Back in high school, my AP English teacher was fond of telling us that all fiction could be divided into “Literature with a capital L” — i.e., the good, important work, the books you read for AP English class — and everything else, which was, by implication, crap.
Needless to say, his list of “Literature with a capital L” did not include any science fiction titles. (Well, to be fair, it did include 1984 and Brave New World, which are technically SF, but they weren’t SF by my exacting standards of the time… no spaceships, you see.) This was 1987, way before geeks conquered the world, and SF was a ghetto genre that was widely dismissed as kid stuff, or else as disposable, escapist fare that couldn’t possibly provoke any worthwhile thoughts in its readers, and could possibly even be harmful to thinking. Even when you were reading the best the genre had to offer, there was something slightly shameful about being seen with it, as if you were just exiting a strip club and didn’t want to run into anyone you knew.
Nevertheless, I was a fan, dammit, and I was utterly incensed by the idea that the books and movies I loved above all others were considered second-class. I was a smart kid with good grades, college-bound for sure; reading SF certainly hadn’t caused any damage to my brain cells. Obviously, I needed to send a message, to strike a blow against the elistist literati who thought that dreary English moors made for better settings against which to explore the human heart than the surface of alien planets. It was, in the immortal words of Chris Knight, a moral imperative!
My message was to be a lengthy research paper on the genre, specifically on the giants of science fiction’s Golden Age: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Through sheer logic and examples I no longer recall, I set out to prove that the work of these three men was just as significant and influential, just as important, and most of all just as literary, as anything produced by Faulkner or Fitzgerald or whoever else we’d been reading in class.
What can I say? I was young.
Looking at those three authors now, through eyes that have seen a hell of a lot more of life than the ones that eagerly watched my old teacher for any signs of capitulation in the face of my audacious act of rebellion, I suspect I would probably come to different conclusions than I did back then. I haven’t actually read these authors in years. But from what I recall of their work, Heinlein — always my favorite of the three, by the way — would probably strike me as a writer of excellent adventure stories that weren’t lacking in significant ideas but perhaps also were not as profound as my 17-year-old self believed. As for Asimov… well, I doubt I could get through an Asimov novel these days; even when I was 17, I thought his characters were little more than cardboard props, and I suspect his most famous works probably haven’t aged very well. No, out of my “holy trinity,” only Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary science fiction author who died yesterday at the age of 90, produced anything that I would dare to call “Literature.”
He’s best known, of course, for co-writing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with director Stanley Kubrick, and for the writing the novel that shares the title. (It’s interesting to note that the novel was written simultaneously with the film’s production, and that the two works influenced and informed one another, a very unusual situation; the only other case of this that I can think of is James Cameron’s wonderful and underrated movie The Abyss and its equally wonderful novelization by Orson Scott Card.) Both the movie and the novel 2001 are fine examples of how science fiction can rise to level of Literature while still remaining true to the genre: they combine genuine science, exotic flights of fancy (a term I’m using without any connotation of superficiality or silliness), stylistic excellence, and eternal questions about human nature: where we’ve come from, what we are, and where we’re going.
My own experience with 2001 is probably pretty typical: I saw the movie first, on a rented VHS tape in the early days of the home video revolution, when I was about 12 or 13. I’d heard about it for years, seen stills of its gangly-yet-beautiful signature spaceship, knew that the major action was perpetrated by a killer AI named HAL… and yet it baffled me. What was with the apes and the really annoying buzzing sound at the beginning? What was the big black thing? What was going on in the end, when we went from a reaaaaallly long lightshow into a posh hotel room? And what the hell was that glowing baby-thing at the very end? Seriously, what was that thing?
A repeat viewing didn’t help, so I took my mother’s advice and sought out the book, hoping that it would give me some answers. It did — the story really isn’t as hard to understand as so many people would have you believe — but it also stretched my mind in directions I’d never thought to go before. Clarke’s elegant prose and fertile imagination led me to wonder if it could really be true that human beings are still violent apes somewhere deep down inside, and if the most fearsome thing I could imagine — the nuclear bomb — was merely a sophisticated form of the jawbone the one ape uses to kill his rival. What did it mean that the evolution of our species began with the invention of a weapon, and with a murder? Could our evolution be guided by aliens rather than God? Would a primitive species be able to see any difference between the two? (Clarke is widely credited for articulating the idea that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) And what will the next step of our evolution be? Pretty heavy thoughts for someone just barely into their teens, wouldn’t you say? If Literature-with-a-capital-L is about ideas and the exploration of the human condition — which is what I was learning from my AP English class — how can you say that 2001 is not Literature?
I can recall with certainty reading only two other Clarke novels: 2010: Odyssey Two and The Fountains of Paradise. Neither of them had the intellectual impact on me as 2001, but both introduced Big Ideas that, again, stretched my brain: in 2010 the mysterious aliens behind the black monoliths turn Jupiter into a second sun in order to give the primitve life on the Jovian moon Europa a chance to evolve, and in Fountains, mankind constructs an elevator from Earth into orbit. Both of these notions are simply amazing, and yet… so very plausible. I still think about them once in a while, and wonder if they will ever come to pass.
A lot of Clarke’s other ideas have come to pass, you know. In a very real way, we’re living in the world he imagined. Way back in 1945, he dreamed up the idea for artificial satellites in geosynchronous orbits; our skies are now filled with such satellites, many of them beaming the television signals that allow us to watch 2001 and 2010: The Year We Make Contact (the film version of Odyssey Two, which is another highly underrated movie in my opinion) on demand. We now read more digital newspapers than physical ones, exactly as Clarke predicted in 2001, and many people do it using tablet computers that look a great deal like the flat video device Heywood Floyd uses in the movie and book. I heard about Clarke’s death on the Internet, an invention that exists all around us and is largely invisible, already woven into our society after only a few short years, and composed physically of featureless metal boxes and glowing strands of glass — if that isn’t technology sufficiently advanced to resemble magic, I don’t know what is. Certainly it would have seemed so to people living back at the time Clarke was born, nine decades ago. And if we don’t have giant wheel-shaped space stations and manned probes to Jupiter and Saturn, well, I remain hopeful.
And that’s something else that sticks in my mind about Clarke: he was always hopeful. He may have presented humanity as nothing more than hairless apes who are the verge of destroying ourselves, but in his stories, we never did. We survived to become… something new. That glowing baby-thing at the end of 2001 was the next step in our evolution — it wasn’t scary or creepy, even if the visual was a bit off-putting. It was optimistic.
I hope Arthur C. Clarke was still optimistic at the end of his life, even though he was suffering physical problems and his beloved Sri Lanka was torn by civil war. We need more optimists in this world if we’re ever going to get around to building those space elevators and orbiting wheels.
Incidentally, my AP English research paper, my daring fusillade against the square, conservative culture-snobs who said SF wasn’t truly Literature? I got an A on it. And I later learned that my AP English teacher was using it in his classes as an example of how to do a good paper. But as pleasing as those little tidbits are, the real payoff came on Graduation Day, when I ducked into my teacher’s office hoping he’d consent to sign my yearbook. He wasn’t there… but his briefcase was open on his desk, and in it I saw — to my everlasting amusement — a pair of scuffed and dog-eared paperback novels. They were genuine, honest-to-John-W.-Campbell science fiction novels, with spaceships on the covers and everything. He’d been secretly on my side all the way along…