March 20, 2008


There are things you know you shouldn't do. You've done them before, and nothing good came of it. You tell yourself never to do it again. I'm not talking about mind-altering substances, or ill-thought out liaisons that don't look so good just before sunup. I'm talking about reading stuff that makes your brain hurt.

Edward Rothstein, who writes about culture is someone I really try not to read. And when I do forget, and read him, I mentally kick myself and swear never to do it again.

But today I saw the headline, and I had to read it. Mistake, but this time my brain didn't hurt as much as I got angry.

On the death of Arthur C. Clark

He starts out very nicely, actually:

“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90.

This is, of course, not easy to do. It's very difficult to keep religion out of death. Death's avoidance is at the heart of religious belief, whether it is through personal immortality or immortality through your offspring. So it's a challenge to fend it off.

So what does Rothstein do? He writes about he religious elements of Clarke's work, declaring, at the end:

For all his acclaimed forecasting ability, though, it is unclear whether Mr. Clarke knew precisely what he saw in that future. There is something cold in his vision, particularly when he imagines the evolutionary transformation of humanity. He leaves behind all the things that we recognize and know, and he doesn’t provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize and know. In that sense his work has little to do with religion.

But overall religion is unavoidable. Mr. Clarke famously — and accurately — said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction, at least in his case, is nearly indistinguishable from religion.

The body of the article is about some of the stories Clarke wrote that had religion in them, like the famous short story "The Nine Billion Names of God" where two computer technicians help an Eastern sect print out all God's names, thereby ending the universe.

Along the way he peddles this tripe:

Mr. Clarke’s writings were the most biblical, the most prepared to amplify reason with mystical conviction, the most religious in the largest sense of religion: speculating about beginnings and endings, and how we get from one to the other.

The fact that Clarke noticed that other people believed in this stuff, and that there was fodder for irony and pathos doesn't make him mystical or religious. Another story he might have mentioned, "The Star," is about a Jesuit astronomer who discovers that the nova that Magi followed destroyed a thriving civilization. (I happen to think this story inspired George RR Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon," which is about another Jesuit who has challenges to his faith).

But the fact that Clarke was a keen observer of what motivates people, had the strong sense of irony that makes for a great short story writer--the best of the Golden Age authors at that length--doesn't in anyway make him religious, any more than Larry Niven creating a compelling alien makes him a Pearson's Puppeteer.

It's an insult to Clarke's memory to put his work in this frame, and Edward Rothstein should be ashamed.

Of course, if he knew shame, he wouldn't keep writing.

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