Remembering Arthur C Clarke, the public intellectual

Cartoon by W R Wijesoma in The Observer (Sri Lanka)
Space prophet mobbed by anxious politicians: Cartoon by W R Wijesoma in The Observer (Sri Lanka)

This cartoon is nearly as old as myself! It was drawn by Sri Lanka’s leading political cartoonist W R Wijesoma and appeared in The Observer newspaper of Colombo sometime in the late 1960s (I haven’t been able to ascertain the exact date).

It shows science fiction writer (later Sir) Arthur C Clarke, already settled down in Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) and ‘Serendipitised’ enough to sport the native attire of sarong, being mobbed by the island’s leading politicians — all of them now departed — each wanting to know what he can foresee or foretell about their personal political futures.

Sir Arthur, whose 91st birth anniversary falls today, took pains to explain that science fiction writers like himself were not soothsayers with powers to predict the future. He was fond of quoting fellow SF writer Ray Bradbury’s famous saying: “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.”

But that kind of reason never deterred politicians of every colour and hue, who are always anxious to know just when they can get elected – or return – to high office and all the trappings of power that go with it.

To mark the birth anniversary – the first since his death in March 2008 – I have just published an op ed essay, titled Sir Arthur C Clarke: A life-long public intellectual, on Groundviews website. In this essay I explore, briefly, some of his life-long pursuits for more rational discussion and debate in public policy. I also wonder how and why he lost his struggle against Sri Lankans’ obsession with astrology.

Here’s an excerpt:

But even half a century of Arthur C Clarke could not shake Sri Lankans off their deep obsession with astrology — the unscientific belief that human destinies are somehow shaped and controlled by celestial bodies millions of kilometres away. A life-long astronomy enthusiast, he repeatedly invited astrologers to rationally explain the basis of their calculations and predictions. This challenge was craftily avoided by astrologers who continue to exercise much influence over politics, public policy, business and everyday life in Sri Lanka.

Despite his broad-mindedness, Clarke couldn’t understand how so many highly educated Sri Lankans practised astrology with a faith bordering on the religious (another topic on which he held strong views). Ironically, even the government-run technical institute named after him used astrologically chosen ‘auspicious times’ for commissioning its new buildings. In later years, Clarke would only say, jokingly: “I don’t believe in astrology; but then, I’m a Sagittarius — and we’re very sceptical.”

On a personal note, I’m truly privileged to have known and worked with both Sir Arthur Clarke and his cartoonist W R Wijesoma (who was my senior colleague at The Island newspaper which he joined at its inception in 1981). I know how much Sir Arthur liked this cartoon, the original of which he obtained from Wijesoma and preserved among dozens of other souvenirs and mementos.

Alas, Wijesoma left us in January 2006 — or he might just have drawn another brilliant cartoon to send off Sir Arthur on his final journey. In fact, a worthy follower of Wijesoma’s cartoon tradition did just that earlier this year – see this blog post of mine from March 2008: Arthur C Clarke autographing all the way to the Great Beyond….?

Read the full essay on Groundviews citizen journalism website.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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