Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008)

One of the last of the towering giants of our field is gone. Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of 90. I learned of it when my daughter called from college to tell me she'd seen it on the BBC news site. (There's a much better obituary in the Washington Post, also reprinted in the Boston Globe.) I was stunned, even though I knew I shouldn't be; his health had been frail for years. Nonetheless, I feel deeply saddened, and at the same time grateful for the wonders of the imagination that he brought us all. Like many of my generation, I grew up inspired by AsimovHeinleinClarke, as well as many of their contemporaries. With Sir Arthur's passing, that towering triumvirate is all gone now. In this world, all that remains is their work, and memories. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty impressive monument.

Photo from AP, via Boston Globe

I never met Arthur Clarke, but we corresponded briefly when I was in college. (Correspondence is probably glorifying it, but that's how I choose to remember it.) When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Arthur Clarke was there with Walter Cronkite, covering the story. Being a big fan of Clarke's at the time (in particular, I loved his short stories and the short novel Against the Fall of Night), I wrote to him in care of CBS News, telling him how great it was to see him there on TV with Walter Cronkite. A week or so later, I got a postcard back from him, thanking me. He'd written it as he was departing for his home on Sri Lanka.

He and I shared a love of something besides science and science fiction, particularly science fiction with transcendent themes—and that was scuba diving. That's something I'd always wished we could have talked about. It was not to be, in this world. Maybe in the next.

"All writing is a form of prayer." —John Keats

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Taxes, Life, and Consultancy

The last few weeks have been jammed, with one thing after another, some better than others. Doing taxes (mostly, getting a year's financial records caught up so that I could do our taxes) took a big slug of time. In my new model for life, it had to be done not by an April 15th deadline, but by the deadline of submitting all the application materials for my daughter's college financial aid. Ironically, in the midst of this, I needed to bring said daughter home for a week of enforced rest. She bonked her head real good on a lighting fixture at the theater where she works, and got a concussion. Being a college kid, she of course wasn't resting as needed for recovery. So home she came.

The day we drove her back to school (a 3 1/2 hour drive each way) was the day we had torrential downpours throughout the northeast—so we got on our way for the return trip home just in time to avoid flooding roads, and then drove for 3 1/2 hours through the hardest pounding rain I've seen in a long time. Made it okay, though.

That segued right into preparing for one of my most unusual trips (from which I've just returned). I flew to D.C. and joined a handful of other SF writers for a 2-day meeting with people from the defense department, or technically the Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP), brainstorming futuristic notions of how we might better prepare our soldiers for future combat. Now, I am not a military type at all, and there I was with a group consisting of military thinktank guys, ex-servicemen, and a few representatives of actual arms manufacturers. It was extremely interesting and educational, and I hope I contributed some useful ideas. Mostly I focused on nonlethal weapons and information systems and nanotech possibilities, because I think our people in the field ought to have more choices than doing nothing, or pulling a trigger and killing someone. (That's greatly simplifying, of course, but the fundamental image is a 19-year-old kid with an M16, kicking down a door and making a split-second decision about whether the person on the other side is a threat or not.) We had some very interesting discussions (although the bureaucratic mode kicked in once in a while, such as when we "affinitized" our ideas, then went for—what was it?—a "Plenary Consensus on Affinity Grouping of Concepts").

Following that meeting, most of us SF writers went on to meet with people from the Department of Homeland Security, who were eager to solicit our thoughts on how to anticipate threats in the future, and how to avoid them and/or adapt to them. That again was extremely educational, and I hope we got a start at useful brainstorming with them. They're a lot smarter than most of the public probably thinks they are. And they're interested in continuing to work with us.

And so I came home, where younger daughter was there to greet me, but wife was not. No, nothing bad had happened; we just missed each other, as she'd flown to London this morning to help her mom deal with some family business. You do what you have to, to get affordable air fares, right?

Anyway, I came back encouraged as much as anything else by the fact that there are some decision-makers in Washington who actually think science fiction writers have some useful thoughts to contribute. That alone was worth the trip.

"Whenever I have endured or accomplished some difficult task -- such as watching television, going out socially or sleeping -- I always look forward to rewarding myself with the small pleasure of getting back to my typewriter and writing something." —Isaac Asimov

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