Friday, March 19, 2010

I Learned Science from Arthur C. Clarke

Two years ago today, the last surviving member of science fiction's "Big Three" died. It was Arthur C. Clarke, whose prose was never really what anyone else would call great, but it was sufficient. That's not the point. He was an ideas man.

ACC also had science—real science, when it didn't get in the way of awesomeness—and he had a huge influence on my imagination today, which is why I believe that science fiction stories and fiction in general are healthy things for children; a lot of Clarke's works would have been labeled "young adult" if released today. I was always interested in science, but I wasn't in love with the subject until ACC showed me how weird and bizarre it is.

So maybe I should really say I learned science appreciation from Clarke, instead of using the sensational title above, but having revisited a lot of his stories lately, I was struck by one epiphany after another: it was unreal how often I would stop reading and think, "Oh... so that's why I started thinking about that at such an early age." He didn't just have a big influence on my interest in science, but creatively and politically.

I never realized how much Clarke influenced the adult I would grow up to be until recently. 

Rendezvous with Rama

Consider Rendezvous with Rama, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, not to mention it's one of the books that got me reading in the first place. It's a haunting adventure story told without the prerequisite heroes and damsels in distress, yet it's every bit as entertaining as Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure. Clarke's seminal work begins: "Sooner or later, it was bound to happen."

The book's fictional element starts on September 11th, 2077, when a meteorite strikes Earth and kills six hundred thousand people. This is foreshadowed, a paragraph before, by Clarke's textbook narration of two narrow misses in real life: in June of 1908, "Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. On February 12, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the twentieth century detonated less than four hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, with an explosion rivaling that of the newly invented uranium bomb."

Clarke writes on about the killer meteorite of 2077:

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.

The catastrophe spurs humans to implement SPACEGUARD, a program which watches for catastrophic collisions. Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD (which is on the brink of being shut down) discovers what scientists will soon call Rama: a cylindrical spacecraft which has mysteriously entered our solar system and will soon leave. This gives humans a very small window by which to study the alien craft. At which point I was hooked and spent a long night reading the novel beneath my covers with a flashlight.

The year was 1993 and I was ten years old. I'd seen Rama Revealed on a bookshelf and was fascinated by the cover and its synopsis. When I realized it was a sequel, I begged one of my parents to order a copy of the original book for me. Here's a startling thought: what if they hadn't? Honestly, the very thing that makes me me is so deeply wrapped up in that story. If they hadn't indulged my request, the person writing this post wouldn't exist.

What Rendezvous did for me was introduce my feeble little mind to visual thinking, including in and about conceptual physics. The spacecraft Rama generates artificial "gravity" via centripetal force. Inside, separating the two halves of the cylindrical craft is an ocean in the form of a equatorial band, held in place by said spin. Perhaps I struggled with this imagery at first: a giant band of water that "sticks" to the inside of the cylinder's continuous wall. And when the characters ride a boat in the middle of this ocean, they can look up and see more of the ocean ahead and above them.

Sure, this type of spacecraft setup has been a staple of science fiction before and since, but it was probably my first brush with the concept. In an interesting subplot somewhere in the middle of the book, the explorers want to get a look at the device at the far end of the craft, which they assume is some sort of a space drive. You see spaceships in movies that don't have any visible means of propulsion, but in an ACC story, this is troublesome because it violates Netwon's third law of motion: "For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction."

The Sentinel/2001: A Space Odyssey

Some time after inhaling the entire Rama series, I found the book version of 2001, which was more or less written concurrently with the film at Kubrick's request. If nothing else, it expanded on the Dawn of Man stuff seen in the film, which was probably the first time I considered human evolution and our prehistoric ancestors. It also expands on how Hal 9000 tries to kill the main character, which in some ways is scarier than the movie. I mean, imagine being alone on a spaceship with a brilliant yet murderous computer and, suddenly... well, let's not spoil that here, but the sequence was probably deemed unfilmable by Kubrick's budget, which is why we got what we got—which was good, too.

The novel is allegedly based on ACC's short story The Sentinel, which is probably the first time I considered the fact that the haze of distance is unique to planetary objects with atmospheres:

On the Moon, of course, there is no loss of detail with distance—none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.

This may not be pertinent information to most people, but it was exactly the kind of information I needed as a budding science geek. (Though the short story is essentially the beginning of 2001, minus the Dawn of Man stuff, ACC himself has said 2001 really isn't based on The Sentinel despite common belief.)

The Early Stuff

Some of ACC's earlier stuff may seem a little lackluster compared to classics like 2001 and Rama, but the science is still pretty hard and the stories are charming, if not disappointingly simplistic in structure. Some of the things he dwells on is common knowledge for most SF fans (particularly the "There's no up or down in space" stuff), but I think it's interesting to note how early he was writing it... specifically the fact that he was writing it before humans ever went to space. A lot of what he wrote was not common knowledge when originally published.

And sometimes he demonstrated unexpected humor early on, as is the case with Islands in the Sky, a novel aimed at teenagers in which the narrator wins a trip to space:

There were also, I'd discovered, some interesting tricks and practical jokes that could be played in space. One of the best involved nothing more complicated than an ordinary match.

What happens is the other astronauts play a prank on the boy: they tell him the way you make sure you have a fresh supply of oxygen is the same way miners do it back on Earth: you light a match. (Never mind why astronauts have matches on board. That's not the point.) If the match goes out, "well, you go out too, as quickly as you can!"

One of the astronauts demonstrates by lighting a match which promptly extinguishes itself, much to the boy's dismay.

It's funny how the mind works, for up to that moment I'd been breathing comfortably, yet now I seemed to be suffocating.

The boy worriedly tells him to light another match. And it, too, goes out. Then, after the boy panics, he realizes they were only pulling his chain. ACC then has his characters explain that, in the absence of gravity, smoke has nowhere to go and suffocates the flame. I don't know why, but that scene always stuck with me. I guess I enjoyed daydreaming about all the pranks you could pull in microgravity.

Childhood's End

Childhood's End is probably the most loved of Clarke's earlier novels. (I confess I didn't care that much for it the first time I read it, and only begrudgingly enjoy aspects of it now that I'm adult.) At one point in the novel, the characters successfully use a device that's essentially a spirit board, which is disappointing to those who love ACC's usually hard science. (Yes, Clarke's work has always been described as "mystical," but more in an Indiana Jones way, minus the paranormal crap. Think: the ark of the covenant if it were a natural artifact instead of a paranormal relic.)

Having said that, beyond the explanations of time dilation at relativistic speeds (one of the first times I was introduced to that concept), the only thing about Childhood's End that really sticks out in my mind today is the introduction included in my edition (1990, Pan Books LTD.). There, Clarke admits that he was impressed by the evidence for the paranormal when he wrote Childhood's End.

When Childhood's End first appeared, many readers were baffled by a statement after the title page to the effect that "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space, and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. Now I had written a book which said, "The stars are not for Man," and I did not want anyone to think I had suddenly recanted.
Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the "paranormal" (it can't all be nonsense) and 100 percent of UFO "encounters."

At any rate, I just thought I'd use the anniversary of Clarke's death to geek out about the things that made me such a geek today.

The Non-Evolution of the Hacker Movie

According to Hollywood, all you need to be a hacker is a computer and a keyboard... and freakishly fast typing skills. You don't even need a mouse! Here are three trailers for hacker films, from three different decades.

The art of hacking hasn't changed much since Ferris Bueller started in the eighties, eh?