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Chinese SF writers bid farewell to Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

The death of science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke last Wednesday drew reactions from science fiction authors and fans all over the world, China included. Here are some of the commemorations that Chinese SF enthusiasts posted online this week:

· Wu Yan, probably the most well-known SF critic in China, immediately posted an old appreciation piece he had written on the occasion of Clarke’s 75th birthday. The article, which ran in Science Fiction World in 1992, told of the early encounters that Chinese SF had with Clarke: letters exchanged in which he expressed interest in Chinese SF.

· Liu Cixin, possibly the most popular Chinese SF currently writing, also wrote on his blog of drawing inspiration from Clarke:

Clarke has left us….

Twenty-seven years ago, he was the one who gave me the idea to write science fiction. 2001 taught me how SF could be used to exhibit the breadth and mystery of the universe. Rendezvous With Rama let me see how SF could be like a creator, fashioning an imaginary world real enough to practically reach out and touch. Later, all of my own novels are but clumsy imitations of those two classics.

Now, alas, that man is gone…

· The SFW group on the book-related social networking website Douban changed its name to “Farewell to Clarke.” In its extensive obituary thread, Commenter BRDX wrote:

Arthur, have you become tired of the 21st Century?

We have no moon city, no space elevator to a synchronous orbit, no robot that can read our feelings — we have nothing at all!

In the first year of the 20th Century, Marconi’s wireless signal crossed the Atlantic. In the the third year, the Wright brothers took to the skies in the flying machine they built. In the fifth year, Einstein wrote out his mass-energy equation….

In the 21st Century, a complacent humanity has lost its spirit of adventure.

Sorry, we have let you down.

Farewell, Arthur, farewell.

The dreamer may die, but the dream never will…

· Another commenter, NStar, posted a link to a blog post:

More than twenty years ago, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. My enchantment with that book was probably one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with science fiction. About one year ago, I happened to receive a letter from the master. When I opened it, I saw it was an invitation to join the Planetary Society. In my excitement, I couldn’t help feeling confused: how did the master know of me? Thinking it through, I decided that it probably was because of a science fiction Sudoku — just a small block of text — that ran in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that gave the Planetary Society the idea that I was a prospect. Probably, they had given the master a whole stack of things to sign, which they then sent to all the authors whose names appeared in the British and American SF mags, so their advertisement had been sent to me.

Although it wasn’t the master himself who had noticed me, at any rate I was fortunate to receive a letter with his autograph.

· Han Song, SF author and Xinhua journalist, remembered Clarke in a blog post that characteristically touched on contemporary Chinese politics:

When I heard the news that Clarke had died, it was already late, but although I was ill, I still wanted to get up and write a few words. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey in Modern Foreign Science Fiction, edited by Shi Xianrong and published by the Shanghai Literature and Arts Press. This was probably around 1984-85, and at that time lots of publishers would go to universities to sell old books. I bought that book (it was only the second volume). Clarke’s classic story was the first, and was translated by Guan Zaihan. Published in 1968, this story is still readable today. Clarke’s strongest influence on me was on my outlook on the world and on the universe, just like Marx, the Buddha, Einstein, and Plank. Like Kubrick said of Clarke, he gave us a new perspective, letting us see humanity in its earthly cradle extending its hands to a future in the stars. Very few people you meet in your life will truly influence you. Regrettably, however, I often feel that a compliment from a certain leader was most influential in my life.

In the late 1990s, my office was about to send me to Sri Lanka, but because the departmental leader thought “things are too busy now, so we can’t let you go,” I ended up not going (you see the enormous influence a leader has). This was fairly regrettable. I had even planned out how I would request an interview with Clarke. Later, friends told me that Sri Lanka was oh such a nice place. And it was the place where Clarke predicted a space elevator going out to the universe. The communications satellites that Clarke predicted have become reality. And after humanity ascended to the moon, an American astrophysicist praised Clarke for providing the most important motivation.

Clarke said: “I regard myself primarily as an entertainer and my ideals are Maugham, Kipling, Wells. My chief aim is the old SF cliché, ‘The search for wonder.’ However, I am almost equally interested in style and rhythm, having been much influenced by Tennyson, Swinburne, Housman, and the Georgian poets.” “My main themes are exploration (space, sea, time), the position of Man in the hierarchy of the universe, and the effect of contact with other intelligences.”These ideas had an influence on contemporary Chinese science fiction authors. But today there is still not enough of that “search for wonder” (猎奇), and poetry is still lacking.

Let us draw inspiration from these words, just as we draw inspiration from President Hu Jintao’s remarks at the legislative sessions, to work cleanly for the country and the people, or as we draw encouragement from the words of Premier Wen Jiabao: we must liberate the minds of every individual — that is, we must have independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity.

I think that Clarke could be said to have worked cleanly within the science fiction realm (as clean as the ocean and skies of Sri Lanka), and his independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity should serve as a worthy model.

Clarke worked cleanly in science fiction until he was ninety years old. I am quite young compared to him, but already I’m not very clean: I’ve been polluted, led astray, made mistakes, a body covered in mud. What will the future bring? Will independence, criticism, and creativity — values intrinsic to science fiction — be illuminated by the Olympic torch climbing Mt. Everest?

· Just a few months ago, the now-defunct translations magazine World Science Fiction ran a short biographical introduction to Clarke in its December, 2007, issue. The piece was written by Chinese SF author Xing He, who also posted a commemoration to his blog this week.

Image from Wu Yan’s blog.