Thore Bjørnvig (University of Copenhagen) “Leaving the Cradle: Transcendence and Childhood’s End”
Science fiction often deals with themes traditionally found in religion and mythology. Among these themes, the human dream of transcending earthly existence often occurs. One of the clearest and most profound expressions of this urge is found in Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The novel is narrowly connected to Judaic-Christian narratives of apocalypse and ties in with current transhumanistic philosophy of AI and robotics. Though Clarke was a self-professed atheist and often expressed criticisms of religion, in both popular science writings and in fiction he often dealt in ideas that were hardly distinguishable from religion. This throws some interesting light both on Clarke as the “prophet of the Space Age” and on “religion” as a concept.
Thore Bjørnvig has an MA in the history of religion from the University of Copenhagen. For a decade he has studied connections between space flight and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence on the one hand, and religion and mythology on the other. He has, among other things, published the article “Transcendence of Gravity: Arthur C. Clarke and the Apocalypse of Weightlessness” in the anthology on astroculture edited by Alexander CT Geppert (Imagining Outer Space, Macmillan, 2012) and recently co-edited an special issue of Astropolitics on spaceflight and religion (2013).
Dr Dani Shalet (University of Kent) “The Divine Human: Clarke and the Transhuman”
Transhumanism is a philosophy that was coined by Max More in 1990, an intellectual movement that sees a future where humans are no longer limited by human frailty and weakness. This future is one that envisions the cyberisation of the human body, its enhancement through cybernetic implants, computerisation and robotics. It is also believed by some transhumanists that human technology will reach a level of advancement that will result in the creation of a super computer; effectively a benevolent AI that will enable humans to leave their physical bodies behind and upload themselves into “cyber space”, creating a shared consciousness. This event is known as the Mind Fire and is seen, in many respects, to hold parallels to the Buddhist nirvana. Many of these themes are echoed in science fiction films and anime like the Terminator series, Ghost in the Shell and Ex Machina, to name a few. That said, these ideas and concepts where first imagined and brought to life by science-fiction greats like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson points out how influential Clarke was to the founding fathers of transhumanism: “…in the 1960s, new optimistic futuristic scenarios about humanity where articulate by science fiction writers such as Arthur C Clarke…who speculated about the new transhumanist future”; interestingly enough academics, like TIrosh-Samuleson and Robert Geraci are currently debating the rather mutable category of this scientific movement, suggesting that this “philosophy”, due to concepts like the Mind Fire and the creation of a post-apocalyptic future, harbours some similarity to Abrahamic Apocalyptic myth. Through Clarke was a professed atheist, one cannot help but notice that many of his works, though scientific in nature, have a basis in the divine. What this paper will illustrate are these religious undertones, and assess to what degree Clarke’s work influenced the “religion” within transhumanism.
Dr Jim Clarke (Coventry University) “A Space Bodhi Tree: The ‘Crypto-Buddhism’ of Arthur C. Clarke”
Arthur C. Clarke was known as a lifelong atheist and rationalist, who claimed to have been a logical futurist from the age of ten, and who was appointed a Humanist Laureate in the International Academy of Humanism. Refutations of organised religion, especially Christianity, as the “most malevolent and persistent of all mind viruses” permeates his work, featuring as a plot device in novels such as The Fountains of Paradise and 3001.
However, Clarke’s repudiation of religion was not totalising. His reputation for incorporating elements of cosmic transcendence into his fiction led to the scientist JBS Haldane suggesting that Clarke “should receive a prize in theology for being one of the few people to write anything new on the subject”. Specifically, Clarke seemed to exempt Buddhism, especially its Theravada branch, from his repudiations.
A self-described crypto-buddhist, Clarke was fascinated by concepts like God, reincarnation, and the paranormal and incorporated components of transcendence into his all of his most significant works of fiction. This paper explores the role Buddhist thinking played in Clarke’s cosmology, examining the reasons he distinguished Buddhist concepts from his general repudiation of religion, and the role such concepts played in his narratives of first contact with sentient extraterrestrials, an event for which, Clarke argued, any true theology must await.
Jim Clarke is senior lecturer and course director of English and Journalism at Coventry University. His book Fire of Words: The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess is published by Palgrave Macmillan. He is the principal investigator on the ‘Ponying the Slovos’ project exploring the linguistics of invented languages. He has also written about JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and Doctor Who. He has recently completed a monograph on science fiction and Catholicism.