Posts tagged ‘Arthur C. Clarke’

I wrote this more than 20 years ago, for David Hartwell’s critical review zine The New York Review of Science Fiction. I looked it up in connection with a new novel I have begun, tentatively, but almost certainly not permanently, entitled Sweet Home, and thought it might be worth reprinting.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Most of us would argue that science fiction has some special merits denied to most kinds of literature — for instance, its didactic ability to educate, or at least to motivate the desire to be educated, in science, its prophylactic qualities against future shock (if you read enough science fiction hardly anything ever takes you by surprise); its capacity for objective insights into the human condition — what Harlow Shapley called “The View from a Distant Starand so on. Arthur C. Clarke once put it very well when he was asked why he wrote science fiction; he said, “Because no other literature concerns itself with reality.” I’m not sure what “reality” Arthur was talking about, but it is sure that the biggest reality confronting all of us today is change — rapid and widespread change — and science fiction is a literature of change.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

    Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

However, it has recently come to me that there is another way in which science fiction has assets not shared by “mainstream” literature. What led me to think this was a period of reading a lot of Mark Twain, and considering some of the critical assessments of his work.

At first glance, it may seem improbable that the work of this man who died sixteen years before the first science-fiction magazine was published, and never wrote any of the stuff himself (let’s not get into some of his near-misses, like The Mysterious Stranger and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, or that precursor of any number of L. Sprague de Camp novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), has much to do with the subject. But I think it does, and to show what I mean, let’s consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Everybody says Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s greatest work. A fair number of people (of whom I’m one) would even contend that it may well be the greatest American novel ever written. Nevertheless, almost everyone, myself included, feels that the climax of the book does not do justice to what has gone before.

If you haven’t reread Huckleberry Finn in the past four or five years you ought to do it now. It is one of the few books that can be read first at the age of ten, and then again every year or so for the rest of your life, finding new pleasures in it every time. The Duke’s attempt to reconstruct Hamlet’s soliloquy gets funnier the better you know the original. Huck’s relationship to his father, the numb acquiescence of the villagers in the Grangerford-Shepperton feud and its slaughter of the otherwise innocent members of both clans, the abortive lynching — above all, the nature of slavery, as given flesh in Jim — all these things become richer and more insightful as the reader does. The book is a boldly far-reaching triumph, that’s what it is, and any writer who doesn’t envy it is simply himself numbed into complacent ignorance.

But then at the last, when eighty per cent of the book has been a marvel, Tom Sawyer reappears on the Phelps plantation and concocts a lunatic humbug scheme to “free” the slave Jim, who, as Tom well knows, has in fact been freed already by testament of his late owner.

There are some funny, farcical bits in that ending. There are even a few touching ones. Nevertheless. The conclusion of the novel is an affront. Twain has touched our hearts with common human reality; then he pisses it all away in ten chapters of baggy-pants burlesque in which everyone behaves like a fool. There is only one word to describe the last one-fifth of Huckleberry Finn, and that word is dumb.

Continue reading ‘Mark Twain and the Law of the Raft’ »

I found some notes about Sir Arthur C. Clarke that I had filed somewhere and didn’t have handy at the time of his unexpected death, so they got left out of the things I wrote about him at the time. So here they are:

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Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur wasn’t a religious man in any usual sense — in the instructions he left for his own funeral, he was emphatic that there be no religious aspects to the services. He thought — as is described in The Last Theorem — that the most valuable function of a church was to provide a Sunday school for you to send your children to, on the principle that exposing them to religion in childhood, like inoculating them against polio, would prevent serious religiosity later on.

He wasn’t much of a believer in psionics or any of the other New Age fads of the 20th century, either; he was a hard-headed skeptic who didn’t believe in anything that didn’t provide good evidence of its reality. But bear in mind his famous declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The obvious corollary to that is that some kinds of magic could perhaps represent a previously unknown technology.

You can see traces of that thought in some of the best Clarkes, like Childhood’s End or the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And he did confess to me once, over a meal at the restaurant next to the old Hotel Chelsea, that he was kind of wondering if it was possible that Uri Geller, the notorious psychic spoon-bender of the 1960s, might really have some new kind of power.

I’m proud to say that I was the one who rescued Arthur C. Clarke from that particular flimflam. Then and there, in the restaurant that evening, I did the Geller spoon-bending trick before his very eyes.

The Amazing Randi

The Amazing Randi

I hadn’t been smart enough to figure it out for myself, but I was lucky in my choice of neighbors. One of them was my good friend, the former stage magician The Amazing Randi, who had taught me how to do it.

Unfortunately, I can’t teach it to any of you, because I am bound by the stage magician’s creed not to reveal any other magician’s secret tricks. Ah, but you say, how can that be, Fred, since you aren’t a stage magician yourself? Simple, I say. Randi gave me honorary magician status. He couldn’t really avoid that, since one of his best effects was levitating a beautiful girl. The beautiful girl was usually one of my beautiful daughters, Randi not having any of his own, and the muscle-supplying levitator was my muscular son, so I was going to find out his secrets anyway.

Also, Johnny Carson had just had a magician on his show who was able to order his trained dog to go to any specific person in the audience and take from his or her lap any one specific item — pair of gloves, scarf, handbag, whatever — and bring it up to him on stage. Randi couldn’t figure that one out, but I could: I had read an animal psychologist’s piece in, I think, Nature about how to train animals or pre-verbal children to do something like it, and I had clipped the article. I explained it to Randi, so he owed me.

By the way, if any of you happen to pass near the Hotel Chelsea — West 23rd Street near Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, NYC — take a look at the plaques around the entrance. As I remember they have several, including one for Brendan Behan, the Irish author of Borstal Boy, who stayed there when in New York and wrote some of his works there. Well. Arthur did much the same thing and, I believe, rather expected much the same treatment. What I don’t know is whether he got it.

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Sir Arthur and I

Gunnar Heinsohn

Gunnar Heinsohn

There’s this sociologist from Germany, Gunnar Heinsohn, who has an interesting slant on what it takes for a country to be warlike, and how to avert it. According to Heinsohn, bellicosity is a function of the number of unemployed young men in the population and his star exhibit is the island nation known to all Arthur Clarke lovers, Sri Lanka.

Twenty-odd years ago, the average Sri Lankan family had three point something sons; there was a lot of unemployment and the violent war between the government and the rebellious Tamil Tigers had been going on for decades and seemed to be getting worse all the time. Now the average Sri Lankan family has only one son, and the war ended this year.

Heinsohn points to such militant countries as Lebanon, with a declining birthrate, and Iran, now down to an average family size of 1.7, as less likely to get into wars than their historical records and warlike declarations would suggest. Be nice if he were right.


L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

As the 1940s mutated into the ’50s things changed.

All through World War II, and for some time after, Astounding had been king of the hill — eagerly read not just in America but also in England, where a young Arthur Clarke was getting around to mailing in his first story, “Rescue Party,” and in Germany, where in wartime days, Wernher von Braun had been able to get his treasured subscription copies only by means of a false name and a neutral mail drop in Sweden.

Around 1950, though, competitors began to appear — first The Magazine of Fantasy, a more literary take on the field, then Galaxy, a more relevant one, along with lesser titles from others. One might have thought that competition could awaken John’s competitive spirit. It didn’t seem to. He had gone through a period of looking for new editorial challenges before America got into the war, with such ventures as the fantasy magazine Unknown, then an attempt to remake Street & Smith’s hoary old aviation magazine, Air Trails, into a science-news magazine called Air Trails and Science Frontiers, neither of which survived very long.

Then for a time, he seemed adequately fulfilled by concentrating on his services to the war effort. (When the Stars and Stripes ran a piece on new rocket weapons one of the authorities they quoted was described as “John W. Campbell, Jr., physicist and war work consultant.” I sent the clip to John for his amusement, but he may not have been amused. He didn’t reply.)

But when the war was over and he was merely the editor of one really great science-fiction magazine again, he seemed to enter a new phase. That was as a believer in some weird and improbable kinds of — I don’t know what else to call it — magic.

A disclaimer. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one to whom John talked non-stop about all the wonderful and clever things that had been accomplished by “us” — which I took to mean the presiding triumvirate who ran Dianetics/Scientology. That, as John described it to me, consisted of three more or less equal-ranked persons: L. Ron Hubbard, the almost forgotten skin doctor Joseph Winter, and John himself.

I believe that each of the three was considered by the other two to deserve the ranking because of services rendered; in Ron’s case inventing the subject matter; in John’s the fact that it could hardly ever have got off the ground without the mighty boost John gave it with his magazine.

And Joe Winter?. I don’t know the answer to that for sure. I didn’t know Winter well, only met him a few times, never talked with him or about him with either of the other two at any length. But he did have a legitimate M.D. and did wage a rather persistent, if quixotic (and markedly unsuccessful), campaign with the medical establishment to grant Dianetics and/or Scientology some respectful kind of recognition. So I think, with no more evidence than I’ve shown you, that what Winter represented to the other two was a touch of legitimacy.

And, yes, I wish I did know some other people who had heard as much of John’s proud progress reports whom I could ask what they thought of it all. But I don’t.

I’m pretty sure that John’s audience for that sort of conversation would have included just about everybody he saw. But I don’t know who all the others were, and rather few of them can be still alive.

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Achilles Perry and the proud graduate

Achilles Perry, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Association, and the proud graduate

Happens that I never graduated from high school, the reason being that I quit school as soon as I was old enough, which was 17. I had several reasons for doing that, but the one I prefer to give when asked that question is the one given by my friend John Brunner when he quit in England, at about the same age. That was, “I had to leave school, because it was interfering with my education.” (In case you wonder, I didn’t go to college, either. I did teach at several and lectured at scores if not hundreds of them, all the way from local community two-year schools to the Ivy League, in maybe a dozen different countries as well as our own, but I never attended one.)

My diploma

My diploma

Anyway, this summer, along comes a letter from a man named Jeffrey Haitkin, who is a successful businessman and an officer of the Brooklyn Technical High School Alumni Association. He states that he had been reading me since he himself was in Brooklyn Tech, but he had had no idea I had been to school there until he read the novel I co-wrote with Arthur Clarke, The Last Theorem, where it was mentioned. Jeffrey checked me out in the school archives to make sure I wasn’t some impostor falsely claiming an illustrious past, and then wrote this letter that said that he liked my novels, etc., etc., and it was a pity I hadn’t got a Tech diploma, etc., etc., and would I like them to give me one now?

I was flabbergasted. It was one of the kindest things that any total stranger had, without warning, ever stepped up and done for me. I showed the letter to Betty Anne and she was as touched as I was. So I wrote him to say I would be honored to accept and so on August 20, Jeff Haitkin, with Achilles Perry, the president of the Alumni Association, and Ned Steele, their volunteer press person, flew out from EWR to ORD and wound up in the library of my home, where the presentation was made before their cameras and one from the New York Times.

And I couldn’t be more pleased.

I do have one problem, though. I remember matchbook ads for a correspondence school, back in the days when people still carried matchbooks, which promised that people who got a high-school diploma would get $25 more a week. The problem is I don’t know whom to bill.

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Photo by Josef Stuefer  (Flickr)

Photo by Josef Stuefer (Flickr)

See, I’ve got this novel that I owe my publisher and it’s way, WAY overdue. Its composition was repeatedly interrupted, first by Arthur Clarke inviting me to write The Last Theorem with him and then by some of those pesky almost-90-now health problems. I’m back on it now and the end is (almost) in sight, and I’ve even been able to write some new stuff for this blog. Including a couple of what, I hope, will be regular features.

One will be next. It comes about because I once thought that, having worn all the hats at one time or another, I might like to write a how-to-be-a-writer book. I never did it, partly because I think there are too many of them around already, but I have over the years sometimes thought of things I would like to say in it. So next will be the first installment of Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom.