2008-03-19

On this date the British science fiction writer (and, we note proudly, longtime subscriber to White Crane) SIR ARTHUR C. CLARKE died on this date (b. 1917). British writer, born in Minehead, Somerset, as Arthur Charles Clarke. He studied Maths and Physics at King’s College in London.

His book “2001, A Space Odyssey” was made into a film in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick. Clarke lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka since 1956. His books include: Childhood’s End (1953), The Deep Range (1957), A Fall of Moondust (1961), Profiles of the Future (1962), 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), 2010: Odyssey Two (1985), The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990), The Hammer of God (1993), The Light Of Other Days.

These accomplishments are all well-known and well-celebrated among Clarke aficionados and critics. Less discussed are the ways Clarke’s works challenged heteronormative sexual mores, particularly those surrounding men who went for men. But reviewing some of Clarke’s most notable works, one sees the author surveying the changing sexual landscape of a post-Stonewall society. Taken together, they provide a panoramic view of a gay man questioning the world in which he lived.

Clarke was a gay man, or, at the very least, queer. Though he married a woman in 1953, they separated six months later, and it’s well established that Clarke’s romantic existence was spent mostly with other men. Obsessed with the Kinsey Scale when it first came out, Clarke never believed people had strict straight or gay tendencies, a belief made clear in a number of his books. Author Michael Moorcock wrote in a 2008 Guardian essay that “everyone knew [Clarke] was gay,” even in the ’50s, well after Clarke moved to Sri Lanka, where he found the lack of sexual policing refreshing after living in uptight England. Clarke also spent 1964-1965 at New York’s famously libertine Chelsea Hotel, romping around town with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, two of the most male-loving men of the era. And insiders also know that Clarke and a man named Leslie Ekanayake were in love; Clarke described Leslie as “the only perfect friend of a lifetime,” and the author was buried alongside him when he died in 2008.

But Clarke would never admit his love of men. Not on the record, at least. Asked by a reporter about his bedroom activities, Clarke campily laughed, “Why, what have you heard?” He only admitted his yen for men a few times: sheepishly in his semi-autobiographical 1963 novel Glide Path, in which the sexually inexperienced protagonist makes a passing reference to “a highly refined encounter with the clergyman who had (very briefly) run the local scout troop;” and off-handedly in 1986, when Playboy journalist Ken Kelley asked Clarke whether he’d had bisexual experiences. Clarke replied with a resounding yes: “Of course. Who hasn’t? Good God! If anyone had ever told me that he hadn’t, I’d have told him he was lying. But then, of course, people tend to ‘forget’ their encounters.”

He went on, “I don’t want to go into detail about my own life, but I just want it to be noted that I have a rather relaxed, sympathetic attitude about it.” Such reticence is only natural for a man born in 1917 and who came of age during the height of the Pink Scare, when western governments branded gay people as criminal scourges, as sexual criminals. And it’s equally logical that Clarke would use fiction to explore societies that had evolved past such sexual judgment. 

The author’s personal feelings on—or hopes for—human sexuality are perhaps most clear in his 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth. His sexiest work—almost every character is bed-hopping with another, or hoping to—Songs lays this society’s feeling out in the open with this exchange between two men at a hospital: Lieutenant Horton explains to his roommate, Loren Lorenson, that he was injured during a surfing expedition with a group of “hairy hunks” known for their homo-social ways. Loren is surprised by the revelation: “I’d have sworn you were ninety percent hetero.” Horton replies, “Ninety-two, according to my profile, but I like to check my calibration from time to time.” This prompts Loren to recall that “he had heard that hundred percenters were so rare that they were classed as pathological.” Clarke’s old interest in Kinsey’s work remained unabated. His only hope was the rest of humanity would see things as he did.

Clarke died in 2008, the same year conservatives used Proposition 8 to beat back marriage equality in California. He never lived to see the Supreme Court rule in favor of love. Nor did he see the same wave of progress sweep England, Australia, Brazil, France, and so many other lands. Today, more than a decade after Clarke’s death, millions of people live in a world in which marriage equality is a reality, in which transgender people are increasingly accepted and in which heteronormative notions of love and sexuality are steadily eroding, even though this brave new world of acceptance remains tenuous, at best.