Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Imperial Earth, Arthur C. Clarke

Guardian Comment is Free 24 March 2008

The death of Arthur C Clarke epitomizes the end of an imperial era. As a young engineer, he was an active member of the British Interplanetary Society - which seemed a considerably more feasible concept many decades ago than it does now.

With other science fiction writers, such as Eric Frank Russell and Olaf Stapledon, not to mention the editor of the Liverpool Echo, a somewhat more serious journal then than now, the British Interplanetary Society was trying to get the British government interested in rocketry before the second world war.

The Treasury's horizons were much more constrained and it snorted at how improbable it was that science fiction concepts could become science facts. There was to be no money for such wild ideas. They were still snorting when the products of Werner Von Braun, who had had a more sympathetic hearing from the Reich's paymasters, began to fall on their heads a few years later.

Other country's took up Clarke's ideas for communications satellites, geosynchronous orbits and similar British boffin-like ideas, while Her Majesty's baneful Treasury - whose Greek and Latin-speaking mandarins seemed to have some Freudian aversion to rockets - killed the Blue Streak rocket that had the makings of a successful launch vehicle even if one overlooked its original purpose as an inter-continental ballistic missle.

Unlike China, India and Japan, the UK still has no independent launch capacity, and, those phallophobic Treasury types have cut British participation in the European launch programme to next to nothing.

Clarke's stories, like most of British science fiction over that period, reflected the decline of empire - with British roles shrinking as the sun set. Early on, Dan Dare, craggy jawed RAF pilot of the future, battled the Mekon across the solar system. But then it took super wheezes and ingenuity to overcome the clear shortage of cash and resources. From the range in Woomera in Australia, British pluck and idiosyncratic boffins orbited a teenager (less payload in those rationed, non-obese days) and stole a march on the Russians and Americans.

One of my favourite stories of the period had World War III in progress, before revealing that a British rocket base on the moon is revealed to have empty silos: it is an imperial bluff. (A bit like Trident really.)

Even more than the technology, the British writers of the 1950s and 1960s made a specialty in describing the end of the world as we knew it - with strictly non-theological apocalypses. On dunes and headlands sank the fire for a whole generation of British writers. John Wyndham with the Day of the Triffids, or the Chrysalis, were in evocative Ozymandian moods, as were those of the novels of Brian Aldiss or JG Ballard as well as others who need rescuing from their out-of-print state.

Clarke himself dwelt on the end of the universe in an even more grandiose metaphor, although none so grand as his former mentor Stapledon, who envisaged the supplanting of humanity in his 1930 novel Last and First Men. Indeed, even earlier, the prescient HG Wells' War of the Worlds can easily be seen as an alienated riff on Rudyard Kipling's Recessional:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

These writers did not actively regret the end of empire. They were urbane types who knew the game was up. After all, in general, the decline and fall of empire is not that regrettable, and at least London and the imperial motherland - whatever the frenetic Islamophobes say - has not suffered assault and destruction at the hands of Barbarian hordes.

Clarke's generation saw the pink bits on the map shrink to a few dots like Diego Garcia, on borrowed time. But it was probably some consolation for Clarke that he could watch the successor empire in an accelerated process of decline and fall. It's not Athens and Rome, as Harold McMillan thought: it's more like Trebizond and Byzantium racing to see whose accelerated imperial Alzheimer's finishes them off first.

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