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Arthur C. Clarke at 100

The Exploration of Space

Arthur C. Clarke
Harper & Brothers Publishers
1951
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Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke
Ballantine Books,
1953
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Arthur C. Clarke is best remembered as Stanley Kubrick’s partner in the creation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cinematic landmark in visual and technocultural storytelling. However, his most enduring legacy lives in his six-decade career as a science fiction and popular science writer. The centenary of his birth on 16 December is a good time to reflect on this great writer and his impact on modern culture.

Clarke was born in 1917 to a modest farming family in Minehead, Somerset, England. His boyhood interest in astronomy and paleontology became the foundation of a life devoted to space science: as a hobbyist, an academic, and, most prominently, a creative writer. At the time of his death, he was a global figure, strongly identified with mid-20th-century astroculture, whose work had become central to how the future was imagined and experienced.

The Exploration of Space (1951) and Childhood’s End (1953) represent the two general modes of Clarke’s writing. The former is a work of imaginative popular science, a nonfiction text designed as an introduction to “astronautics” for a general audience. The latter is a novel that tracks humanity’s evolutionary destiny after making contact with a race of benevolent extraterrestrials.

These books, published at the dawn of the Space Age, serve as thought experiments that lead readers toward two very different conceptions of space exploration. The nonfiction treatise argues that the “conquest of space” is a birthright made possible by contemporary developments in rocketry and atomic power. The novel proposes that the “stars are not for man,” setting a limit on human scientific and cultural aspiration. Reading them together is a nice way to judge how Clarke raised futurist optimism in a time the poet W. H. Auden referred to as “The Age of Anxiety” (1947).

The Exploration of Space is not the first English-language work of its kind: David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1931) holds that honor. Clarke’s book, however, is arguably a more mature expression of Lasser’s early space-flight dreams. It sits at the end of two additional decades of research, speculation, and advocacy by the international community of rocket pioneers and interplanetary enthusiasts Clarke considered his core audience. His active participation in that movement as a member of the British Interplanetary Society gives The Exploration of Space the discursive authority and technical depth necessary for a project seeking a wider public.

Clarke’s aim in this book is to both inform and inspire, to teach the science and technology of space travel and its utility in reaching other worlds. The result is a classic of romantic science writing, the nonfiction genre that made outer-space culture a part of everyday life in the 1950s and 1960s.

ANONYMOUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Clarke holds a copy of his 1951 introduction to “astronautics,” The Exploration of Space.

Clarke is not shy about his goal for the book: “to show how astronautics may contribute to the progress of civilization, and the ultimate happiness of mankind.” To this end, The Exploration of Space is best understood as not only an argument for the technical possibly of voyages to other planets but also a manifesto for the paramount social good that might flow from it: the creation of a “world society.”

Clarke proposed space exploration as the ideal way to solve terrestrial competiveness and aggression, arguing that it is the “safety valve” that could bring human beings together and ensure their survival. This optimistic idea, which would become the core of the astrofuturist vision in the following decades, seems likely to have been particularly attractive to a generation made anxious by the power of atomic weapons, military rocketry, and fears of their combined use in a final world war.

The Exploration of Space is more than a prophetic warning about what could happen if humanity remains on its home planet. It also lays out the attractions of the space frontier. Its 18 chapters provide a survey that includes the Moon, the inner and outer planets of our solar system, and what was then known about the nature and structure of the Milky Way galaxy. The reader is also given bite-sized descriptions of rocketry along with designs for space-based ships, stations, and planetary bases. A suite of maps, graphs, drawings, and paintings gives Clarke’s prose a cinematic heft.

Each chapter is introduced by snippets of poetry by the likes of Tennyson, Whitman, and Edmund Blunden. However, the majority of the epigraphs are drawn from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. In this way, Clarke signals that leaving Earth is a project supported by the same impulse that produces great literature, presenting space exploration as both realistic and whimsical.

Clarke’s passion for space exploration stemmed primarily from scientific curiosity. The thematic core of this undertaking, he believed, was the search for life on other worlds. Given the scale of the universe and the size of our galaxy, he was optimistic, resisting the hypothesis that life is “a rare disease that has attacked a handful of unimportant worlds.” He argues for a plenitude that must include some form of intelligent life.
Answering the question of whether or not we are alone is an important goal of astronautics, argued Clarke—one that he believed would change our self-perception as a species. He hoped that “when the first contact with the outer universe is made,” we would be “the discoverers, not the discovered.”

In 1951, Clarke’s hope that human beings would move into an active phase of “conquest and empire” in outer space inevitably invoked science fiction. In the final paragraphs of The Exploration of Space, he moves away from the solid procedural prose that marks most of the book and reaches for his tools as a creative writer. He imagines what a future historian might say of the 20th century, should we survive, writing: “With the landing of the first spaceship on Mars and Venus, the childhood of our race was over and history as we know it began.”

SSPL/GETTY IMAGES

Clarke (far right) stands in front of a satellite dish at his home in Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s.

It is the rare alien invasion story in which the conquerors are benign, but such is the case in Childhood’s End, a novel Clarke published two years later, in 1953. In this book, the otherworldly beings bring peace and prosperity to the human race. The result is a golden age devoid of war, poverty, and inequality. The Overlords’ guidance creates a stable world in which no one need struggle against discrimination, want, or fear. The human race is freed of self-inflicted brakes on its progress.

But this desirable state of affairs has a price: Human civilization stalls. The arts and sciences decline, and religious faith evaporates. The arrival of the Overlords is a catastrophe that presages the end of human striving, for good and ill, heralding extinction.

Clarke’s optimism, however, disentangles this outcome from dystopian nightmare. Yes, it is sad that humanity ceases to exist. But in this novel, extinction is not death. In its closing pages, the last generation of the human race evolves into a higher consciousness and becomes part of the Galactic Overmind. The end of humanity is, therefore, a eucatastrophe—a good ending that is also a cosmic beginning.

This metaphysical turn is a constant feature of Clarke’s thought. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the cosmic racial transcendence that he imagines in Childhood’s End reemerges as a powerful cinematic icon: the Star Child. It is an image that was broadly embraced in the 1970s as a sign that our species survives the political and technological world we’ve created. Good news indeed.

The Exploration of Space and Childhood’s End offer a window into the imaginative traffic between early astronautics and science fiction. Reading them together gives us insight not only into what was known and not known scientifically at the time but also into what its advocates believed space exploration was for. Clarke’s ability to strike a balance between a fact-based presentation of astronautics and an imaginative metaphysically inflected projection of where the field leads is the foundation of his art.

These books also remind us of his influential contribution to the public understanding of science and how that work championed rational hope during a time of great fear. Clarke’s approach and his message remain relevant today.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of English, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA.