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 act of benevolence is indistinguishable from malevolence (referring to artificial intelligence).
- The following two variants are very similar, and combine the third law with Hanlon’s razor
- 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.
- Any sufficiently advanced idea is distinguishable from mere magical incantation provided the former is presented as a mathematical proof, verifiable by sufficiently competent mathematicians.
- Any sufficiently crappy research is indistinguishable from fraud (Andrew Gelman).
A contrapositive of the third law is
- Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. (Gehm’s corollary)
The third law has been:
reversed for fictional universes involving magic: “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!” or “Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology.”