In April of 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s latest film, 2001: A Space Odyssey screened before press audiences. Completed just days earlier, it was a collaboration between the famed director and famed British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. The first reviews were critical: "The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring," the New York Times declared. Others were more positive: Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong watched the movie prior to his historic mission, and enjoyed himself: "It was a particularly fine production, with exceptionally accurate portrayals of spaceflight conditions and visual effects." Since its release, Clarke and Kubrick's film has stood the test of time, remaining a popular and influential science fiction movie, one which helped elevate Clarke's status as one of the world’s leading science fiction authors.
Arthur Charles Clarke was born on December 16th, 1917 in the town of Minehead in Somerset, England. Clarke first came across science fiction when he borrowed a neighbor’s copy of Hugo Gernsback's first scientifiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1928. His real passion for the genre came full force when he bought a copy of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, (later known as Astounding Stories) a couple of years later. Clarke’s life was "irrevocably changed" by the stories, and it sparked an interest not only in writing, but in science. His neighbors and parents encouraged his newfound passion, most of whom worked in the new telecommunications field; his mother as a telegraph operator and his father as an engineer for the local post office. Clarke's introduction to science fiction came at a rough time for the boy: In the same year he discovered Astounding, his father passed away due his wartime injuries.
He threw himself into his passions. With cast-off lenses, he built his own telescopes to observe the moon and nearby planets, and soon graduated to building his own rockets at his family's farm. All the while, he read as many science fiction magazines he could get his hands on, often secondhand copies imported from the United States. He devoured the works by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and in late 1930, he came across a book that would influence him above all others: Olaf Stapledon's novel The Last and First Men. Still in grade school, Clarke began to write stories of his own.
By 1936, Clarke arrived in London, where he found work as a civil servant. The city allowed him something which was missing on the family farm: fellow science fiction and space fans, whom he met when he joined the British Interplanetary Society. His combination of skills and interests would be useful in the coming years as war broke out in Continental Europe. Clarke opted to join the Royal Air Force in 1941, where he started as a radio specialist and eventually was selected for radar training, where he excelled, helping to develop better systems for the RAF. While training, teaching and working, he continued to write, publishing technical pieces about his work.
Clarke’s background in physics and mathematics made him an ideal candidate for the new wave of science fiction stories that had overtaken the pulp magazines in the United States. By the end of the war, he made his first science fiction sale to John W. Campbell Jr. at Astounding Science Fiction. “Loophole” appeared in the April 1946 issue of the magazine, and his story “Rescue Party” appeared a month later.
1946 marked another major milestone for Clarke: He published an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays in Wireless World,” which outlined his ideas for what would become a geosynchronous communications satellite. Put into practice in 1965 with the launch of IntelSat 1, it was a revolutionary step that allowed communication signals to be transmitted around the planet, adding to Clarke’s reputation within the science fictional world: Not only was he imagining new stories, he was someone who made them happen as well. After the war ended in 1945, he left the military and entered King's College, where he received his bachelor's degree in general sciences.
Clarke had an opportunity to meet his idol Olaf Stapledon in 1948, when he learned that the author was a fellow member of the BIS. Clarke, who was in charge of the speaker's programming for the group, reached out to Stapledon and invited him to speak on "anything you might care to say on the general subject of interplanetary travel." Stapledon agreed, and spoke for two and a half hours in a widely publicized talk in October.
In December of 1948, the BBC ran a short story contest; inspired, Clarke wrote a short piece about a group of astronauts who discover an alien construct on the moon’s surface. After its discovery and destruction, the narrator speculates that it was a beacon designed to alert some unknown species of humanity’s advancement. Clarke submitted his story, titled “The Sentinel of Eternity,” only to have it fail to place.
Clarke’s career as an author was on the upswing by the start of the 1950s: In 1951, Galaxy Science Fiction’s editor published Clarke’s first novel, Prelude to Space, which was closely followed by his second, The Sands of Mars. A nonfiction book titled The Exploration of Space, detailing the technical and scientific elements of human spaceflight, also arrived in bookstores. In the same year, Donald Wollheim acquired Clarke’s unsold story “The Sentinel of Eternity” and published in 10 Story Fantasy alongside stories from A.E. Van Vogt, Fritz Leiber, C.M. Kornsbluth and others, and it was widely reprinted in various collections and anthologies.
1953 marked the publication of Clarke’s first breakout novel, Childhood’s End. The novel had its roots in a story Clarke had published a couple of years earlier, “Guardian Angel,” which recounted the reactions of humanity after aliens appeared over the major cities of Earth. The story became the first part of the draft, with additional material added on. The resulting novel was one that drew heavily from the works of Olaf Stapledon: Aliens arrive in the skies above Earth, eventually revealing themselves to help guide humanity to a new evolutionary process, allowing them to transcend their physical bodies to join a cosmic Overmind. The novel exploded out of the gate, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the first two months and would become a major classic within the genre. The book explored greater territory for the author, examining wholly religious and spiritual iconography as it chronicles the evolution of humanity. Clarke would continue to publish over the following years, remaining a major figure within the science fiction community.
In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick’s satirical Cold War film Dr. Strangelove or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb arrived in theaters to positive reviews. Shortly after, Roger Caras, the vice president of Kubrick’s film company Hawk Films, asked the director what he was planning on doing next. “I’m going to do something on ETs,” he told him, and indicated that he was reading a lot of science fiction to figure out what to do. Caras knew just the author: Clarke, whom he’d met a couple of years earlier. He immediately got in touch with the author, who was interested.
Kubrick and Clarke began to exchange ideas for what such a film might look like. Kubrick had a couple of ideas up front: “(1) The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. (2) The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future.” Clarke was intrigued, and pointed Kubrick to a short story which he’d written 16 years earlier: “The Sentinel” seemed like it would fit both of the director’s criteria and act as a suitable starting point. In April of 1964, while Clarke was in the United States, the pair met and chatted at length about ideas for the film.
With “The Sentinel” chosen as a good start point, Clarke went back to some of his other stories, and selected several additional stories which would help flesh out the film: “Breaking Strain” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1949); “Out of the Cradle: Endlessly Orbiting” (Tales of Ten Worlds, 1962); “Who’s There?” (New Worlds Science Fiction¸ November 1958); “Into the Comet” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1960); and “Before Eden” (Amazing Stories, June 1961). Clarke disliked the idea of writing a screenplay for the project, and offered to write a novel-length story instead, with a screenplay adapted from the resulting book. Kubrick and the executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed.
With the seven stories Clarke selected optioned for adaptation, the author set off to write his novel. Working closely with Kubrick, the ideas piled up. Clarke reached out to astrophysicist Carl Sagan for some input, who helped them figure out how to portray the aliens: not to show them at all, but to suggest their presence. Stuck in New York City, Clarke spent the next year working on the book at the Chelsea Hotel, “where I could draw inspiration from the company of Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and William Burroughs.” He also consulted other science fiction authors, such as Isaac Asimov (In an early draft, Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics were included). The writing was slow; Clarke and Kubrick met often, throwing away work and rewriting, but slowly, the plot and focus of the film emerged. It was a story epic in time and space, exploring the origins of humanity and our possible futures among the stars. As the pair refined their story, they discarded six of Clarke’s earlier stories; only “The Sentinel” remained integral to the film. By Christmas of 1964, Clarke completed a first draft, and in early 1965, the film got the green light from MGM. Kubrick settled on a title for their film: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The early 1960s was an exciting time to be writing about the exploration of space. The first manned missions to space had already captured the public’s imagination, first with Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission in April 1961, and Alan Shepard’s Freedom-7 mission a month later. Clarke traveled to Communication Satellite Corporation’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to witness the launch of the world’s first geosynchronous communications satellite—almost two decades after he envisioned such a device. The Apollo Program started, with the express purpose of landing a man on the moon. The Gemini Program started soon after. Probes had begun to fly out to the moon and neighboring planets in the solar system. Clarke stayed up late to watch the first television close-ups of the moon as NASA’s Ranger 7 probe landed. Man’s future in the solar system had begun.
Clarke and Kubrick spent much of 1965 revising and re-writing the book, all the while production on the film had begun. While Clarke worked on writing the book, he consulted with the film’s technical staff to get details on the filming. After production moved to England, it soon became clear that the novel wouldn’t be completed before the production ended, due to the continual revision process. Clarke joked that the novel would be released in 2002. As filming progressed into the fall of 1965, the pair struggled at figuring out an ending for the movie, throwing ideas back and forth, before settling on Bowman’s transformation into the Star Child at the end. On January 19th, 1966, Kubrick wrote to Clarke and noted that the story was locked. However, while the novel was largely complete, Kubrick held off on having the book published: He believed that it wasn’t ready for publication. By July, he passed along a list of notes and suggestions, and Clarke and his agent, Scott Meredith, began their talks with a publisher, Dell. The delays irritated Clarke; he had spent a considerable amount of time and money on 2001, and wouldn’t be paid until the book’s publication. He couldn’t move on to other writing projects, and his debts were beginning to mount. Kubrick delayed, and ultimately, Dell cancelled their contract for the book in 1967.
By 1968, the film was almost complete. Kubrick continued work on the film’s special effects, and tinkered with the film even after the first screenings in April 1968, cutting the film down in length. On April 5th, the film premiered in New York City, minus 19 minutes of footage. Reviewers reacted with mixed feelings: It was a technically brilliant, but a slow and complicated film.
While the movie was now out in theaters, Clarke’s novel was not in bookstores. At this point, the film’s reputation had preceded it and only a single publisher was remotely interested: New American Library. After a preview screening, the president of the publishing house wasn’t sure about what he’d seen, but was persuaded of the film’s potential by Clarke and decided to purchase the novel. Two years after the manuscript was finished, the journey was over. 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in hardcover in June from New American Library and in paperback from NAL’s imprint Signet in July. Reviewers seemed to enjoy the novel more than the film, and after a year, the book had sold a million copies.
Clarke’s reputation now extended to a much wider audience than the science fiction community. With the landing of Apollo 11 a little over a year later, Clarke, along with fellow science fiction author Robert Heinlein, joined newscaster Walter Cronkite on CBS as an expert on space travel and exploration. Humanity had left Earth, much as he’d envisioned in many of his stories.
In many ways, 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the few “hard science” sci-fi films in the industry. Kubrick and Clarke’s collaboration yielded a meticulous eye toward detail and scientific accuracy, while the film’s epic, almost religious elements harkened back to Clarke’s earlier novels and influences, such as Childhood’s End and the works of Olaf Stapledon. Since its release, few films have matched it in quality and scientific accuracy. 2001 proved to be one of the more influential science fiction films, and certainly helped to bring about a golden age of sci-fi films in the coming decades.
Clarke eventually returned to the world of 2001. He wrote a sequel titled 2010: Odyssey Two, in 1982, which earned a Hugo Award nomination for Best Novel. The film industry was interested, and two years later, director Peter Hyams released an adaptation of the book. While the film never gained the reputation of its predecessor, it was well received by reviewers, and eventually earned a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. In 1988, Clarke wrote and released a third book in the series, titled 2061: Odyssey Three. Nine years later, Clarke published a final book in the series: 3001: The Final Odyssey. It would be his last novel released without a collaborator, although he would write six additional books with Michael P. Kube-McDowell, Stephen Baxter and Frederik Pohl before his death in 2008.
Pictured above: Stanley Kubrick (left) and Arthur C. Clarke