Wednesday, 9 April 2008

My Heroes

The recent death of Arthur C. Clarke led me to have a bit of a ponder. Many people have cited Clarke as a great influence, Space Age prophet and all that. He was/is a hero to millions. So, I thought I'd try to list my heroes, and try not to be a pompous self-indulgent arse.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008)
The man who invented Sky telly, but not deliberately. Also weather satellites. HAL has finally opened the pod bay doors for this undeniable hero.
I can still recall the cover of a paperback of Clarke's children's book Islands in the Sky. I read it in hospital. (I was a sick kid, always in and out of various specialist wards.) The book, if you don't know it, predates spaceflight but is still a very good account of a group of fairly likeable youngsters on a space station.
After Islands I went on to read many of ACC's works. I think he excelled at the fairly light short story ('Trouble With the Natives' and all that), but some of his tales are rather dark. I particularly recall 'The Parasite', with its vision of a 'post-human' creature reaching back through time to toy with hapless chaps. He wasn't a starry-eyed optimist. But he did look to the stars in wonder.

William Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950)

Star Maker. If he had written nothing else, he would still be revered. Admittedly Stapledon was not able to 'write down' to a merely human scale. His characters were, at their smallest, nations and cultures, and his plots were future histories. Last and First Men, with its exhilarating yet oddly bleak depiction of various posthuman (that word again) species is rather wonderful. Star Maker, on its vastly bigger canvas, is arguably the definitive work of 'hard sf'. The fact that it ventures well beyond accepted science into mysticism is not a fault, but a necessity. Stapledon was brilliant at evoking both the scale of our universe and our smallness within it. Part of our smallness is our ignorance, and mysticism is a not unreasonble response to honest ignorance.

3. Herbert George Wells (1866-1946)

'The Man Who Could Work Miracles', 'The Door in the Wall', 'The Time Machine', 'The War of the Worlds'... Really, if you don't admire HG Wells there is something seriously wrong with you. Nabokov rightly described him as a great stylist. Stapledon and then Clarke owed much to him. Of course, it's become fashionable to denigrate old Bertie because he was't a modern newspaper columnist and (gasp!) held some non-PC views. And, yes, some of his works are racist, sexist and - a far worse offence - a bit boring. The fact remains that he was ten times the writer of anyone working today in English. His Short History of the World, which I borrowed from a history teacher in my callow youth and re-read last year, remains one of the best books of its kind. And if he hadn't written The Sea Lady, we'd never have seen Darryl Hannah in Splash! (Don't take my word for it - look it up.) Nor would Jeff Wayne have his War of the Worlds pension scheme. Even worse, we'd have been denied George Pal's two spiffing movies.
Oh, and if Wells was so friggin' bigoted, you London media wankers, how come the Nazis put him on a death list? Eh?

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

Well, I had to, didn't I? I first read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1980, when I was at a very low ebb. In fact I was near suicidal, and I'm still not sure how I got through that very bad patch. MRJ's stories brought me a much-needed sense of perspective. Somehow, his tales of rather genteel, scholarly characters being menaced by Hairy Things of various sorts cheered me up. Perhaps Dr James saved my life? Stranger things have happened. If you don't know his work, check it out. His stories can be read in many ways. Some see in them all sorts of Freudian anxieties, but you can just as easily read them as 'boys' own' mystery tales, with puzzles to solve and decent chaps up showing pluck and resourcefulness.

Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Arthur C. Clarke admired Lovecraft's 'The Shadow Out of Time' (see Clarke's book Astounding Days). Lovecraft admired MRJ and also praised Wells' stories. So it all sort of connects up in a crazy way. I'm not sure when I first read HPL, but it must have been in the early Eighties. I have never found his stories remotely frightening. This does not seem to me to represent a failure in technique or imagination on Lovecraft's part. I think he was striving for a sense of wonder, and for local colour/period detail, and generally he achieved this. He was also trying to be funny, or at least give his readers a bit of fun, and again I think he succeeds. Good for him. Mind you, he was a bit weird on sex, but that just makes him an honorary Brit in my book.

Right, that's a batch of heroes. I'll do some more later. When I've 'ad me bangers and mash, gorblimey.

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