A mindbender leaves us

It was in 1968 when my mind was first tweaked by a man who lived in some place called Sri Lanka. It would not be the last time he would do so.

The Van Dyke family—dad, mom, me and Tom—was parked at the drive-in theater on a typically hot summer night in Fresno. The movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the things I remember about that night—it was one of the last times the four of us did anything together. In another year, our little family unit would blow up forever.

The other thing I remember about that night was that the movie completely boggled my mind, this at a time when I was still being introduced to the notion that I even had a mind to boggle. I mean, The Wizard of Oz or The Thing, this flick was not. The family didn’t talk much after it was over, which was pretty much standard operating procedure for the Van Dykes at the time. But Tom and I stayed up that night after we got home and tried to figure it all out. Our conference must have been unsatisfactory in terms of filling in the confounding blanks; the next day, I went out and got a copy of the book, determined to get to the bottom of it all.

I thought back on that night at the drive-in almost 40 years ago after hearing that the esteemed nonagenarian Arthur C. Clarke, author of that sci-fi masterwork, finally succumbed to respiratory difficulties a couple of weeks ago. The connection is appealing, that the last family function I can recall was the collective viewing of the greatest science fiction film ever.

Clarke was, of course, so much more to science and sci-fi than his well-known blockbuster (the book of 2001 was written by Clarke at the same time he was writing the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick, and he wrote most of it, oddly enough, in Manhattan’s notorious Chelsea Hotel). Back in the ’40s, he wrote a short story that put forth the concept of geosynchronous satellites orbiting our planet. Now, as a Dish Network subscriber, I’m directly tapped into the realization of what was basically a pipe dream 60 years ago.

Then, there are Clarke’s Three Laws: “(1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. (2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. (3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Clarke was buried in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where he lived the last 50 years of his life. The ceremony was reportedly secular and brief. I have no idea what his grave marker looks like, but it strikes me that it would be incomparably cool if his tombstone was … you got it … a perfectly smooth, blank, black monolith.