19 March 2008

The Thirty-First Ghost

Douglas Adams, being interviewed years and years ago for Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was far from kind in his appraisal of most writers of science-fiction. The standard of writing in the field, he felt, was abysmal. Taking Isaac Asimov as an example, he said that while he was in awe of his ideas he wouldn't have employed him even to write junk mail.

I have no idea what he thought of Arthur C. Clarke, who died yesterday. I've read hardly anything by Clarke, I'm afraid, though I've long been fond of his 2001: A Space Odyssey, the foreward to which starts with the poetic observation that:
'Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe, the Milky Way. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe, there shines a star.'
No, I have no idea if he was right, whether about the historical population of the Earth or about the astronomical population of the Heavens, and rather suspect he's way off, not least because his claims begs the question of what counts as a human being, but it's a beautiful idea nonetheless, isn't it?

Neil Gaiman says on his journal today that the Clarke story that made the deepest impression on him when he was a child was 'The Nine Billion Names of God'. It's conveniently online, and temptingly short, so I may have a read later on. Gaiman's description of how he met Clarke more than two decades ago is really quite bewitching:
'I met Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1985, when he was in the UK to promote the film of 2010. He was staying in Brown's Hotel in London, where the doormen wore top hats and the hotel interior didn't seem to have changed in a hundred years. I interviewed him for Space Voyager magazine, but all I remember is that he was very kind and polite, and a vague surprise in discovering that he had a West Country burr in his voice. He seemed like someone from a past era, in that elderly wood-and-leather hotel, frail and elderly 22 years ago, but he was someone who had showed me the future, and who was living, very happily, in the future.'
I must confess that I'm a little surprised that he was surprised at discovering Clarke's 'West Country burr', not least because he'd evidently watched The Goodies a few times back in the day. Had he seen the episode where Graeme Garden turns in a marvellous performance as Arthur C. Clarke, dismissing one Fortean phenomenon after another? If not, he'd missed out.

'The Himalayan foothills, traditional home of the Abominable Snowman or Yeti,' says Garden's Clarke. 'Or is it? Well, once again - cobblers.' It's funny even as read, especially if you know Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, but for real comedic value it needs to be proclaimed in an earthily impatient West Country accent.

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