___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

rendezvous with arthur

The first Arthur C. Clarke novel I read was The City and the Stars. I was possibly 9 or 10 at the time. I remember to this day the young protagonist Alvin gazing out across the desert from the high, abandoned towers of Diaspar, the simple grace of Clarke's concise, clear-as-glass prose, and the wonder of discovery upon discovery as the the plot progressed; especially the flight to the stars and the loss I felt as Clarke showed me a universe abandoned by alien races, with only poor humanity, shuttered from the stars, remaining. For the first time in my life I had encountered someone who knew and loved the mysteries of the night as much as I did. I was lost, heart and soul, in this book. I had discovered Arthur C. Clarke, and nothing was going to be the same again.

I wasn't new to science fiction. Stan Lee had pretty much taught me the rudiments of reading before I started going to school, thanks to his Fantastic Four comics, and one of my earliest memories is of Jon Pertwee turning into Tom Baker at the end of his run on Doctor Who. A year or two before I made first contact with Clarke I'd discovered Clifford D. Simak, E.C. Tubb, James Blish and James Hamilton-Paterson - among others - in the pages of Richard Davies's anthology of SF tales SPACE-1.

This was a 1973 collection of short stories now reissused in paperback and aimed at the youth market (the term YA had not been invented in the late 1970s) and it had made its way into the school bookclub catalogue. The book was in the section for "older young readers", and when I requested the book - a rare treat, as we didn't have much money; but I knew I wouldn't be refused a title from the school book club - my teacher Miss Etherington tried to steer me away from it. She said it was too advanced for someone my age. I was a shy boy, not at all confrontational, bookish and prone to losing myself in daydreams as I gazed out the window during class, but I dug my heels in and insisted that Space-1 was the title I was going to have. A week or two later the book duly arrived, and I received it in class, as all the other kids received theirs, waiting for my name to be called, and walked to the teacher's desk to pick the book up (it was wrapped in a receipt held around the cover with an elastic band), and I was perfectly delighted with it.

As it happened, Mrs Etherington was half right - although I loved gentle Clifford Simak's story, for instance, I was too young to appreciate the importance of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity in Hamilton-Paterson's tale "The Teddysaurs" (more about that in another blog post, I think), but all the same, I read every word and the book still holds a special place in my heart.

But it didn't do to me what the magnificent vision of Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars did. I sought more of Clarke's work out, and found a short story collection with an introduction by J.B. Priestley - Of Time and Stars. Then I found The Deep Range, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Fall of Moondust, and Expedition to Earth (his first short story collection, and to this day an object lesson in the art of writing short fiction), and Rendezvous With Rama . . . and each and every one of them was the best book I had ever read as I read them for the first, and then second and then third times, and I couldn't have picked a favourite but for the one that was in my hands . . .

Over the years, I continued to collect and read Clarke. The first non-fiction book I voluntarily chose to read outside of school, and which was not about dinosaurs and full of illustrations, was Clarke's The View from Serendip. As far as novels went, Childhood's End became my favourite for a while. There was a return to the world of 2001 - nine years on - with 2010: Odyssey 2 (for my money, one of the great haunted house stories of science fiction) as well as a chance to see the what-might-have-beens in The Lost Worlds of 2001. I got to see the films and caught the occasional TV adaptation (I remember a nice New Twilight Zone episode dramatising "The Star"), and there was of course Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, famously parodied by The Goodies, a sure sign of major cultural impact. Clarke was probably as close to a hero as I had and his very name was enough to send excitement and awe through me.

And then I read The Songs of Distant Earth.

A quiet, lyrical book that has become almost lost in the cannon - possibly due to its release between the bestselling series novels 2010 and 2061 and the Rama sequels - Songs was the book that most profoundly affected me as a youth. It solidified my feelings about who I was and my place in the universe, reflected the poetry of my heart and reinforced my views on religion, humanism, love, and loss. It's the Clarke book I return to most often. I read it once every two or three years.

After Songs, Clarke's ill health began to show in his fiction - though he continued to produce books till the year he passed away. 2061 was the weakest book in his Odyssey series. His collaborations with other authors sounded nothing like him and held little of the wonder his solo works contained. In my opinion, the best of them were Garden of Rama (with/by Gentry Lee), and the Time Odyssey trilogy (with/by Stephen Baxter). Less said of the others, the better. There were a few solo books of interest though, following Songs, each shorter than the one before. The Ghost from the Grand Banks, The Hammer of God, and 3001: The Final Odyssey, of which I'd say Hammer is the best and still well worth the reader's time. Even at his weakest, though, awe and wonder are never far from Clarke's pages.

He wrote plenty of books that I treasure to this day - and I've barely touched on his short stories, surely the finest science fiction has ever seen - and he is the only writer that I read as a child who I can still read today. I think he'd have liked that. I know I do.

Happy birthday, Arthur C. Clarke. You were and are our brightest star. We'd sing you happy birthday, but this might be more fun, "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World", by the Divine Comedy.

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