Visionary: The odyssey of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Book reviews

A celebration of Arthur C Clarke, going digital, and clever ways to store your old-fashioned paper books.

The Clarke Project

Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C Clarke

By Neil McAleer 

$85pb/$150hb ISBN 978-0-615-55322-1/978-0-615-51369-0

The title of this updated biography, 'Visionary', is a good word for Arthur C Clarke. While many know him for his mind-expanding visions of science fiction, others remember his seminal 1945 'Wireless World' paper, which presaged the era of geostationary satellite communications. Naturally, there is more to the man than this, as illustrated by Neil McAleer's illuminating 400-page book.

This new edition adds a dozen new chapters to the 1992 original, not only covering another 16 years of the great man's life, but also encompassing his death in 2008, at the age of 90. Limited to 250 copies each of a hardback and softback version, it is produced under a publishing vehicle known as The Clarke Project in association with the Arthur C Clarke Foundation, which benefits from 25 per cent of the price of each copy sold via its website, www.clarkefoundation.org.

Apart from his intention to "celebrate a life that lasted longer than Halley's Comet takes to orbit the Sun" (76 years), the author's stated challenge was to "create a physical book that might survive perhaps half a millennium". For this reason, he specified the use of "preservation-quality materials" in its production, which goes some way to explain the high price. For those of us with shallower pockets and shorter time horizons, the author confirms that "it is highly likely that a trade edition will follow, both in the UK and US" at some point.

Clarke-o-philes will simply love this book, while older readers will wallow in the nostalgia it evokes for his early period. It documents Clarke's many interests, famous friends and his understandable ego, but does so without sycophancy, careful to include such criticisms of his work as "the characters were lightly sketched and did not offer readers much with which to identify and empathise". One quoted reviewer summarised 'The Ghost from the Grand Banks' as "vintage Clarke, with all the virtues and weaknesses that we have come to expect from this Grandmaster".

The book includes 24 pages of black-and-white photos, which include Clarke 'experimenting' with radio components, peering through his first bought telescope and posing with Stanley Kubrick on the set of '2001: A Space Odyssey'. There is also one of his wife, the unwitting victim of a short-lived marriage. As McAleer points out "The dedication of 'Childhood's End' was telling: "To Marilyn, for letting me read the proofs on our honeymoon'."

Unusually, there are also two forewords, one by veteran broadcaster Walter Cronkite, the other by science fiction author Ray Bradbury. The volume concludes with a list of the 70-odd people interviewed for the book, chapter notes and a table (compiled by telecom guru Joseph Pelton) of Clarke's "predictions", which apparently include satellite TV, satnav, email and telecommuting.

IET members might be interested to know that, during his postgraduate year in 1949, Clarke became assistant editor at the IEE journal Physics Abstracts, where among other things he contributed the heading 'astronautics' to the indexing system. Unfortunately, 'Visionary's indexer missed this seminal contribution on page 50!

'Visionary' can be ordered online at www.atlasbooks.com

Mark Williamson

Oxford University Press 

Digitized: The science of computers and how it shapes our world 

By Peter J Bentley

£16.99 ISBN 978-0199693795

Anyone looking for a neat illustration of how technology has infiltrated our everyday lives need look no further than the first few pages of 'Digitized', Peter J Bentley's account of the meteoric rise of the computer. It kicks off with an almost comical breakdown of the staggering amount of processor power involved in the simple act of ordering a pizza.

Whether used in encrypted payment systems, cellular communications networks or antilock braking, computers have become so ubiquitous they are practically hidden in plain sight. We have now, Bentley argues, reached the point where describing one's job as working with computers is almost meaningless. Everyone works with them.

Despite this, few know what actually goes on inside them and fewer still are familiar with the fascinating stories behind their development. It is this latter imbalance that Bentley aims to redress. Starting with the seminal work of pioneers such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, Bentley charts the computer's development from concept to construction and beyond. Throughout this journey he takes in topics as diverse as the birth of software engineering and the development of neural networks as well the efforts of countless lesser-known visionaries such as Douglas Engelbert, the inventor of the mouse, and Peter Kirstein, whose work on the ARPANET helped lay the foundations for the Internet.

Bentley's account is rife with anecdotes and colourful biographical details that offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the men behind the machines. But ultimately the book is an open love-letter to its subject. Bentley at one point refers to the computer as "the pinnacle of all tools" and computer science as "the music of mathematics and engineering". And when faced with such passion and enthusiasm, it's pretty difficult to disagree with him.

Jason Goodyer

Hesperus 

Europe in the looking glass/The cruise of the rolling junk 

By Robert Byron/F Scott Fitzgerald 

£12/£6.99 ISBN 978-1843913573/978-1843914624

There is a lot in common between these two latest literary gems from Hesperus – a peculiar and ingenious London imprint specialising in esoterica and little-known classics. First of all, they are both travelogues. Secondly, they were both penned by the would-be classic authors at the very beginning of their literary careers: Byron was 21 and Fitzgerald was 24. Both are brimming with insights and keen observations, and are touched with gentle humour and irony. Both journeys were undertaken by car and took place in the 1920s. There is also a sad similarity between the writers' lives, both of which were interrupted much too early: Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 aged 44, Byron was killed in 1941, at 36, when the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed by a German submarine.

I happened to be familiar with Scott Fitzgerald's little known, yet charming and absolutely hilarious, essays on his life and travels in France in the 1930s. The cult American novelist, it appears, was also a top-class essayist and travel writer. This is how he describes his jalopy: "The Rolling Junk was born during the spring of 1918. It was of the haughty make known as the Expenso... Now this particular Rolling Junk had passed its prime before it came to our hands. To be specific, it had a broken backbone unsuccessfully reset, and the resultant spinal trouble gave it a rakish list to one side; it suffered also from various chronic stomach disorders and from astigmatism in both lamps."

As he and his wife Zelda bump along the then badly kept and potholed American roads, the reader can't help but warm to their mechanical carrier and start ''together with the writer – perceiving it almost as a human being. How can one stay aloof to an engineering object which triggers the following metaphoric personalisation: "The Rolling Junk eyed us with reproachful lamps as though it knew that it had been cheated of its customary physical examination"?

Byron, it has to be said, is much less patronising to his car, which he calls Diana. In fact, at times, he openly admires her: "The car, a large touring Sunbeam ... was named Diana. Her lines were impressive and her bonnet long, sloping scarcely at all from the level of the tops of the doors. The tank at the back hung low, and the clearance all round was small, so that the back light and exhaust did not survive the third day's journey. On either side, resting on the front wings, were mounted two spire-spoked spare wheels to each of which was roped a spare outer cover."

I am sure that some car-keen E&T readers will find a lot of technically stimulating details in this and other descriptions. This is Byron at his best, despite being only 21 – with his meticulous attention to detail – be it the design of a car, peculiarities of Bologna's manufacturing industries (in the reviewed book) or the architecture and interiors of Orthodox churches and Mount Athos monasteries in his later masterpieces 'The Road to Oxiana' and 'The Station'.

And it is here, to my mind, that the main attraction of both books lies: they give the readers a unique insight into the creative laboratories of two future masters. A fascinating excursion not just across the 1920s Europe and America (with lots of interesting technological details thrown in), but into the methods and principles of "literary engineering" too.

Vitali Vitaliev

Thames & Hudson 

Bookshelf 

by Alex Johnson

£14.95 ISBN 9780500516140

I first met King Richard the Book-Hearted – the self-proclaimed monarch of Hay-on-Wye, a once unremarkable little town on the border of England and Wales – in January 1990 when he was still better known as Richard Booth.

Inside the grim, frozen and semi-ruined Hay Castle where he resided, that great British eccentric unveiled to me his plans for a global book empire with its centre in Hay. He wanted to create book towns all over the planet, including eastern Europe and Australia – a plan which was, then, easy to dismiss as a wild fantasy and complete delusion. "The best invention of humankind is not the wheel or the A-bomb, but a bookshelf," he told me gravely when we parted.

Journalist Alex Johnson, the author of 'Bookshelf', could have put his name under that 'royal' pronouncement. His book, which contains photos and descriptions of bookshelves of all imaginable shapes, sizes, origins and designs, is one 271-page long inspiring paean to the beauty and the power of books and bookshelves as the ultimate artistic receptacles of the latter.

Just leafing through this album is a sheer delight, and soon you start feeling torn between admiration and envy, for how can a book lover not feel jealous of the owners of the magnificent Levitate staircase-cum-bookshelf by structural engineers Rodrigues Associates, or those of the intelligently futuristic Library Head – a head-shaped open bookcase by Nicola Lazenberg?

I will be delighted to put 'Bookshelf' on my writing shed's bookshelf, next to Johnson's other delightful album with self-explanatory title 'Shedworking'!

As for Richard Booth's improbable prophecies, they all came true20 years on, Hay-on-Wye is the hub of the Book Town Movement and the centre of the global book empire, with book towns all over the planet, including Eastern Europe and Australia, which, incidentally, has more than one.

In short, glory to the bookshelf, one of humankind's best inventions!

Vitali Vitaliev

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