Sir Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist, first and foremost. His essays and novels detailed the advanced technology he envisioned humanity creating.
While dense with science, fans have flocked to Clarke’s writing for decades. Why? Put simply, the man was a modern marvel. Many of his scientific predictions have come true (although in different forms than the ones he wrote), and his essays on science and space travel aren’t just accessible, but filled with hope and optimism for the future of the human species.
With that in mind, we've gathered together 15 inspiring Arthur C. Clarke quotes. These quotes aren’t just science fiction or science fact; they are wonderful life advice from a man knighted for his contributions to literature. They encapsulate the predictions, the hope, and the humorous cynicism trademark to this fantastic writer.
“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.” - "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination" (essay, 1962, in Profiles of the Future)
In his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” Clarke breaks down his thoughts on scientific endeavor and prediction, defining three laws for scientists and science writers to take into account.
Partially focused on how science fiction is meant to delve into all possible futures, the essay also acts as a means of speaking out against the scientific community, specifically those who deem certain endeavors “impossible.”
In Clarke’s mind, science fiction and science fact stem from the courage of the individual to seek out possibilities, no matter how far-fetched. He cites in the essay examples from nuclear fission to airplanes, things deemed impossible until a brave mind managed to make them real.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” - "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination" (essay in Profiles of the Future)
The second of Clarke’s three laws, this particular point appeared in the original essay as an explanation of the first law, but due to the popularity of the point, a 1973 revision of the essay saw this quote become one of the laws.
Essentially, the quote tells us not to limit our minds, but it isn’t simply addressed to scientists. While these laws should be read and understood by every scientist in every age as an inspiration to break boundaries and more deeply explore the natural world, it also acts as fantastic advice for the average person.
We cannot know our own limits until we run headfirst into them. Only by pushing ourselves into what we deem impossible can we truly understand ourselves.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination" (essay in Profiles of the Future)
The third law is by far one of Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous quotes. Originally written in 1968 in a letter to Science magazine, he added this third law along with the second to the 1973 revision of “Hazards of Prophecy,” showcasing his trademark dry humor by stating that “as three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there.”
For the scientific community, this quote couldn’t be more important. It asks its readers to never lose their sense of wonder. Our ancestors saw a bird flying across the sky and could only dream of the day when humans had the magical ability to fly themselves. Now, we have airplanes to take us through the air. According to this quote, everything has some sort of answer; it is only up to us to discover it.
“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.” - Foreword to United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] Asian Regional Human Development Report on Information and Communications Technologies (2004)
Clarke was a huge proponent of the development of the digital age. He believed that the evolution of communication technology would have massive benefits for the world, and in the entirety of his foreword to the UNDP’s report, he sings the praises of information and communication technology.
However, despite claiming to be an optimist in other interviews, Clarke’s mind always seemed to be examining possibilities. While he truly believed in the good these technologies could do for the world, he also understood the risk they posed. He understood that we could become too reliant on these devices and less focused on our own human abilities.
Knowledge, wisdom, and foresight stem from the human mind utilizing information, so while the handy-dandy personal computers in our pockets can connect us to a near infinite amount of information, it is up to us to break it down and turn it into something useful.
“In my life, I have found two thing of priceless worth—learning and loving. Nothing else—not fame, not power, not achievement for its own sake—can possibly have the same lasting value. For when your life is over, if you can say ‘I have learned’ and ‘I have loved,’ you will also be able to say ‘I have been happy.’” - Rama II
For all the apparent cynicism that you can find in Arthur C. Clarke’s works, there is also a huge dose of optimism.
Clarke spoke many times about why he wrote science fiction, and one of the reasons involves bettering humanity, teaching us to be kinder to ourselves, others, and the world around us. This quote from the novel Rama II reflects that mindset.
This focus on universal happiness is a trademark theme of Clarke’s work and is present throughout the interpersonal relationships of the book.
This is important not only to the themes of the book but also in Clarke’s life, as he devoted himself not to fame or power but to the pursuit of knowledge and the improvement of humankind.
“The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be.” - 2001: A Space Odyssey
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truths of this quote. In our world of texting and e-mails, a world where communication is nearly instantaneous, there is still something missing.
Clarke addressed this in his seminal novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written in 1968, decades before the massive profusion of communication technology.
Again, Clarke was a huge proponent in the development and evolution of communications technology, but being a science writer, he knew very well the dangers this impersonal technology could pose.
“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1) It’s completely impossible. 2) It’s possible but not worth doing. 3) I said it was a good idea all along.” -The Promise of Space, 1968
In line with his three laws, Clarke proposed this theory in the 1968 book, The Promise of Space. The book itself is focused on a layman's explanation of aeronautics, space travel, and theoretical physics.
While it stands as a simplified history of the American space program, it also simply stands as good advice for life. There will always be naysayers waiting in the wings, telling you that your ideas will not work. But when your theories come to fruition, they will say they supported you from the start. Essentially, don’t let the negativity of others keep you from doing something great.
"The one fact about the future of which we can be certain is that it will be utterly fantastic." -Profiles of the Future
Here we see some of Clarke’s trademark optimism creeping through. Despite all of his warnings, he fully believed in the wonderful possibilities waiting in the coming days of humanity. With the advances in technology and the greatest minds working to better our world, he fully believed in a bright, fantastic future for our species.
Profiles of the Future acted in large part as Clarke’s thesis on the role of science and science fiction in modern culture.
He believed that it was meant as both inspiration and warning for future generations. And he knew if these warnings were heeded, with science fiction as a backbone, that societies could flourish.
"It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars." -The Exploration of Space, 1951
Clarke’s views of society and the human condition stem from a structured, scientific mindset. He was alive to witness the moon landing, but even before that historic step, Clarke knew very well that perspective was key in shaping our minds and our hearts.
Given that we are riding aboard this spiraling rock, we come to take for granted the size of Earth in the grand scheme of the universe. We are nothing more than an atom in that massive, swirling cosmos. With that mindset, why are we constantly in conflict? Why are we killing one another for tracts of land and ideologies?
In Clarke’s mind, we are all citizens of Earth, first and foremost; we are all one people. We should act accordingly.
“Science Fiction is something that could happen—But usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen —though often you only wish that it could.” —The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
How many have dreamed of riding a dragon, or saving royalty, or using magic to right the wrongs of the world? Fantasy is the fulfillment of our best dreams, our most beautiful visions. Even in the realm of the grimdark subgenre, there is still the fulfillment of our dreams of strength and camaraderie.
However, I have never dreamed of boarding the Nostromo from Alien and discovering what truly lurks in the darkness of space. I have never wanted to feel the impending doom of a wrecked spaceship or an alien invasion or a robot uprising. While there are some science fiction worlds I’d enjoy living in, there are far, far more that terrify my greatest nightmares.
Space and the future are largely unknown to us, and the unknown can be a scary thing. Clarke realized that more than anyone, shining a light on these fears in the foreword to his collected works.
“Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.” - 2010: Odyssey II
In his later life, Clarke moved to Sri Lanka for the country’s natural beauty and lack of sexual policing. Due to his own homosexuality, Clarke was a huge proponent for tolerance and kindness.
Given that Clarke’s most popular works were written in the mid-20th century, his thoughts on equality and unity were not only controversial to a certain sect but necessary. With the American Civil Rights movement continuing in the United States, Clarke’s vision of a united future inspired hope for many of his readers.
“One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” -The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, Jerome Angel, 1970
Arthur C. Clarke notably disliked politics and politicians. He was an anti-capitalist and believed in the power of people to govern themselves. Nevertheless, he understood the place of politics in our modern world, knowing full well that governments weren’t going anywhere. With that in mind, he took great pains to try to advise politicians through his work.
As I have reiterated, much of Clarke’s work is meant as a warning and an inspiration for the possibilities of the future. Shouldn’t those tasked with structuring our futures fully immerse themselves in that genre for that very reason?
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“Few Artists thrive in solitude and nothing is more stimulating than the conflict of minds with similar interests.” - Childhood’s End
Clarke very rarely mentions the writing process. Despite being a prolific novelist and essayist, his views on writing in itself aren’t completely understood. Here, though, we get a glimpse of his process and his writing philosophy.
And how right he is; artists of all stripes cannot create in a bubble. Even if they show their work to no one, they are still influenced by the ideas and philosophies around them. The same is true for science, which is a constant process of experimentation and hypothesizing throughout the scientific community.
As both a scientist and a writer, Clarke understood the great importance of collaboration in any creative or logical problem, which is reflected here in a quote from Childhood’s End.
“We should be less concerned about adding years to life, and more about adding life to years. I have been very fortunate to have witnessed some of humanity's greatest achievements during the 20th century that is nearing its end. Yet we must admit that it has also been the most savage century in the history of our kind.” —The Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 2000, three wishes for his 90th birthday
Arthur C. Clarke is famous for not fearing the inevitable automation of human society. Clarke believed wholeheartedly that life was to be lived, to be experienced, not to be overshadowed by fear and doubt.
In this letter to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times in 2000 on his 90th birthday, Clarke wrote out three wishes. The third of these three called for happiness and peace among people, especially those involved in the civil war that had taken place in his adopted home of Sri Lanka.
In Clarke’s lifetime, he saw the most amazing things come to pass: the rise of the internet, the moon landing, and so much more. But he also paid witness to a world war, the atom bomb, and the worst of humanity. Peace and hope were his primary concerns in his final years, and he hoped for the best for the 21st century.
“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.” —Quoted in The Peter Plan: A Proposal For Survival, 1976
As I’ve mentioned, Clarke hoped for and expected the best out of the coming future. While this quote, cited by Laurence J. Peter in The Peter Plan: A Proposal for Survival, seems to contradict that entire philosophy, it shows he was also a realist.
Our ancestors were only concerned with their day to day existence, focused mostly on survival or on their present spiritual life. But with the dawn of science, the question became how we can make tomorrow better. Did those innovations come too late?
Clarke warns us that without proper focus on the real issues facing our world that we will be doomed to lose it. We cannot ignore the issues threatening our future or the bright, fantastic world he foresaw will never come to pass.
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