Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Arthur C. Clarke.
We’ve been living in the future for decades now. Technology has given us superpowers like realistic robots and face swapping, and even smart phones and Google Maps. While some early-era predictions didn’t catch on, like ray guns and jet packs, some seeminly outlandish hypothesized inventions did come to fruition—like Arthur C. Clarke’s.
Sixty years ago, when the space race had only just begun, the English-born Clarke introduced the concept of communication via satellite. In other words, he helped foresee the internet.
“Extra-Terrestrial Relays—Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?”Aside from being a writer, Clarke was also a scientist. During World War II, he served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and when the conflict was over he published an article that would anticipate the geosynchronous satellite. In his article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays—Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?”, published by Wireless World magazine in October 1945, Clarke conjectured the possibility of a satellite network able to provide world-wide radio coverage. In order to be geosynchronous, the British writer said, a satellite should be in an orbit of 36,000 km above the equator. The geostationary orbit ended up being known as the Clarke orbit, a tribute to the writer who recorded the above statement in 1964. This claim reasserted his concept of a telecommunication development tool, in addition to other ideas related to the reign of informatics.
The concepts introduced by Clarke came true, and not only on the science field. As a writer he was one of the most prolific science fiction authors, forming—along with Isaac Asimov and Childhood's End, published in 1953, was the first work to talk about a peaceful contact between humans and an extraterrestrial civilization, an argument that would later be reinterpreted by Steven Spielberg's blockbuster filmography in feature films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), whose classic bike flying scene was considered the most magic scene in cinema by Empire magazine readers in 2003. You can watch it (again) below.
The book’s influence also reverberated in music. “Childhood’s End” is also a song by Pink Floyd off their 1972 album Obscured by Clouds. The lyrics were David Gilmour’s last fully original work created for the band and retell the final days of Jan Rodricks (the last man on Earth) and the price paid by humanity, as reported in the last pages of Clarke's book.
For 21st century culture, the greatest legacy Clarke left behind was the short story The Sentinel, which was written in 1951 and inspired the 1968 cinematographic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke himself co-authored the feature film's script along with Stanley Kubrick. The film innovated the sci-fi genre’s approach, leaving typical monster and sex themes behind for the sake of realism. It is no coincidence that it is still lauded nowadays for the scientific rigor and by the thoughtful use of special effects that were revolutionary for the time.
Guided by Clarke, Kubrick hired consultants who had worked for NASA to work on special effects and did due diligence with details that did not go unnoticed by viewers who were more affectionate to science than fiction. Space scenes out of the ship, for example, are completely silent, since sound does not propagate in the vacuum.
The Star Gate was created with slit-scan photography adapted by director Douglas Trumbull, who is also behind Blade Runner, among other productions. The technique, which is currently digital, enabled two shots in illusive infinite display. Additional effects created with several color filters for aerial shootings, combined with chemical products, resulted in a show of lights that made the end of the movie—that you can watch below—even more mythical and capable of enlightening the audience about human beings and the universe.
When understanding the creative odyssey of Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away at age 90 in 2008, it's hard not to be inspired by Clarke's laws: 1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong 2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible and 3) any sufficiently advanced technology in undistinguished from magic.