"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right," claimed Arthur C. Clarke, the renowned author who died this week at age 90. "When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
For Clarke, who predicted the use of telecommunications satellites decades before technology made them a reality, and who co-authored the mind-bendingly imponderable 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick in 1968, there was no impossible. To give up on possibility was to give up on humanity itself, and that was something the British-born farm lad was never willing to do.
Inspired to pursue a life of science and speculation by a childhood fascination with dinosaurs and the fiction of Jules Verne, Clarke saw more than adventure when he looked to the stars and imagined humanity's probing presence there.
A mystic with a slide-rule, he envisioned nothing short of grace in space. Calling extraterrestrial exploration "the moral equivalent of war" from the chilly depths of the Cold War, Clarke, an RAF officer in World War II, believed nothing short of redemption lay in man's grasp of worlds beyond his own. Demanding the concerted efforts of people toward a destiny far greater than any earthly conflicts, space for Clarke was the realm of our redemption. To save the Earth, we must reach beyond it. As he also claimed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
It was precisely this blend of technological determinism with childhood wonder that drew Kubrick to Clarke in 1964.
On the surface , the two couldn't have seemed more ill-suited for fruitful collaboration.
Where Clarke was a tweedy, bespectacled Englishman with a head for theorems and a passionate conviction in humanity's deliverance through science, Kubrick was a wry, Jewish-American cynic, a true believer in folly as destiny and the Cold War itself as proof that man's primary ingenuity was a world-class genius for self-destruction. Prior to approaching Clarke – in whose 1948 story The Sentinel Kubrick saw the possibility of "the proverbial really good science fiction movie" – the filmmaker had rendered the nuclear apocalypse as a form of endgame slapstick in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The story was, in customary Clarkean terms, stark simplicity itself. On the surface of the moon, a team of explorers discovers a crystalline object shaped like a pyramid.
In attempting to examine the shimmering whatzit, the hairless, moon-suited apes destroy it, thus sending a signal to the extraterrestrial forces that created them of man's existence.
It's not difficult to imagine what captivated Kubrick about The Sentinel: the idea of man's arrogance tempered by boobish incompetence; the suggestion of civilization being nothing more than a move in an interplanetary chess match; the implication that humanity may be more tool to technology than technology a servant to man.
If Kubrick interpreted the story more bleakly than Clarke intended – The Sentinel can also be read as a tale of man's ascending one more rung on the ladder to greater destiny – the director and the author were at least synched in their shared determination to make a movie experience like no one had ever seen before.
With movie technology one might possibly go where scientific speculation could only point, and that was beyond the limits of the possible. Clarke signed on.
It was a challenge that meshed too perfectly with his philosophy. As he had written, "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
Certainly working with the infamously finicky Kubrick must have tested even Clarke's faith in the impossible, and the four-year process involved in bringing 2001: A Space Odyssey to the screen would bring the contrasting sensibilities of the two men into frequent but ultimately evolutionary collision. Where Clarke was a man of ideas, facts and explication, Kubrick loved ambiguity, silence and unfathomable mystery: a black hole to Clarke's heavenly body.
But Kubrick was the director, and if Clarke provided too much information – especially of the spoken variety – the director would simply cut it out or send it back for a good whittling. Since the story itself was too sparse to support a feature film, Clarke expanded it to novel length to coincide with the release of the movie, and it is in the difference between these two 2001's – Clarke's novel and Kubrick's movie – that one encounters the divergent visions of these men most starkly. Although both are finally open to a range of interpretation – interpreting Kubrick's movie would become one of the 1960s' most avidly played mind games – there's no doubt that Clarke's intentions in the telling of the Space Odyssey were far less deliberately murky than the filmmaker's.
On the simplest level, it boils down to a distinction between fate and destiny.
Where Kubrick's film so brilliantly suggests that the entire history of humankind, from the ape-like creatures foraging and fighting in the movie's opening section to the astronaut Dave Bowman's climactic transformation into the heavenly "star child," has been the result of manipulation by extraterrestrial forces, Clarke's novel implies a kind of cosmic coupling: man ultimately merging with his creator in a form of optimistic transfiguration. The star child is what we become when we respond to the calling of what lies beyond us.
While 2001 sealed Clarke's status as a space-age sage and celebrity, even to the point of sitting elbow-to-elbow with Walter Cronkite during several televised Apollo moon landings, the film's success was clearly a mixed blessing.
Throughout the rest of his career, the author felt compelled to untangle his intentions from that of Kubrick, ultimately writing not only three sequels to the original book but an entire volume (titled The Lost Worlds of 2001) dedicated to clarifying how his ideas and the director's got muddled in the trek to the great cinematic beyond.
For Clarke, the undocking of his and Kubrick's concepts was much more than a matter of mere authorial ego. It came down to a question of core philosophy.
Clarke was simply and fundamentally uneasy with imponderables – especially those that implied there were certain things we cannot, should not and would not ever know.
As a farm-bred stargazer with his feet in the grass and his eyes on the heavens, Clarke saw the exploration of space as the means by which man's instinct toward exploration could rescue the species from itself. Science had a moral dimension, and the necessary condition for attainment of that future was clarity: Facts, if not the truth, would truly set us free.