Saturday, May 6, 2006

A Giant To Me

Two things to do. One: Watch this video of the Huygen probe's descent from the probe's point of view. Two: say to yourself, "Holy shit, that's the surface of fucking Titan."

I bet Sir Arthur C. Clarke loved that. I remember Imperial Earth with great fondness.

Actually, I remember a LOT of Sir Arthur's books with great fondness, and it's only looking back now that I realise how powerful an influence he was on me. Not so much as a writer (my big influences there are probably A.A. Milne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Steven Brust), but on my whole idea of what life was all about, what we were expected to do about it, and what the possibilities were.

The possibilities were limitless, in his writings. I read his books again and again (at one point I remember calculating that The Fountains of Paradise had surpassed The Lord of the Rings as my most-read book (the professor has since repassed the knight, I'm sure Sir Arthur is sorry to hear)), and Sir Arthur's optimistic, tolerant and humanistic view of the world has deeply shaped my own.

Steph and I were talking about how you figure shit out in your life, and we broke it down to two basic principles:

Firstly, you have to be able to simplify things, to get down to the essential nature of the issues that face you. If you're considering the question of capital punishment, you have to take that down a step further -- is killing okay? Cause if you're going to say killing isn't ALWAYS bad, that's an important part of your worldview. But if you can't get from the specific case of capital punishment to the general case of killing, you'll never be able to construct some sort of consistent view of the world and if you can't do that, you're just making decisions in the dark, with no way to LEARN anything.

Really, this is all about logic. If you can't think and argue with basic logic, you're screwed. I don't think I ever got taught basic logic, though. I think I picked it up through reading and stuff, but I'm pretty sure that nobody in, say, grade one or two, sat me down and said, "Look, here's how you assess a position and compare it with another." And that would have been helpful.

The second basic principle is being able to complicate things. Yes, that's the opposite of the previous one. You need to be able to bring in as many relevant data points as there are, and for any reasonably complicated issue, that's going to be a huge number. To take our previous example of capital punishment, there's obviously all kinds of considerations -- how much does it cost to execute someone versus how much does it cost to keep them alive, or which method punishment actually deters crime more? If you can't generate significant numbers of these sorts of points around any decision you're trying to make, you're operating with insufficient data, and that NEVER works very well for very long.

How do you do that? By being creative. You gotta have imagination to think up all the things that could possibly affect any given situation. You need the ability to throw your mind out and just make shit up. If you can't make shit up when it's called for, you are once again screwed. And again, I don't know that anybody taught me this -- and it IS a learnable skill.

In part, I learned both those skills from Sir Arthur's books. His ideas were so rooted in actual science that you could learn a great deal from them -- most of what I know about lunar geography (which is probably enough to surprise a Lunarian) I learned from Earthlight and A Fall of Moondust. And from the coincidental fact that I was born on the first anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Where was I? Right, logic and creativity and Sir Arthur.

So his books feature actual science, so that when he describes something, you could actually go look it up and find that whatever he'd said about it would be largely true, if expanded a bit from existing knowledge. But at the same time, he had some pretty radical ideas -- Childhood's End remains one of the most spectacular views of human destiny I've ever encountered (and is possibly the greatest science fiction novel of all time). And a lot of the social ideas in books like Imperial Earth or Rendezvous With Rama seem even now to be right out on the edge of what anyone would publish. Maybe especially now, given the current conservative climate round hereabouts.

Anything was possible in his stories. I remember one (forget the title) about a form of space travel that involved bending space like an inside-out donught around the traveller, so that you could travel a short distance to you that covered light-years in space. Or the space elevators in Fountains, or even the pursuing allosaurus in that short story with the jeep and the test station. I forget what it's called.

Reading Arthur C. Clarke taught me two of the most important skills I ever acquired, and made me believe that one day we'd see the surface of Titan ourselves. And what do you know.