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David A. Wimsett
Providing Technological Solutions

David's interest in technology extends back to his teen years with science fairs and amateur radio. He is fascinated with hardware, but his real interest is how people use technology. David's goal in providing technological solutions has always been to listen to the end users.


Farewell Odysseus

There have been many writers who have had a profound impact upon my career. The great science fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clark, was one of the giants. On the 19 th March, at the age of 90, Sir Arthur died in his home in Sri Lanka , a place he called Serindip.

Sir Arthur wrote both science fiction and non-fiction. He earned a degree in physics and worked on the development of Radar during World War II. After the war, he was the first person to publish a proposal for orbital communication satellites, an innovation without which the modern world could not exist.

He is perhaps best known for coauthoring the screenplay to the motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) with the legendary director Stanley Kubrick and for writing the companion novel. Yet, Sir Arthur was far more prolific. He penned over a hundred books including short story collections, novels, and non-fiction books. He was also an avid diver and his explorations of the Great Barrier Reef brought him world acclaim.

His predominant view of humanity was optimistic. His books show a human race that, though sometimes petty and short-sighted, nonetheless emerges noble and ingenious. This is seen in novels such as, Childhood's End (1953, Ballatine Books), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, New American Library), Rendezvous with Rama (1973, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), and The Fountains of Paradise (1975, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). In the midst of the cold war, movies and books often featured fleets of murdering space monsters, an echo of the fears of nuclear war. In contrast, Sir Arthur created alien races that came to help humanity achieve a higher level of consciousness. Sometimes, the aliens in these stories are presented with a near religious fervour, even though Sir Arthur himself vocally decried all forms of organized religion.

Sir Arthur was a master at presenting complex, scientific concepts in a common language that anyone could understand. He could describe a fictional control panel of a spaceship with such clarity that readers could imagine themselves flying it. Of course, he did get a few things wrong.

In The Sands of Mars (1951, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), he describes a space liner traveling to a Martian colony. As the spaceship heads out, a small, fast rocket containing medicine is sent in pursuit. The spaceship must transmit a homing signal to the smaller craft in order to rendezvous with it, but the rocket is barely in range. The radio operator comes up with a plan and tells the others, “The power amplifiers on this transmitter run at seven hundred and fifty volts. I'm taking a thousand-volt line from another supply, that's all. It will be a short life and a merry one, but we'll double or treble the output while the tubes last.”

In his short story “Rescue Party” (1946, published by Signet in the collection The Nine Billion Names of God ), Sir Arthur describes a dying Earth and a race of advanced aliens who send a rescue ship to a world that they know is inhabited, but with which they have never made contact.

They discover an immense hall filled with machines and filing cabinets. Inside the cabinets are stiff, paper cards that are perforated with small holes. The aliens leave, never understanding that this is the world database with a “wonderful battery of almost human Hollerith analyzers and the five thousand million punched cards holding all that could be recorded of each man, woman, and child on the planet.”

We can perhaps forgive Sir Arthur for not anticipating the replacement of vacuum tubes with integrated circuits or punched cards with gigabyte disks. After all, in spite of popular perception, science fiction writers are not prophets predicting the future. Far more than that, their visions of that future help to create it by inspiring new generations of scientists and engineers. It is hard to look at my flip cell phone and not think of Captain Kirk's communicator. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the works of science fiction writers influence the design concepts that shape the direction and application of science and technology.

Unfortunately, science fiction does not always garner serious literary consideration. True, there are the pulp stories with bug-eyed monsters carrying scantly clad women into the swamps, but these are more horror tales than true science fiction.

Science fiction extends back centuries to the beginnings of the scientific method. It is a literature that explores the relationship between humans and technology and the effect it has on both society and the individual. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein explores the consequences of using science to create life, and the responsibility of the creator to his creation and the world at large, questions being asked today about genetics research. The technology changes over the years, but the underlying themes are universal.

The best science fiction stories are about our hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses projected into a world a thousand years in the future or only fifteen minutes away. It is a perfect medium for allegory. Stories of prejudice, greed, and environmental destruction have all been set in future times and other planets, allowing readers who might otherwise ignore an uncomfortable message to stop and think about it. Is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961, G. P. Putnam's Sons) a story about a boy with extraordinary powers who is raised on Martians and returned to Earth as an adult, or is it about how society treats those who are different and, perhaps, considered dangerous?

As such, science fiction explores the human condition as eloquently and poignantly as Faulkner, Joyce, or Dickens. Ray Bradbury once declared that Singing in the Rain is really a science fiction movie because it examines how the advent of technology, the talking picture, impacted the people in the movie industry and the world.

Sir Arthur C. Clark wrote hard science fiction about people and technology, stories rooted in the known science of the time that ask where we are going and what it will be like when we get there. He wrote with intensity and vibrancy and his powerful vision will continue to inspire generations to come. I, and many other writers, owe him a great debt, and though I never met him personally, I will miss him sorely. Farewell Odysseus. We are, all of us, more noble for the journey.

 

 

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