On The Search for Gay Obituaries: Arthur C. Clarke (The Times Version)

18Mar08

In which The Gay Recluse provides a more accurate obituary for Arthur C. Clarke than the one that just appeared in The Times. (For the AP version, click here.)

Arthur C. Clarke, Premier Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 90

By GERALD JONAS and THE GAY RECLUSE

Published: March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, a writer and long-time closet case whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.

Rohan de Silva, an aide to Mr. Clarke, said the author died after experiencing breathing problems, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Clarke had post-polio syndrome for the last two decades and used a wheelchair.

From his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945, more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight, to his co-creation, with the director Stanley Kubrick, of the classic science fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mr. Clarke was both prophet and promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. Sadly, however, he never owned up to being gay.

Other early advocates of a space program argued that it would pay for itself by jump-starting new technology. Mr. Clarke set his sights higher. Paraphrasing William James, he suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent” of war, giving an outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust.

Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.

In his later years, after settling in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) — where he famously hosted orgies for young Sri Lankan men — Mr. Clarke continued to bask in worldwide acclaim as both a scientific sage and the pre-eminent science fiction writer of the 20th century. In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

He played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network of communication satellites. “No one can predict the future,” he always maintained.

But as a science fiction writer, he couldn’t resist drawing up timelines for what he called “possible futures,” none of which, however, included any gay people some of which apparently featured bisexual or gay characters, which — whatever — did not lead Mr. Clarke to come out. Far from displaying uncanny prescience, these conjectures mainly demonstrated his lifelong, and often disappointed, optimism about the peaceful uses of technology — from his calculation in 1945 that atomic-fueled rockets could be no more than 20 years away to his conviction in 1999 that “clean, safe power” from “cold fusion” would be commercially available in the first years of the new millennium. It was often noted that he had his head in the clouds in more ways than one.

Mr. Clarke was well aware of the importance of his role as science spokesman to the general population: “Most technological achievements were preceded by people writing and imagining them,” he noted. “I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon,” he added, if it had not been for H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. “I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.” That said, he never admitted to liking men, and so did a disservice to untold numbers of young gay writers throughout the world who admired his work.

Arthur Charles Clarke was born on Dec. 16, 1917, in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England. His father was a farmer; his mother a post office telegrapher. The eldest of four children, he was educated as a scholarship student at a secondary school in the nearby town of Taunton. He remembered a number of incidents in early childhood that awakened his imagination: exploratory rambles along the Somerset shoreline, with its “wonderland of rock pools;” a card from a pack of cigarettes that his father showed him, with a picture of a dinosaur; the gift of a Meccano set, a British construction toy similar to the Erector sets sold in the United States; the time he witnessed two men fucking down by the abandoned railway line.

He also spent time “mapping the Moon” through a telescope he constructed himself out of “a cardboard tube and a couple of lenses.” But the formative event of his childhood was his discovery, at age 13 — the year his father died — of a copy of “Astounding Stories of Super-Science,” then the leading American science fiction magazine. He found its mix of boyish adventure and far-out (sometimes bogus) science almost as intoxicating as his same-sex fantasies.

While still in school, Mr. Clarke joined the newly formed British Interplanetary Society, a small band of sci-fi enthusiasts who held the controversial view that space travel was not only possible but could be achieved in the not-so-distant future. In 1937, a year after he moved to London to take a civil service job, he began writing his first science fiction novel, a story of the far, far future that was later published as “Against the Fall of Night” (1953).

Mr. Clarke spent World War II as an officer in the Royal Air Force. In 1943 he was assigned to work with a team of American scientist-engineers who had developed the first radar-controlled system for landing airplanes in bad weather. That experience led to Mr. Clarke’s only non-science fiction novel, “Glide Path” (1963). More important, it led in 1945 to a technical paper, published in the British journal “Wireless World,” establishing the feasibility of artificial satellites as relay stations for Earth-based communications.

The “meat” of the paper was a series of diagrams and equations showing that “space stations” parked in a circular orbit roughly 22,240 miles above the equator would exactly match the Earth’s rotation period of 24 hours. In such an orbit, a satellite would remain above the same spot on the ground, providing a “stationary” target for transmitted signals, which could then be retransmitted to wide swaths of territory below. This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.

Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his “Wireless World” paper “the most important thing I ever wrote.” In a wry piece entitled, “A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time,” he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

But Mr. Clarke also acknowledged that nothing in his paper — from the notion of artificial satellites to the mathematics of the geostationary orbit — was new. His chief contribution was to clarify and publicize an idea whose time had almost come — a feat of consciousness-raising that was in marked contrast to his views on homosexuality, but one at which he would continue to excel at throughout his career.

The year 1945 also saw the launch of Mr. Clarke’s career as a fiction writer. He sold a short story called “Rescue Party” to the same magazine — now re-titled Astounding Science Fiction — that had captured his imagination 15 years earlier.

For the next two years, Mr. Clarke attended Kings College, London, on the British equivalent of a G.I. Bill scholarship, graduating in 1948 with first-class honors in physics and mathematics. But he continued to write and sell stories, and after a stint as assistant editor at the scientific journal Physics Abstracts, he decided he could support himself as a freelance writer. Success came quickly. His primer on space flight, “The Exploration of Space,” was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1951

Over the next two decades, he wrote a series of nonfiction bestsellers as well as his best-known novels, including “Childhood’s End” (1953) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). For a scientifically trained writer whose optimism about technology seemed boundless, Mr. Clarke delighted in confronting his characters with obstacles they could not overcome without help from forces beyond their comprehension.

In “Childhood’s End,” a race of aliens who happen to look like devils imposes peace on an Earth torn by cold war tensions. But the aliens’ real mission is to prepare humanity for the next stage of evolution. In an ending that is both heartbreakingly poignant and literally earth-shattering, the self-hating Mr. Clarke suggests that mankind can escape its suicidal tendencies only by ceasing to be human.

“There was nothing left of Earth,” he wrote. “It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs toward the Sun.”

The cold war also forms the backdrop for “2001.” Its genesis was a short story called “The Sentinel,” first published in a science fiction magazine in 1951. It tells of an alien artifact found on the Moon, a little crystalline pyramid that explorers from Earth destroy while trying to open. One explorer realizes that the artifact was a kind of fail-safe beacon; in silencing it, human beings have signaled their existence to its far-off creators.

In the spring of 1964, Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his triumph with “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” met Mr. Clarke in New York, and the two agreed to make the “proverbial really good science fiction movie” based on “The Sentinel.” This led to a four-year collaboration; Mr. Clarke wrote the novel while Mr. Kubrick produced and directed the film; they are jointly credited with the screenplay.

Reviewers at the time were puzzled by the film, especially the final scene in which an astronaut who has been transformed by aliens returns to orbit the Earth as a “Star-Child.” In the book he demonstrates his new-found powers by harmlessly detonating from space the entire arsenal of Soviet and American nuclear weapons. Like much of the plot, this denouement is not clear in the film, from which Mr. Kubrick cut most of the expository material.

As a fiction writer, Mr. Clarke was — no surprise — often criticized for failing to create fully realized characters. HAL, the mutinous computer in “2001,” is probably his most “human” creation: a self-satisfied know-it-all with a touching but misguided faith in its own infallibility.

If Mr. Clarke’s heroes are less than memorable, it is also true that there are no out-and-out villains in his work; his characters are generally too busy struggling to make sense of an implacable universe to engage in petty schemes of dominance or revenge.

Mr. Clarke’s own relationship with machines — as with women — was somewhat ambivalent. Although he held a driver’s license as a young man, he never drove a car. Yet he stayed in touch with the rest of the world from his home in Sri Lanka through an ever-expanding collection of up-to-date computers and communications accessories. And until his health declined, he was an expert scuba diver in the waters around Sri Lanka.

He first became interested in diving in the early 1950s, when he realized that he could find underwater “something very close to weightlessness” of outer space. He settled permanently in Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon, in 1956. With a business partner, he established a guided diving service for tourists and wrote vividly about his diving experiences in a number of books, beginning with “The Coast of Coral” (1956).

All told, he wrote or collaborated on close to 100 books, some of which, like “Childhood’s End,” have been in print continuously. His works have been translated into some 40 languages, and worldwide sales have been estimated at more than $25 million.

In 1962 he suffered a severe attack of poliomyelitis. His apparently complete recovery was marked by a return to top form at his favorite sport, table tennis. But in 1984 he developed post-polio syndrome, a progressive condition characterized by muscle weakness and extreme fatigue. He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair.

Among his legacies are Clarke’s Four Laws, provocative observations on science, science fiction and society that were published in his “Profiles of the Future” (1962):

¶“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

¶“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

¶“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

¶“Never come out of the closet, even if you have nothing to lose.”

Along with Verne and Wells, Mr. Clarke said his greatest influences as a writer were Lord Dunsany, a British fantasist noted for his lyrical, if sometimes overblown, prose; Otto Stapledon, a British philosopher who wrote vast speculative narratives that projected human evolution to the furthest reaches of space and time; and the completely gay Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

While sharing his passions for space and the sea with a worldwide readership, Mr. Clarke tried but failed to keep his “emotional life” private. Most absurdly, he was briefly married in 1953 to an American diving enthusiast named Marilyn Mayfield; they separated after a few months and were divorced in 1964.

One of his closest relationships was with Leslie Ekanayake, a fellow man-diver in Sri Lanka, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1977. In addition to numerous young “man servants,” Mr. Clarke shared his home in Colombo with Leslie’s brother, Hector, his partner in the diving business, Hector’s wife Valerie; and their three daughters.

Mr. Clarke’s stupid answer when journalists asked him outright if he was gay was, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”

Like many closet cases, Mr. Clarke reveled in his fame. One whole room in his house — which he referred to as the Ego Chamber — was filled with photos and other memorabilia of his career, including pictures of him with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Regrettably he never came out. While this lack of courage will always be tied to his legacy, Mr. Clarke’s reputation as a prophet of the space age rests on more than a few accurate predictions. His visions helped bring about the future he longed to see. His contributions to the space program were lauded by Charles Kohlhase, who planned NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn: “When you dream what is possible, and add a knowledge of physics, you make it happen.”

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22 Responses to “On The Search for Gay Obituaries: Arthur C. Clarke (The Times Version)”

  1. Wow, you certainly did your homework. How do you know he was gay?

  2. 3 John Farley

    So he was gay. He grew up in a different era than I or we can imagine. If he spent the last thirty years of his life in a remote region of the world he can’t have known the social advances that we in the urban US can now take for granted. When I was 20 I was dancing on a bar in my underwear; when he was 20 in 1937, something like that would have been science fiction. This obituary merely reads as meanspirited – not enlightening. Even in the closet, I am sure he was a warm, loving, supportive, creative, open human being who deserves better than this cheap trashing.

  3. John and Jack: Thanks for the comments! My intent is not to “trash” Arthur C. Clarke — I also love many of his books — but to expose the continuing failure of the (mainstream) press to acknowledge the truth about his homosexuality, which is a disservice to people — especially young aspiring sci-fi writers — living now. (Obituataries are notoriously conservative in this regard, which makes them ripe for parody.) Like many who grew up in the dark ages of the mid-twentieth century, Clarke obviously had good reasons for being a closet case; but there’s no reason for anyone to continue pretending he wasn’t gay, particularly after he’s dead. (Otherwise there will be countless jerks 50 years from now who will pretend that he was as straight as all the other writers people now like to pretend were straight.) I personally think it makes him twenty times more awesome that he was gay; I think it’s sad that he obviously didn’t think the same.

  4. 5 Ian Miles

    Friend of a friend story: I clearly recall an old colleague of mine discussing lounging on a beach with Clarke : “I was 100% heterosexual and he was 100% homosexual so everything was all right”. The policitcs and psychology may be adrift, but this coincided with other accounts.

  5. 6 crispy

    You may not have intended to trash him, but that’s exactly what you did.

    But as a science fiction writer, he couldn’t resist drawing up timelines for what he called “possible futures,” none of which, however, included any gay people.

    That’s just flat-out wrong. The main character of Imperial Earth is bisexual and lives in a futuristic society in which exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality are not practiced. Apparently, the main character of his most recent novel, Firstborn, is gay. Numerous other websites far more respectful than yours have pointed to other gay and bisexual characters in his works.

    Additionally, you failed to mention the (false) pedophilia claims from a London tabloid. Pedophilia accusations are so often standard-issue homophobia from gutter media. Had I been accused of something like that, I suspect I’d be reluctant to come out too.

  6. 7 Castigator

    There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in being gay. When newspapers choose to hide this information, in deference to the mores of a closeted person who has died, it only reinforces prejudice and shame. It is important for gay people to acknowledge and celebrate their own bright minds – their own great intellects. Even if Clarke himself thought that gayness was inconsequential or negligible, we who are gay can see how his fiction reflected his own abstracted view of love and tenderness, we notice all the elisions, the careful pronoun use, the jokey obfuscation. But all of that is so 20th century now, and despite Clarke’s prognostications, gay people are not only going to be part of the future, but we’re going to help make it, and help make it more wonderful than even Clarke ever imagined.

  7. @ Crispy. You’re right, I basically don’t know all of Clarke’s fiction; but whether he has a gay character is completely beside the point, which is that he never came out. As far as I’m concerned — especially once you’re dead — never coming out but having plenty o’ sex with other guys makes you fair game for some ex post facto gentle trashing. That he was falsely accused of pedophilia is all the more reason for him to have done so, because it makes it seem as if he’s ashamed of something, which as Casigator points out, should not ever be the case.

  8. 9 Jonathan

    Completely mean-spirited obituary. When I was growing up in the early 80s – his books were the only books with positive gay/bi characters that I had access to from the school library and these had a hugely beneficial impact on me at the time. Especially as this was the same era as Section 28 and the other hateful laws of the time.

  9. 10 Robert

    A very interesting obituary. I’m afraid I agree that it was completely mean spirited and showed no sympathy for a man living in a different culture and a different era than we are.

    Lest we forget, there are STILL people who won’t read someone’s writing or look at someone’s art because the writer/artist are gay – regardless of the content. And that’s within the supposedly open Science Fiction field, in the U.S.!

    I can barely imagine what it was like in the thirties, forties and fifties when his sensibilities were formed. It’s as unfair to judge him by post-nineties standards as it is to judge U.S. President James Buchanan or James I of England.

  10. 11 Alex Paige

    I hate to rain on your parade, but Arthur C Clarke DID come out as gay, in around 2004. He made a long posting on his website (arthurclarke.org) which unfortunately at present seems to have been taken offline (presumably in order to upload a tribute to him/archive the content) so I can’t give you a hyperlink reference.

    But I can assure you he did come out, he made a comprehensive posting on the subject. He apologised for not having done so sooner, and explained that it was high time he did so.

    I strongly suggest that once his website is back online you conduct a search of it and you should be able to find the reference for this. As soon as the site is back up I’ll try to do so myself.

    Additionally Mr Clarke’s novels feature NUMEROUS examples of positive homo and bisexual relationships, with an underlying theme that in the future/in other civilisations this will be accepted as completely normal and unremarkable. Examples include the novels 2061: Odyssey Three, 3001: The Final Odyssey and The Songs of Distant Earth to name just three examples off the top of my head.

  11. @Alex Paige: If this is true, it certainly wasn’t reported in ANY of the mainstream media outlets and a google search revealed nothing but the coy “mildly cheerful” obfuscation mentioned in the obit (and everywhere else). The point is not to criticize Clarke’s writing but to call attention to the fact that he was in the closet for most (if not all) of his life, and — so be it — make fun of him on this account (and the MSM, which cannot write about the gays except with ridiculous levels of discomfort), given that he’s dead and presumably can’t be “hurt” by any such satirical revelations.

  12. 14 Alex Paige

    Agreed, I find it remarkable that no mainstream media outlets appear to have picked up on it (either at the time or now) — despite a lot of searching I can’t find the post in question. However I definitely did not imagine it …! It seems to be one of those things that has simply escaped the net and the fact that Clarke’s website is offline is not helping matters.
    It is true he was not out for most of his life, and in the post in question I recollect he expressed some regret about this but alluded to the fact that (as many respondents above have also mentioned) it was a different society with different levels of tolerance back then.

  13. Ok, everyone, thanks for the comments! How about we all step outside now and check out some hot gay statues in Madrid?

    https://thegayrecluse.com/2008/03/17/on-hot-gay-statues-madrid-shames-most-of-the-united-states-good-thing-theyre-not-eligible/

  14. 16 Bob

    You sir, are doing a great diservice to a man who’s legacy stretches far beyond his sexuality.

  15. 17 Lucy

    interesting response

  16. 18 strangeinterlude

    Arthur C. Clarke was brilliant, his prose lyrical and inspiring. His sexuality or lack of it remains his own business for eternity. Trying to use this great man’s obituary to piggyback your own agenda is abominable.

    They are like children, clambering over the ruins of fallen giants.

  17. 19 Nathan

    ARTHUR C CLARKE LURVED DICKS WUT A FAGPOLE, AMIRITE?

  18. 20 Straight But Not Narrow

    Your citation of Clarke’s Law #4 is simply not true. In the 1999 revision of “Profiles of the Future”, Clarke added this Law to the first three: “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws) What’s the source for your citation?

    I understand your anger at the closeted; I’ve had a number of gay and lesbian acquaintances who have felt the same way. Safety in numbers, perhaps? (I speculate) But the fact of the matter is it’s a personal choice that each individual has to make, and outing will cause nothing but resentment and divisiveness. Armistead Maupin has written about the turmoil he went when he struggled with the decision to come out to his parents. If a 15-year old openly gay student can be murdered in 2008 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_%22Larry%22_King), hesitation is understandable. On another subject, as a Boston psychiatrist wrote in an op-ed piece a few years ago, she had to keep reminding herself that in treating her patients, “My experience is not theirs.”

    Instead of “bashing the closeted” (so to speak), might I modestly suggest celebrating those who are or were openly LGBT? Off the top of my head I can think of many: Gerry Studds and Barney Frank in American politics; musicians Billy Strayhorn, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Samuel Barber, John Corigliano, Melissa Etheridge and Morrissey; writers Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, Clive Barker, William S. Burroughs, Herman Melville, Samuel R. Delaney, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and the aforementioned Armistead Maupin; actors Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ian McKellan, Rupert Everett, Drew Barrymore, John Glover, Dirk Bogarde and Graham Chapman; and of course, Ellen Degeneres.

    Otherwise, I found this a fascinating write-up on Sir Arthur Clarke. Thank you.

    P.S. Is there any way you can remove the post by the troll called “Nathan”? As a straight man who has and has had LGB friends, I find it egregiously offensive.

    All the best,
    Steve O’Rourke (Real name; if I were truly courageous, I’d include my geographical location. But I’m not.)


  1. 1 Superfuzzy » Blog Archive » Arthur C. Clarke, Premier Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 90
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