Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dozens of other "hard science fiction" stories, died today at the age of 90. Clarke was one of the pillars of the SF genre, alongside writers like Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, and others.
To be honest, Clarke was a hit-or-miss writer. Many of his books are not worth reading, especially the sequels to his better novels. However, when he hit, he hit hard, with lasting effects.
Forget the fact that one of the most famous movies of all time is based on one of his books. (Or that it's still a watchable, interesting movie.) Clarke also helped cement science fiction as fiction about science, not just a futuristic backdrop for plots transplanted from Westerns or Regency romances.
Clarke's greatest gift was to help us experience the mystery and splendor of the universe, as seen through the lens of science. Childhood's End, for example, was an even better Big Idea book that 2001 about the evolution of mankind. Rendezvous with Rama showed how our first contact with aliens probably would be utterly baffling. "A Meeting With Medusa" argued that, by the time we encounter these aliens, humans might not even be all that recognizable to people alive today. "The Nine Billion Names of God" is one of the most staggering short stories written in the 20th century.
Whenever you hear Clarke quoted, it's usually the line, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I have greater fondness for a different Clarkean quote: "The truth, as always, will be far stranger." Anyone who has ever had a scientific career, or even just a genuine interest in science, knows exactly what he was talking about.
[Now that Gygax and Clarke passed away within about a week, we're going to start worrying about geek icons dying in threes. Beware, Larry Niven!]