Friday, April 13, 2012

The Giant and the Jerk

I'm working on a book review right now of an excellent (and only) complete biography of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer/scientific speculation guru, best known, in popular spheres, for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for the enigmatic and groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Neil McAleer's biography is called Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. My review will soon appear in When Falls the Coliseum, so I won't say much here, outside of the fact that I am finding the book extremely interesting and insightful -- especially as a guy who teaches science fiction literature.

Clarke was an amazing force in shaping scientific thought (and action), not just through his fiction but through his non-fiction writing and personal appearances.

One section from the book really strummed a sour chord in me, because the incident in it is, as far as I'm concerned, the perfect example of the worst possible kind of normally functioning person in our modern world. It is people like the technician in the excerpt below who cloud the skies and keep the planes of the intelligence and the enthusiasm grounded. It is people like this who slow the essential work that humanity needs to do in order to save itself. (I know I sound dramatic, but -- damn it, I feel this way about shallow people. It is this kind of apathy and one-dimensionality that I try to fight against, every day, in the classroom.)

In 1969, Clarke was appearing as a commentator during the CBS news coverage of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon -- the famous first-landing on the moon. This event was a culmination of Clarke's lifelong dream for humanity and, indeed, one of the most important events in human history. During the moonwalk (from McAleer's book ):
Clarke noticed one of the studio technicians sitting in front of a TV monitor. The words "Live from the Moon" ran across the bottom of the TV as the two ghostly figures, Armstrong and Aldrin, went about their lunar explorations. What astonished Clarke was that the technician was ignoring the historic events taking place on the monitor before him. "He was reading the racing paper" -- Clarke chuckles -- " during this live coverage from the moon. I still have the photograph."
Kudos to Sir Arthur for having been more composed than I would have been. It was, in large part, the vision of Clarke that had lead up to this moment -- Clarke's vision that was getting ignored. Despite his legendary ego, Clarke showed amazing self-restraint in reflecting upon this.

At one point or another, we all need to ask ourselves (or some teacher needs to prompt us to ask ourselves): "Am I a millstone around the necks of my fellow humans, or am I a strong back manning a rope to lift the two-ton lintels into place?" Because of people like our technician, the geniuses have to perform herculean feats or strength. How much easier would it be for the visionaries? -- how much quickly would things progress, if everyone would just grab a rope? (Man, the metaphors are, like, stretching so far today that they're doing yoga...)

I know: this guy didn't stop the lunar landing from happening. He was just a guy who ran a machine in the studio. True. But why do you think we haven't been to the moon again? Why do you think the shuttle program is over? Why do you think the space program in America is dying a financial death? People like this guy.

There, in one room , at one moment in time, sat a giant in the cause of the realization of human potential and a guy who would rather read racing stats than watch men walk on the moon for the first time in history. Sadly, though it seems there were only two of them, the giant was out-numbered.



  1. I just heard the other day that there is an organization, I don't remember which, that is financially supporting authors who portray a positive message in their science fiction stories. They believe that science fiction has become to dark with doom and gloom, and this has caused a failure in creating progress in the future. Just thought you might like to hear about that. I'm sure it is google-able.


    1. Heck -- for financial support, I will write a positive sci-fi story! We'll call it "Flowerorld: The Quest for Hugs."

  2. The brother of a friend of mine went to graduate school in Toronto, where one of his best friends was a Czech with an odd sense of humor. The Czech affected to believe that the Rockefellers were in league with aliens circling the planet and waiting to come down and eat us all. Therefore he classified all science-fiction movies into pro-Rockefeller and anti-Rockefeller movies. "ET" would be the epitome of the first, "Alien" of the latter.

    Are we sure that the organization supporting the upbeat sci fi writers has no connection to the Rockefellers?

    As for the studio technician, I can only refer you to Auden's poem about the Brueghel painting. You can never expect everyone to be up to a particular event.

    1. George -- I think this Czech chap might have been onto something. Now I'm scared.

      I had forgotten Auden's poem. Yes [sigh] I suppose not.

      Good to hear from you again.