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Happy Birthday Mr. Clarke and Ms. Austen

Jane Austen

Today, December 16th, is the birthday of both Arthur C. Clarke and Jane Austen, two literary greats.

Clarke’s work had the greatest impact on my own. I discovered Clarke through his short stories and novels at an early age. Rendezvous With Rama, 2001, and his other works shaped my interests in science fiction. For the longest time 2001 and the sequels were the future. I remember how strange it was when I found myself living in 2001,then 2010, and it wasn’t—of course—the future that Clarke described. I was born near the end of the Apollo missions and was a child in the Mojave desert when the Space Shuttle started flying. Clarke’s work (and that of other science fiction writers) led me to believe we’d be back to the Moon and beyond. By 2010 that seemed much less likely but my enthusiasm around space exploration hasn’t dimmed. I was so excited when Huygen's Probe finally showed us the surface of Titan or New Horizons revealed Pluto and Charon—and soon Ultima Thule (in 15 days!)

I still return to Clarke’s work from time to time and reread his stories. I’m going to read a story today from his collection History Lesson, the first of four volumes collecting his stories. The stories cover a span of time as Clarke describes in the introduction.

“To put matters in perspective, roughly a third of these stories were written when most people believed talk of space flight was complete lunacy. By the time the last dozen were written, men had walked on the Moon.”

— Arthur C. Clarke

I also enjoyed how Clarke describes the service that science fiction writers provide to the community.

“He encourages in his readers flexibility of mind, readiness to accept and even welcome change—in one word, adaptability. Perhaps no attribute is more important in this age.”

— Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke uses this to dismiss the ‘escapist’ label for science fiction, allowing that it might apply to fantasy, but then asks—

“—but so what? There are times (this century has provided a more than ample supply) when some form of escape is essential, and any art form that supplies it is not to be despised.”

— Arthur C. Clarke

That’s true today as well, in this future that would strike my younger self as both familiar and strange. The rise of science denialism of climate change, vaccinations, and even space travel—the continuing wasteful wars over resources, the surge in nationalistic, racist, and anti-immigration views, all of it things we should have outgrown by now. Despite that strange turn, on the technological front many things today are familiar from science fiction. Communication has gotten easier than ever, computing and artificial intelligence has become commonplace.

Clarke died ten years ago. I can only imagine what he would have said about this past decade.

Discovering Austen

I haven’t read Jane Austen’s books. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that fact. I’m more familiar with Austen’s work from people talking about her books. That, and the numerous films inspired by her work, whether direct adaptations or other stories inspired by her work.

It’s seems impossible to be a writer and not know about Austen. Her works continue to sell and are loved by readers. When I look at classics that continue to be read in my libraries—Austen’s titles always show more borrows than most other classics.

So how is it that I haven’t read her books?

I just haven’t read them. Yet. I haven’t made it a priority.

Let’s talk about synchronicity.

I didn’t know when I got up today that it was Jane Austen’s birthday. I didn’t go looking for that fact either. How did I know? Alexa told me.

Yup. I said, “Alexa, good morning.”

And Amazon’s AI started on the morning routine talking about Clarke’s birthday, including a joke (no, I didn’t know it was Clarke’s birthday when I woke either). The segment on ‘this day in history’ mentioned that it was Austen’s birthday.

But saying good morning to Alexa wasn’t the first thing I did this morning. While I ate breakfast, I was watching Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid videos on YouTube, and I had added both his Story Grid book and his Austen Story Grid of Pride and Prejudice to my list at Amazon. I’d done all of that before walking my dog, showering, and finally saying good morning to Alexa.

And I had decided that I would read Austen’s book before looking at it with the Story Grid because I didn’t want to dissect and study it if I hadn’t read it first as a reader, for enjoyment.

It’s always fun when things work out that way.

So I’m going to add Austen’s books to my 2019 reading list. I’m already doing my Hail to the King 2019 reading challenge of Stephen King books, but that’s only one book a month. I’ll add in Austen’s books and make it a point of reading them this next year. Tragically, Austen died young and completed few books. Now we live in a world with many writers producing far more books, but few of us will ever have the sort of impact that Austen has had on readers. I’m looking forward to falling in love with Austen’s books.