverence for 2001 even before I ever saw it again, in the way a lapsed Catholic still respects the Mass that he seldom attends.

I concur with a truth intimated by Reihan, that for all his vituperation against religion (some of it reasonable, most of it not), Clarke is himself a religious writer. Religious in that he attempts to describe an overarching narrative for the destiny of humankind. This obituary from the Telegraph explains it most effectively: “The paradox of Clarke’s fiction is that the writer most associated in the public mind with accurate ‘hard sf’ [science fiction] predictions, based upon existing and potential technology and grounded in ‘real’ science, returns again and again to themes of an almost mystical or metaphysical sort, in which advanced cultures, often benevolent, allow humanity to transcend its Earth-bound beginnings.”

The film version of 2001 is, perhaps, Clarke’s most comprehensive religious vision. Clarke and Kubrick recapitulate the entire history of the human species and, in the end, the astronaut Bowman is transfigured into a new being, a “Space Child,” a second Adam. He doesn’t reach this state thanks to his own effort, or even humanity’s collective effort. He is raised and transfigured thanks to a gift from above—a gift bestowed upon humanity by an advanced race of alien-gods. These gods are different from the gods of ancient myth only in that they inhabit the same plane of existence as human beings. They are natural gods, but gods nonetheless. Similarly, in Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End, humanity’s greater destiny is achieved thanks to the intervention of a greater race of “Overlords.” Clarke is a religious writer and not a Pelagian one.

But Clarke has his limitations. Reihan hits them when he notes that “Clarke only rarely considered the justification for humanity’s deep yearning to learn and explore. What if it was, like religion, yet another ‘mind virus,’ one that makes us restless and miserable? Clarke never took this notion seriously, perhaps because he was proffering his own faith.”

I disagree: it’s not only Clarke’s faith; it’s my own, too. The “deep yearning” that Clarke noticed is the same yearning that is noted by the Psalmist. But since Clarke’s gods reside in the same plane of existence as humanity, since they are bounded by our same horizon, the possibilities for a greater destiny are limited.

It’s intriguing that in 2001, the astronaut Bowman experiences a journey that takes him, in a sense, back into the womb. The womb is the only certain shelter from the pain and uncertainty of being a human person. Such a return is impossible, although Clarke’s greatest faith was probably in the category of possibility. More hopeful, in my opinion, is Clarke’s faith in a different possibility—as the Telegraph obit puts it, “Clarke did not rule out the prospect of resurrection.”

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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