The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Review: Visionary

Bookmark and Share

Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke
by Neil McAleer
The Clarke Project, 2012
softcover, 432 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-615-55322-1

Few would dispute the claim that Arthur C. Clarke was one of the most prominent and influential science fiction authors of the 20th century. While best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey (the movie more so than the novel), he produced over his life an impressive body of fiction and nonfiction, much of it involving humanity’s expansion beyond Earth into the solar system. Moreover, his 1945 article in Wireless World outlining the concept of “extra-terrestrial relays” is commonly hailed as the genesis of the geosynchronous communications satellite concept. That gave him the public perception of being a seer, even if, like many prognosticators, his forecasts missed the mark (see “The perils of spaceflight prediction”, The Space Review, December 5, 2011).

However, while Clarke the science fiction author and spaceflight communicator may be famous, Clarke the person is another story. Most people, even those familiar with his novels and short stories, would be hard-pressed to describe the details of the man and his life beyond the basics: an Englishman who later moved to Sri Lanka, and wasn’t he somehow involved with radar during World War II? For those seeking to understand Clarke’s life as well as writing, Neil McAleer’s biography Visionary will be of interest.

Visionary offers an in-depth look at a man whose writing entertained and engaged generations of people about the promise of space.

McAleer, who wrote an earlier authorized biography of Clarke in the early 1990s, offers perhaps as complete a look at Clarke’s life as possible in his new biography. He follows Clarke’s life in simple chronological order, from his childhood in England to his early adult life in London, working in the civil service while going to British Interplanetary Society meetings and starting his writing career. After spending World War II in the Royal Air Force working on a radar system to support aircraft landings, he dove into a full-time writing career, on topics as varied as spaceflight and diving.

Visionary describes Clarke’s life in great detail, down the itineraries of his tours of America and elsewhere as his fame as an author and a guide to the emerging Space Age grew. McAleer doesn’t shy away from some of the more controversial, or at least more mysterious, aspects of Clarke’s life, including his one, short-lived marriage to an American woman, Marilyn Mayfield, and questions about his sexual orientation. (This includes a section on the claims of pedophilia made by a British tabloid in 1998 that were later dismissed for lack of evidence.) Those issues, McAleer suggests, may explain one of the few weaknesses of Clarke’s writing: the lack of major female characters in his works, “even fewer with any hint of complexity.”

Given both the thoroughness of the book, as well as its price (a hardcover version is available at an even higher price, $150), Visionary will appeal primarily only to scholars and dedicated fans of Clarke. For those people, those, this book offers an in-depth look at a man whose writing entertained and engaged generations of readers about the promise of space.