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Book Review: VISIONARY: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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Out of a sense of professional obligation (I teach a “Sci-fi and Fantasy” class and I knew nothing about the guy, outside of a few short stories and that movie) I agreed to review a biography of Arthur C. Clarke. I was being a dutiful teacher, but, at the same time, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about a writer who has remained something of an enigma to me. In the end, I emerged enlightened and deeply interested in further exploring Clarke’s work. VISIONARY: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, by Neil McAleer, is more than a good biography: it is important book — a much needed addition to the existing canon of literary biographies, especially in a time when critics and scholars are finally accepting science fiction as a valid literary genre.

That said, I have, personally, never felt Clarke was much of a pure “writer” in the same way that a Bradbury or a Heinlein is (or was, depending which). Consequently, for me, the best characteristic of this biography is that McAleer — though obviously a strong admirer of Clarke’s work — crosses neither into phony attempts to cover up fondness nor into the kind of fawning praise that I have seen other literary biographers pour out. McAleer remains objective throughout the work, letting Clarke’s life speak eloquently for itself. Simply by virtue of the evidence at hand, even the skeptical reader is eventually convinced that Clarke was one of the greatest contributors not only to science fiction literature but to, literally, the scientific culture of Planet Earth. McAleer’s “show, don’t tell” approach is the wise one — the only effective one.

Instinctively, I think that a part of the biographer’s perspective on Clarke is echoed by a quotation he chooses to include from publisher Betty Ballantine:

Arthur mastered English. He was not a great big flaming talent as a writer, but he was brilliant. His mind was so clear and logical that he could take the English language and control it and use it to express the things he wanted it to do. He had a beautiful consistency and control.

That said, where Clarke was, in fact, “a great big flaming talent” (the other half of the biographer’s perspective) was in the area of scientific speculation. Sir Arthur had frighteningly prophetic (and inspiring) visions of the future, along with both a metaphorical and literal hunger for exploration of both the world that is and the world that might someday be. From his days as a young man on an English farm collecting the pulp sci-fi magazines from America, to the late London nights with his chums in the British Interplanetary Society, through his time as a successful author diving for the first discoveries of treasure in the Indian Ocean; from his seat of honor next to Walter Cronkite during the moon-landing of Apollo 11, through his later contentions that “space elevators” will someday become reality, we get, in McAleer’s book, the complete  picture of the man who was to become what many call “the father of communications satellites.”

Yes, Clarke was that important — and for even more reasons that the reader can discover in this book.

This biography is evidence of Clarke’s important contributions to scientific theory and of his instrumental role in turning certain of those ideas into reality. Too much commentary by the author would have dulled the clarion brilliance of the subject. McAleer lets Clarke’s dreams and accomplishments make their own case for greatness simply by gathering them all up in one well-written book. 

This is not to say that McAleer doesn’t make insightful observations and speculations about Clarke’s literary and personal development; he just never becomes a hawker trying to get the reader to buy into the famous man’s greatness. As any good biography should, McAleer’s book gives us a picture of the man — the real man, as opposed to the public image of the writer — that Clarke was: An intensely curious man with a true appetite for exploration; a man his friend Elmer Gertz called “convulsively funny… a Bob Hope of intellectuals;” a man of strong external confidence who doubted himself from time to time; a top-notch table tennis player; a man who believed in a positive view of the future and who objected to the darkness of the sci-fi around him; a vulnerable man driven to frustration by his friend and collaborator Stanley Kubrick; a thinker who became so immersed in work that he often didn’t remember his own writing process; a man who knew the universe around him better than he knew his own romantic needs; a man whose writing career was re-ignited by the advent of the word processor. A guy, just like the rest of us, in some ways, but way smarter.

It is quite easy for me to call this the best complete biography ever written about Clarke, because it is the only one in existence. But it is also easy for me to say that the only one we have is exhaustive and competently written. While I can’t guarantee that this book will be a roller-coaster page-turner for the average reader with a marginal interest in science fiction, I can say that VISIONARY: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke is a must-read for any serious fan or scholar of science fiction. While many writers of sci-fi are important only to their genre, Clarke had a direct (and major) impact on science itself. After reading this biography, you’ll find it hard to make a cell phone call without tipping your hat to Sir Arthur.

I tip mine to Neil McAleer.

[The FTC (implying that I am not as trustworthy as others because my review is written online instead of on paper) requires me to tell you that I was given my copy of “VISIONARY…” for free.]

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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2 Responses to “Book Review: VISIONARY: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke

  1. I read his novel Childhood’s End in a single night many years ago.

  2. I’m just about to dig in to that one, Scott. Looking forward to it.

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