Friday, March 21, 2008

Religion (& Science) in the stories of Arthur C Clarke

Articles on Arthur C Clarke are pouring in. Here is another from New York Times that specifically looks at the religious angle of his stories and how he viewed the future of humanity.
“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90. This may not have surprised anyone who knew that this science-fiction writer, fabulist, fantasist and deep-sea diver had long seen religion as a symptom of humanity’s “infancy,” something to be outgrown and overcome.

But his fervor is still jarring because when it comes to the scriptural texts of modern science fiction, and the astonishing generation of prophetic innovators who were his contemporaries — Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury — Mr. Clarke’s writings were the most biblical, the most prepared to amplify reason with mystical conviction, the most religious in the largest sense of religion: speculating about beginnings and endings, and how we get from one to the other.

Stanley Kubrick’s film of Mr. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for example — a project developed with the author — is haunting not for its sci-fi imaginings of artificial intelligence and space-station engineering but for its evocation of humanity’s origins and its vision of a transcendent future embodied in a human fetus poised in space.

The article talks about several of his stories (such as The Nine Billions Names of God and Childhood's End) and then asks if his work is related to religion:

But acts of reason and scientific speculation are just the beginning of his imaginings. Reason alone is insufficient. Something else is required. For anyone who read Mr. Clarke in the 1960s and ’70s, when space exploration and scientific research had an extraordinary sheen, his science fiction made that enterprise even more thrilling by taking the longest and broadest view, in which the achievements of a few decades fit into a vision of epic proportions reaching millenniums into the future. It is no wonder that two generations of scientists were affected by his work.

For all his acclaimed forecasting ability, though, it is unclear whether Mr. Clarke knew precisely what he saw in that future. There is something cold in his vision, particularly when he imagines the evolutionary transformation of humanity. He leaves behind all the things that we recognize and know, and he doesn’t provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize and know. In that sense his work has little to do with religion.

Hmm... this seems to be focusing on a very narrow definition of religion. Many of Clarke's stories deal with competing narratives of origin stories, the role of religion/spirituality in the future or in an alien society with different norms, and with struggles of personal faith. In that sense, much of his work has to with religion. Heck, even his burial instructions give us a glimpse on how he wants us to live in the world we recognize and know. Fortunately, the article rescues itself with a better ending:

But overall religion is unavoidable. Mr. Clarke famously — and accurately — said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction, at least in his case, is nearly indistinguishable from religion.

Read the full article here.

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