I wrote last week how the great classic science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s was really modernism in the clothes of fiction. (This is a discovery for me. Sorry if it was obvious to you.) It argued, throw enough Reason and Technology at the world, and its problems will be solved. In a way it was a continuation of the 19th century idea of ‘Progress’ where with enough steam and civilisation, all the ‘savages’ would be tamed. ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, representing both 1960s SF, and a Victorian mindset: ‘the final frontier.’
I mentioned Arthur C Clarke, science and science fiction writer, my writing hero when I was younger. I have read everything I can find that he wrote, a compliment I’ve paid to no other writer. I studied at the same college as him, and much the same subject. (He did a joint honours in maths and physics at King’s College London, I did physics only, and not so well.) I’ve read about him, his work with the British Interplanetary Society, his meeting at the Eastgate pub in Oxford with Val Kilner, C S Lewis, and J R R Tolkien, his admission of not being exactly ‘gay’ (though he surely was) but ‘merely mildly cheerful’.
He said religion was mumbo jumbo and implied science was the surer answer. (Lewis and Tolkien, both Christians, were technophobes and I’m not sure they possessed a fridge between them. Clarke, at the same time, was calculating orbital mechanics to get his short stories right. So their pub meeting failed, shall we say, to find consensus.)
Clarke’s worlds, set a century or so from the his 1950s present, were places where reason and technology had continued to fuel the upward march of progress. So Clarke was, in worldview, an old-fashioned 19th century liberal, albeit working into the 21st.
Clarke insisted on ‘absolutely no religious rites of any kind’ for his funeral. And yet. The transcendant kept sneaking in to his work. It’s there in Childhood’s End and it’s powerfully present in the Nine Billion Names of God, where a computer successfully prints out all God’s (apparently) nine billion names, thus fulfilling the purpose for which humans were created. Then the programmers, who are on their way home, look up, and in one of the most striking ends to any short story, ever, they see, ‘overhead, without any fuss, the stars were all going out.’
Transcendence. Hard to stamp out.