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Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 - 2008

Scientific visionary wrote '2001: A Space Odyssey'

March 19, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

"He has the kind of mind of which the world can never have enough, an array of imagination, intelligence, knowledge and a quirkish curiosity, which often uncovers more than the first three qualities," Kubrick said at the time.

The film concerns the "Dawn of Man" and a mysterious black monolith and a mission to Jupiter with a deadly, on-board talking computer named HAL.

In the end, the sole-surviving astronaut is reborn as a glowing embryo with large, haunting eyes, orbiting Earth in a translucent placenta.

Though some critics complained about the special effects-laden movie's slow pace, minimal dialogue and lack of plot and character development, most hailed it as a landmark film.

"2001" quickly became a must-see movie, particularly among young people who were entranced by the dazzling imagery. One 17-year-old high school student reportedly observed at the time: "You're not supposed to understand it, you're supposed to watch it!"

Clarke later relished telling the story of one visit to the United States when an immigration official looked at his passport and said, "I won't let you in until you explain the ending of '2001.' "

In a 1982 interview with The Times, the author explained: "The theme of the book is, of course, evolution, from the ape-men you see at the beginning to [the astronaut's] succession to a higher form of consciousness or intelligence, the star child."

"2001: A Space Odyssey" earned Kubrick and Clarke an Oscar nomination for their screenplay and launched the already well-known Clarke to international acclaim as what one journalist called the unofficial "poet laureate of the Space Age."

Although he never intended to write a sequel to "2001," he wrote three: "2010: Odyssey Two," "2061: Odyssey Three" and "3001: The Final Odyssey."

Clarke's celebrity status was further enhanced when he offered commentary alongside CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite during the Apollo missions.

He later wrote and hosted two television series for British television that were syndicated around the world in the 1980s, "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World" and "Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers."

The author, who had an asteroid and a joint Russian-European satellite named after him, enjoyed his celebrity. He counted heads of state and astronauts among his friends, and he was known to name-drop with what a British journalist called "a shamelessness that disarms criticism."

Visitors to his home in an exclusive section of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, were asked to wait in an anteroom to Clarke's office, which was filled with photos, plaques and citations from NASA and other scientific and literary organizations.

Clarke called it his "Ego Chamber."

Among his memorabilia: a moon rock given to him by NASA, a T-shirt signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the opening page of a published lecture by fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on which the first man to walk on the moon wrote: "To Arthur -- who visualized the nuances of lunar flying before I experienced them."

A large, craggy-faced man with tortoise-shell glasses, Clarke typically padded around his home wearing a patterned sarong and a cotton shirt.

Benford, the science-fiction author, who first met Clarke in 1979, described him as "always very friendly and outgoing, an English gentleman."

During a visit to Clarke's home in Sri Lanka in the '90s, Benford recalled: "He gave me his red Mercedes and driver to go around and see the sights. Everywhere we went people waved at the car thinking it was Arthur."

The oldest of four children, Clarke was born in Minehead, England, on Dec. 16, 1917, and grew up on a farm in Somerset.

Initially drawn to dinosaurs and fossils as a boy, Clarke developed a fascination with astronomy and constructed several refractor telescopes in his early teens by inserting lenses into cardboard tubes.

He saw his first science-fiction magazine -- the November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories -- when he was 11. But it wasn't until he read a copy of the March 1930 issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science that, he later told biographer Neil McAleer, "My life was irrevocably changed."

"Young readers of today, born into a world in which science-fiction magazines, books and movies are part of everyday life, cannot possibly imagine the impact such garish pulps as that old Amazing and its colleagues Astounding and Wonder" had, Clarke wrote in a 1983 article in the New York Times Book Review. "Of course, the literary standards were usually abysmal -- but the stories brimmed with ideas and amply evoked that sense of wonder that is, or should be, one of the goals of the best fiction."

He began devouring books by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Olaf Stapledon and other authors and started writing short stories as a teenager for his school magazine.

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