Was Arthur C. Clarke An Amateur Writer?

Arthur C. Clarke's big, famous novels are "dull, slow and passionless," but you have to admire the fertility of his imagination, writes Robert Silverberg. But there's still something to love about an early Clarke novel, Against The Fall Of Night.

Silverberg's new essay in Asimov's Science Fiction comes down pretty harshly on the novels that people tend to remember Clarke for, including 2001 and Rendezvous With Rama, but Silverberg admits some of Clarke's short stories are better. But Silverberg cherishes some nostalgia for Clarke's earliest writings, which he read with a less critical eye as a teenager. He re-read Against The Fall Of Night, and found that it still excited him, despite some glaring flaws. He's still enthralled by the far-future setting and the homage to Olaf Stapledon contained within.

This novel is evidence, says Silverberg, that Clarke is an "amateur" in both senses of the word:

Amateur may be a startling word to apply to so famous and widely read a novelist as Arthur C. Clarke. But it has two meanings, one of which has largely been eclipsed in modern-day English. When applied to writers we generally take it to describe a not-quite-competent practitioner: someone who has not mastered the tricks of the storytelling trade, the array of technical devices that professional writers use to draw readers into a story and hold them there. I think that's true of Clarke: from beginning to end of his career, he told his stories quietly, simply, relying entirely on the strength of his ideas and the steady, gentle tone of his voice to keep readers interested. For the most part, it worked.

But the earlier sense of amateur derives from the Latin word amator, a lover-specifically, a lover of literature, of fine wine, of rare postage stamps, of anything that can excite strong commitment, be it intellectual or emotional or both. We no longer use the word that way in English because, since it has come to take on negative connotations in its other sense, it has been replaced by its Spanish synonym, aficionado. But those of us who love science fiction are amateurs of science fiction, and I think there was no greater amateur of SF than Arthur C. Clarke, who when he was eighteen or so set out to show his love for the work of Olaf Stapledon and other SF visionaries by writing his own tale of the far future. And it is that love that shines through in Against the Fall of Night and most of Clarke's later work and makes it compelling to us despite all its literary shortcomings.

The whole essay is well worth reading, and debating. [Asimov's]