Death of a Spaceman
I can still remember the first piece of real science fiction writing I ever read. It was an excerpt that appeared in a Christian mag called Campus Life, and it was nothing like the usual stuff that appeared in the mag, and was about the discovery of a dead star by the members of a space mission from Earth. What struck me to the core of my nine-year-old being at the time wasn’t the ruins of civilizations that the astronauts discovered on a burned out rock orbiting the dead star, and it wasn’t their realization that millions — possibly billions — of intelligent creatures had perished by fire, and it wasn’t even their discovery that such beings had existed. What rocked my young mind was the astronauts’ calculation of when the star had gone super nova, and when exactly the light of the explosion had reached earth, many light years away. They deduced that the super nova would have been visible as a bright star on Earth
two-thousand and thirty-four years previously, on the day of the birth of the Christian Messiah. It completely dumbfounded me that a supreme and loving being could have destroyed an entire world to mark the birth of his Son. It was the first time I ever questioned the beliefs that my upbringing was steeped in, the first time I realized that all was not perfect in God’s world, and that the long walk out of Eden had made the road back unclear.
That was also the first time I heard that there were people known as atheists, and that the author of that excerpt proclaimed himself to be one. My father also told me, to my astonishment, that the man who’d written it lived right here in Sri Lanka. The excerpt had been taken from
2001: A Space Odyssey The Star, and the author was Arthur C. Clarke. The work was, of course, fiction, but it left a lasting impression on me. So much so, that I still remember the picture that illustrated the excerpt — a spectacular spacescape of drifting gases and burned rocks, all drifting towards the black hole of the dead star, while in the foreground hovered the clumsy but gigantic craft that the humans had used to travel across the galaxy.
I was later to read many of Clarke’s books, mostly in my early teens, and the scope of the man’s gigantic mind was very clear. His stories were sometimes almost impossible to grasp, because to see what Clarke saw required a vision most people didn’t have, and would never have. Reading a foreword he’d written to a book on Sri Lanka, he claimed that he’d arrived in the country on a short visit, and was still here. As a teenager, devouring books on the Bermuda Triangle and Loch Ness and UFO carvings in the pyramids of Egypt, I determined that I would someday, somehow, meet the great Arthur C. Clarke and ask him as much as I could about his ideas on space travel and alien civilizations. That determination faded as I grew into my late teens, and this morning, opening the newspapers, I knew that it would never be realized.
He was an atheist to the end, and I wonder what he’s thinking now.