Thomas Connolly (Maynooth University) “Asimov and Clarke: Two Visions of Human Society”
Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov make up two of the “Big Three” names that dominated mid-century Anlgophone SF (the third, of course, being Robert Heinlein). Yet, although the two writers shared a warm friendship lasting until Asimov’s death in 1992, their conceptions of human society differed wildly. I will here take a closer look at how each writer envisioned human society, making the argument that Asimov and Clarke each crystallised a certain set of ideas concerning the human that can be correlated to the US and British SF traditions.
Asimov’s view of humanity emerges in part as a response to US technological hegemony in the mid-century period. The SF of the “Golden Age” pulps, particularly Astounding under the editorship of Campbell, abounds with stories of human technological triumph, and Asimov’s stories form part of a lineage of triumphalist technocratic SF extending back to the early space operas of Smith, Campbell, and Hamilton. His works dramatise the conflict between the individual as social actor on the one hand and passive victim of socio-historical forces on the other. The resulting view of the individual that emerges is largely mechanistic: like his famous robots, Asimov’s humans are determined by fixed, calculable behaviours, subject to mass biopolitical control by faceless organisations (as evident in, for example, the Foundation series). In this, Asimov ultimately espouses a variation of US postwar social engineering, in which the individual is sublimated to the needs of mass society.
Clarke, conversely, although an avid reader of the US pulps, was also influenced by the tradition of British speculative fiction, particularly Olaf Stapledon, that tempers his hard SF works with a metaphysical bent. Like Asimov, Clarke’s works are concerned with questions of individual agency and the form of human society, and are also committed to a version of post-national technocratic imperialism centred on space travel. But where Asimov advocates a system perhaps best characterised as biopolitical anti-humanism, Clarke’s more sceptical position regarding the potentially destructive impacts of technological rationalisation leads him reject mechanistic interpretations of human nature in favour of a kind of organic humanism, in which the needs of individuals and the needs of society are brought into egalitarian alignment in a process of cosmic transcendence.
As is clear, Asimov and Clarke thus offer usefully contrasting answers to that all-important question in SF: how can we best respond to the—ever more invasive—technological systems that surround us?
Thomas Connolly is a final-year doctoral candidate in Maynooth University, Ireland. My research examines the concept of the “human” in Anglo-American SF, using posthumanist and spatio-temporal theories to examine a range of authors from H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle to Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin. I completed both my B.A. in English and Mathematical Physics and my M.A. in twentieth-century Irish literature and cultural theory in Maynooth University, and was the recipient in 2012 of the John and Pat Hume Doctoral Scholarship.
Dr Boyarkina Iren (University of Rome Tor Vergata) “The Destiny of Life and Mind in the Universe in the Works by Arthur Clarke and Olaf Stapledon”
Arthur Clarke has claimed to be influenced by Stapledon, especially by his Last and First Men and Star Maker. Clarke wrote about the latter that it is “[p]robably the most powerful work of imagination ever written.” He was inspired not only by the Stapledon’s grandeur of visions of the future and of the cosmos , whose “ future scenarios still remain awe-inspiring,” but also by the aim and scope of Star Maker. Stapledon admits that the purpose of the narrator”s voyage in Star Maker was “Not only to explore the depths of the physical universe, but to discover what part life and mind were actually playing among the stars […].” (Stapledon 1999: 13) The narrator, as well as Stapledon himself, was possessed by “A keen hunger… for insight into the significance of men and of any manlike beings in the cosmos.” (Stapledon 1999: 13)
Also the works by Arthur Clarke demonstrate the same Stapledonian keen hunger for the insight into the significance of men and other beings in the cosmos, as well as into the destiny of life and mind in the universe. Clarke’s novels (Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.), as well as his short stories clearly manifest his deep interest in the predestination of life in general and intelligent life in particular.
This paper studies Clarke’s ideas about the destiny of life and mind in the universe expressed in his Childhood’s End and some selected short stories, as well as confronts them with the ideas of Stapledon in Star Maker and Last and First Men. These works can be viewed as an imaginary dialogue across space and time of these two beautiful outstanding minds about the predestination of life and intelligence, as well as about the ways to affront this ultimate knowledge.
In particular, the paper analyses Clarke’s response to and elaboration of such important issues raised by Stapledon as the nature of evolution and regress of the human species; the possible ways of mental organisation and coexistence of various intelligent life forms in the Universe; the nature and evolution of the Universe(s), the hierarchy of various life forms in the cosmos and possible scenarios of their interaction.
Boyarkina Iren got Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Rome Tor Vergata in 2014. Her Ph.D. thesis “Musical Metaphors and Parables in the Narratives by Olaf Stapledon” is dedicated to this great SF writer and philosopher. She’s also done extensive research in the field of English and American science fiction literature, feminist literature, English and American Literature of the XIX-XXth centuries. She published works dedicated to Olaf Stapledon, Doris Lessing, H.G. Wells, Anne Tyler, Henry James, James Joyce, Edith Whorton, etc.
Andy Sawyer (University of Liverpool) “’It’s just my job five days a week’: ‘Rocket-Men’ of the 1950s”
This paper will ask why heroes of the 1950s space programme are actually thin on the ground in fiction that was designed to bring about reality rather than celebrate a mythology. The last “frontier”, the Arctic/Antarctic, offered scope for hero figures and stories of great tragedy. Adult science fiction in the 50s, especially that of Arthur C. Clarke, was largely trying to avoid this. By looking at Clarke’s fiction and nonfiction of the early 50s against Robert A. Heinlein, Destination Moon (1950), and Russian science fiction such as Pavel Klushantsev’s visionary semi-documentary film Road to the Stars (1957) we see the complexity and contradictions in the visions of the forthcoming space age.
There are no heroes in Clarke and Heinlein. Clarke’s characters are scientists and technocrats with the camaraderie of the shared group, drawing upon his school and service career and the playful anarchy of fandom. Heinlein’s are entrepreneurs and technicians. Their “idealist” fictions are compared with those of E.C. Tubb, one of the most prolific contributors to the British sf paperback imprints and magazines of the 1950s and 60s. Tubb presents space not as a Clarkeian paradigm shift in human evolution or a Heinleinian necessity for economic or military survival, but as a workaday, unromantic, even squalid environment, sometimes driving people to madness. His characters are from a lower social caste – working people and hustlers or, in stories as by “Alice Beecham”, inhabit a more domestic reality.
Despite the idea of space as a leap towards an unknown frontier, there are few explorers (Heinlein’s most mythical character and one of the few actual heroes is Rhysling, a balladeer).
Children’s sf spawned semi-heroes: the Jet Morgans, Dan Dares, Space Kingsleys and Captain Condors of the British comics and radio serials were, as their names suggest, dramatic action figures like Captain Future or Tom Corbett, Space Cadet of the US TV serials. The later space programme, once it involved human individuals, produced personalities – Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova and, later, Neil Armstrong – but rarely dramatic heroes. Heroes, as we see in the case of Franklin’s North-West passage expedition of 1845 and Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole, are possibly for when it all goes wrong.
The Russians couldn’t admit that things might go wrong. Clarke’s distrust of Imperial ventures made him suspicious of heroics. Heinlein’s anti-communism made success too important to entertain the possibility of failure. But it is Tubb who gives Space a living economy.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library. From 2002-2012 he was director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies for the School of English, University of Liverpool, and also taught 3rd-year undergraduate modules on the subject. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction.
He has published numerous essays on aspects of science fiction and fantasy, has contributed to many reference books and edited collections, and is a frequent reviewer in the field.
He most recently co-edited (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction (2011). He was Guest Curator of the British Library Exhibition “Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It” May 20 – Sep 25 2011, and was the 2008 recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Clareson Award for services to science fiction.