Clarke’s Century

I came across an article reminding me that had he lived, Arthur C Clarke would have been 100 this year. His impact on the genre I write it, on the world I live in, is a powerful one, but it’s not entirely a positive one. I’m not knocking him – consider that he was born as a world war was winding down, would see another one, the rise of communism, and a world caught up in a conflict that had to potential to end humanity as we know it.

His work lives on, and it influenced the space race, as well as popular culture through the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. His idea was that humans are fatally flawed, and only through the interventions of a deus ex machine would we reach enlightenment as a species. Only through the travel to stars would we alleviate the tensions that lead to wars and death here on Earth.

He was a product of his times. A brilliant man who was not a prophet, he was working off the data he had at hand. It wasn’t good. The future of our globe looked bleak. We were walking around with the Sword of Damocles hanging over our head with atomic weapons poised for use by some very scary people.

The bomb never went off. Technology continues to accelerate at an unprecedented rate toward a future that is hard to imagine, because as soon as you imagine something, it become real. Clarke’s mixed optimism now seems timid. He was more optimistic than many of his era, but he didn’t give the human race the credit I believe it deserve. Perhaps that’s just me, ever the rosy-eyed optimist. I think we can grow, and we don’t need aliens to do that.

Clarke’s work has influenced my own, and I’m grateful for that. His third law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, inspired the world I built for Vulcan’s Kittens and God’s Wolfling. I was amused to discover, as I was looking up the proper phrasing for the Third Law, that there are variations on it.

Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.[7][4] (Shermer’s last law)

  • Any sufficiently advanced act of benevolence is indistinguishable from malevolence[8] (referring to artificial intelligence).
  • The following two variants are very similar, and combine the third law with Hanlon’s razor
  • Any sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice[9] (Clark’s law).
  • Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice[4] (Grey’s law).
  • Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook or the viewpoints of even the most extreme crank are indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced satire (Poe’s law).
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.[10]
  • Any sufficiently advanced idea is distinguishable from mere magical incantation provided the former is presented as a mathematical proof, verifiable by sufficiently competent mathematicians.[11]
  • Any sufficiently crappy research is indistinguishable from fraud (Andrew Gelman).[12]

A contrapositive of the third law is

  • Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. (Gehm’s corollary)[13]

The third law has been:

  • reversed for fictional universes involving magic: “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!”[14][15] or “Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology.”[16]

  • expanded for fictional universes focusing on science fiction: “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”[

13 thoughts on “Clarke’s Century

  1. I loved reading his work in the 60s. Later, his enmity toward any form of religion, but especially Christianity, repelled me, although I still enjoyed the worlds he created with his words.

        1. well, and I’m just noodling around here (and running a fever) but accountability. If there is a God, Clarke was accountable to him. If there were aliens, no need to account for one’s actions. Given what we know about Clarke’s, um, predilections, that would be a big reason to reflexively reject religious mores.

  2. A dear friend of mine from high school somehow obtained his phone number in Sri Lanka and would call him every year to wish him a happy birthday. After he passed, I continued the tradition until his passing. He was delightful to speak will th! His house servant would answer the phone and go fetch him for a chat! This was long before wireless phones and high tech internet. He remained a very engaging and remarkable man!

  3. In about 1970, Clarke came to Boston, visited MIT and the MITSFS library, and gave a speech at a local High School. He predicted that in 2020 or so a major foreign language taught in American High Schools would be … Mandarin. This prediction, which turned out to be true, was not at the time entirely believed.

  4. My enjoyment of Clarke stories was dimmed by tales of his personal life, told by someone who was there to see it. I’ll spare y’all, as there’s no need to speak ill of the dead.

    That said, I think “Against the Fall of Night” was really something. Childhood’s End was dreck by comparison.

  5. I was always amused — and at times infuriated — by Clarke’s increasingly militant atheism, which he always tried to disguise as “agnosticism,” while at the same time he always more readily resorted to God-like plot devices (the “deum ex machina” to which you refer) in his tales. He was a vastly superior writer to Azimov (another atheist who had to resort to fabricating a God in order to complete the rationalization of the whole out of his collected works), he had a wit and sense of snark that was well ahead of most sci-fi authors and writers. “Tales from the White Hart” will always be one of the most entertaining short story collections ever published. Harry Purvis Lives!

    In particular, I admired his ability to conceive of a universe which was not homo-centric, unlike Azimov, who could never conceive of one that wasn’t. In my not-at-all-humble opinion, showing us how that could be done — and done believably — was Clarke’s single greatest contribution to science fiction.

    Perhaps not surprisingly for those who actually know me, I was delighted to discover that Clarke had a lifelong fascination with the Titanic.

    And…as with “thephantom182” above, my admiration for Clarke dimmed as I learned some of the details of his personal life. There was a reason he never left Sri Lanka the last twenty-odd years of his life, and it wasn’t a pretty one….

  6. My personal favorite variant on Clarke’s Law was coined by a coworker and I after using a cordless drill to knock a disposal into place: “Any sufficiently advanced technology can be used as a hammer.”

    I’ve found that Clarke’s fiction hasn’t held up well upon rereading later in life. I loved “Childhood’s End” and “Rendezvous With Rama” as a teen, recently I found myself unable to finish either one.

  7. I have to admit that my favorite Clarke book was the (slightly) fictionalized account of the development of radar in UK during the war (cannot recall the title at the moment). Not science fiction, true, but a quite good mix of science, engineering, and fictional drama.

    However, unlike Misha, I threw “Childhood’s End” against the wall as a teen. “Rendezvous With Rama” was good, but too long – and the sequels only made that worse.

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