Category: Arthur C Clarke

Figures in a darkened landscape

By , 21 March 2008 9:32 pm

It’s been a busy week. I have been desperately trying to finish off all the critical teaching before the Easter break and doing various other things too. I also wrote – in some haste – my monthly blog for Speculative Faith; called Clarke’s Blind Spot it addressed the late (and genuinely lamented by me) death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The blind spot, I said, was his failure to recognize the propensity of the human race to sin. In the course of writing the blog the following sentence came to me. “To make a Holy Week link, there is far more of the range and diversity of human sin in the few chapters of the passion story (think Caiaphas, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the crowd, the unrepentant thief, the callous soldiers) than there is in the hundred plus books that Clarke wrote.”

Thinking about this subsequently I have come to the conclusion that this is actually a very remarkable feature of the passion narratives. It is not just that here one or two people do things that are disastrously and tragically evil. It is that, with the exception of Jesus, almost everybody does evil but in different ways and from different motives. I feel I could write a book of seven chapters on the different but wrong (albeit to varying degrees) reactions of the protagonists. Let me then, as part of an Easter contribution, briefly sketch some of them here.

  • To me, Caiaphas represents religion gone wrong. He is a man who is so zealous for the externals of a faith that he is prepared to rip out its moral core. If you don’t take this in the wrong way, I can honestly say as an elder in Baptist Church I now have a much greater understanding of Caiaphas’ decisions. The system must survive…
  • About the motives of Judas much has been written and much of that is contradictory. I almost wonder whether his real motivation is deliberately left blank lest we pat ourselves on the back and say that we have avoided his sin. Whatever the precise trigger for his betrayal I think we can be fairly confident about the soil in which the betrayal sprouted; he was disaffected and disappointed and any spiritual affection he had for Jesus had clearly grown cold.
  • Peter’s near fatal over-confidence is surely that of a man who sees courage and dedication in himself but fails to recognise that it is only a thin veneer over a great hole.
  • In Pilate, I sense a weariness with things that ultimately dulls any scruples. He is out of his depth and in survival mode. I see him going back to the villa and smashing a bitter fist down on the table in sheer frustration at the way things have frustrated him.
  • Time does not allow me to treat the jaded, bitter crowd, the brutally efficient soldiery and the snarling unrepentant thief. But I – and you – recognise them.

Three thoughts:

  1. If the gospels are the human invention that some claim, then to have this menagerie of human evil so briefly yet finely drawn is one of the wonders of ancient writing.
  2. The failings here are all too scarily human. Let us pray, reader, that neither you nor I ever see them in the mirror.
  3. In the almost total moral gloom of the crucifixion there are small flickering lights, notably the women and John, but all around the scene is darkness. The state of the human heart portrayed here serves not just to point up the nature of mankind but to highlight the Jesus who is at the centre of it all. Nowhere in the Gospels does the Light of the World shine more brightly than when the darkness in deepest.

Rowling, Arthur C. Clarke and the demise of science fiction

By , 30 March 2007 3:29 pm

The literary high point this week, at least in terms of mention on the web, etc., has to be the publication of the covers of final Harry Potter book. Unless, dear reader, you are a writer yourself, you cannot appreciate how utterly depressing it is that a mere cover (which by general agreement has told us nothing) has attracted so much attention. (BTW an interesting experiment is to ask any ordinary writer about J K Rowling. You will see the lips move into a facsimile of a smile but there will be a strange coldness, if not malice, in the eyes.)

This thought brings me to magic and science. You will no doubt remember Arthur C. Clarke’s celebrated statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is, of course, one of the many barbs at religion that Clarke makes: a fact that is not however my concern here. A key part of the definition, which is not adequately expanded, is what constitutes ‘sufficiently advanced’. Perhaps a better expression would be any “insufficiently understood technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This highlights the fact that it is a relative effect: there are probably still some remote cultures where a working cuckoo clock would be seen as magic. In order to aid our understanding here I would suggest the creation of a new unit, the Clarke Value. Clarke values measure how little we understand any given piece of technology. The details need to be worked out, but I suggest that one Clarke is the gap where someone says “I’m not sure of the details, but I’m pretty sure I know how it works” and I suggest that 10 Clarkes expresses that point where someone says it “has to be supernatural”.

Now the interesting fact is that Clarke Values of technology are actually increasing. There are two factors: the first is that the technology itself is getting more and more inscrutable. So, for instance, you can go into your local mobile phone shop and find a tiny little pocketable object that will allow you to phone, used a GPS and listen to FM radio as well as play games. That that side of things is inevitable, unsurprising and probably to be approved. But, less happily, rising Clarke Values are also due to the fact that the understanding of science is declining. All the evidence suggests that kids, at least in Britain, find science tedious, and that most damnable of things, “hard work”. Science numbers, in schools are, in most places, declining. They are slightly boosted (hurrah!) because immigrant communities tend to encourage their sons and daughters to become engineers and doctors, both of which for the moment (thankfully) require science.

The impact of these effects is simple: high Clarke Values now abound. Who, for instance, among us can adequately explain how GPS works? Who can reliably inform us how broadband video works? Who can explain how I merely have to type in the words ‘Science’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Clarke’ into Google and, in barely a second, have the quote I need?

Now there is any writing corollary of this. It is that in a world of inadequately understood technology it is easier to write about magic than science. You may as well invoke magic, because most of your readers can’t tell the difference between that and science. And magic, as I have said, elsewhere, is much easier. So frankly, the attempts of Britain’s fantasy flagship ‘Doctor Who’ to make things scientific are now paper-thin. It might as well be a series about a magician and his apprentice.

It is a source of some irony – but very little satisfaction – that Clarke’s rule has worked very at prophesying the demise of the very science fiction that he loves so well. As I said at Wheaton chapel two years ago (there’s name dropping), as a Christian I find no grounds for burning Harry Potter books but as a scientist, well, it’s awfully tempting.

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