Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (Oct. 2002), with a full-page illustration by Geoff McFetridge. In the photo above, ACC holds his copy of Arthur No. 1, with that page showing.
FAMOUS ARTHUR: Arthur C. Clarke
Paul Moody enters the sci-fi court of King Arthur
Androgynous aliens searching the galaxy for the nine billion names of God; mysterious unmanned spaceships drifting Marie Celeste-like into the solar system; vast black monoliths discovered under the surface of the moon..it’s all in a day’s work for Arthur C. Clarke.
The author of more than seventy novels and the undisputed Godfather of science fiction, he’s also—to a generation brought up on his long-running UK TV series, The Mysterious World Of…—the monstrodomo of the unknown. Add the fact that’s he’s lived in self-imposed exile in Sri Lanka since 1956, became a guru to the entire US space program in the 1960s and has attracted visits from even the likes of ill-fated Rolling Stone Brian Jones in the search for answers to the reason why we’re here, and you’ve got a mystery wrapped in an enigma signed with a question mark. Religious cults have been born from less.
Yet meeting this good natured sci- fi Colonel Kurtz takes you into an even stranger world. Picture the scene as a Hollywood pitch: you’re standing in a quiet residential street in Cinnamon Gardens, the most exclusive district of Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. Vast palm trees sway in the 90-degree heat haze. A cloud of bats flies overhead on its daily vigil toward the sunset. Suddenly a ten foot grille slides open and you’re walking into the private residence of one of the most reclusive figures on the planet.
Yet it’s all true. As you go up the stairs of his palatial headquarters you begin to realize you’ve entered a one-man orchestrated nerve-center. This is a far cry from the days when Clarke owned the first television set in Sri Lanka. Banks of computers drone harmoniously; fax machines buzz with communications from all corners of the globe (the telecommunications bills rarely drop below $1000 a month). Signed pictures of everyone from Neil Armstrong to Elizabeth Taylor to the Pope line the walls, amid vast blown-up NASA Moonscapes, whilst a vast floor to ceiling bookcase at one end of the room is filled entirely with hardback first editions of Clarke’s novels.
The overall effect is like entering the inner sanctum of a benign, hyper-active Bond villain. Prodigious isn’t the word for Clarke. He claims to have 102 projects on the go at any one time, and in this setting, aided by a host of assistants, it’s hard to disbelieve him. On top of all this, a wall-sized TV screen is beaming footage of Clarke appearing as a hologram at the Playboy Mansion last year. Standing on a dais addressing an invited crowd of NASA dignitaries, octogenarian swingers and luminescent blank-eyed Playboy bunnies, Clarke delivers a speech as a shimmering, golden, light projection. The effect is much like seeing Kirk and Spock mid-dematerialization on the USS Enterprise. Except Clarke really is going where no man has been before.
As you’d imagine, he’s pleased with it.
“You are watching history!” he booms by way of introduction, gesturing at the screen. Wheelchair bound due to the debilitating effects of post-polio syndrome, nonetheless he wheels himself forward at high speed wrapped in a batik sarong.
“That,” he says, pointing toward the screen with undisguised pride, “is final proof that you can be in two place at once!”
As if this wasn’t surreal enough, he then fast-forwards the tape to a musical segment where a craggy looking Stray Cats run through a medley of their hits (“and on drums, Slim Jim Phantom!”). But Clarke is already losing interest. The mood changes in a moment.
“Don’t be intimidated,” he continues, but he’s not talking about the bizarre situation, rather the fact that his tiny pet chihuahua Pepsi is attempting to sever whichever of my arteries it can get its teeth around.
The puzzles continue. As sunlight floods the room, making it hard to see anything other than the wall-to-wall Clarke ephemera, he points toward one of the hundreds of framed photos lining the walls.
“I presume you know who that is,” he booms. In an environment where it feels like knowing the names and star signs of each and every one of the Apollo astronauts feels like it’s mandatory, it’s quite a question. Yet closer inspection proves that he’s pointing toward a picture of Dave Prowse—a.k.a Darth Vader—smiling in his civvies from a golf course far, far away.
Clarke, like any self-respecting sci-fi aficionado, is a massive Star Wars fan. Hurdle negotiated, the mood lightens.
“So what can I tell you?” he enquires, fighting back a playful smile.
Well, where do you begin? After all, this is the man who, at the age of 28 wrote a technical paper laying down the ground rules for satellite communication (stationary satellite orbit is called ‘Clarke’s Orbit’ to this day), wrote the outline for his masterpiece 2001 four years before the space race had even got out of the blocks (predicting everything from the laptop computer to email to videophones in the process) and is probably the only man alive to have been nominated for both an Oscar (for 2001, jointly with Stanley Kubrick) and the Nobel Peace Prize (for his groundbreaking ideas on satellite technology ). Perhaps his greatest creation, Hal, the sentient computer from 2001, remains elusive to us even as we enter a new century. With that in mind, does he fell disappointed that the world still hasn’t quite caught up with him yet?
“Oh no, not at all. On the contrary, I never could have imagined all the things that have already happened in my lifetime. I never thought that we’d see manned space travel. That we’d land on the moon and then give up on the idea five years later…”
Talk moves on to the ‘Brainman,’ a sort of cerebral walkman which could tune into your synapses and become, if you like, the ultimate mind game.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it were already in production,” he says.
“Basically it would involve the wearer shaving their head and having some sort of electrode placed on their skull through which they could experience games or music as it was actually going through them. I’m sure there would be plenty of people willing to suffer that minor inconvenience…”
And then there is the obligatory subject of September 11th. Clearly keen to let the world in on his opinion on the matter, within seconds he’s reached over to the bookcase, found a copy of Rendezvous With Rama (first published in 1973) and is opening it to a specific page.
“Read that,” he commands, pointing to a paragraph which starts “On September 11th 2077…’ and goes on to describe the devastation which will be wreaked on the planet by a fireball of unknown origin. Seventy-six years out, but that never stopped Nostradamus. Clarke, it seems, can predict the future even when he’s daydreaming.
Yet at 84, age is finally catching up with this life-long time traveler. His eyes are weak, his legs have gone and, judging by a hacking cough, his lungs are clearly in rebellion. Yet Clarke boasts of still playing a mean game of table tennis when it suits him and, when pushed, still displays a dazzling lucidity far beyond the reach of most of us. But then this is a man who was thinking up silicon jungles even in the post-war austerity of 1940s ration-book Britain. Like most scientists a confirmed agnostic, he bemoans the fact that basic morality has eternally been hijacked by various religions for their own ends and laments a world forever at war with itself. His thoughts on the existence of alien life forms are similarly well documented.
“Put it this way,” he smiles. “I’m still waiting for signs of intelligent life in Washington.”
As for the future of the planet, he’s already written six different versions of how it will all end up. Choose whichever suits you, appears to be the message. You won’t have much say in the matter anyhow.
A distraction. An e-mail has arrived in the in-box of one of the two computers he monitors every ten seconds. He’s delighted.
“A friend has just mailed me to tell me someone’s proposing to mount a production of 2001 on ice. What a splendid idea! I think it’s only an April Fool, but what a great notion!”
Nothing, it seems, can phase Sir Arthur Clarke (he was knighted, finally, in 1998). His long-term assistant Hector comes over. It appears Clarke is running late for his daily visit to the swimming baths.
“I think we may have to leave it there for now,” he declares, as preparations are made to lift him into the vintage red Mercedes which will drive him across Colombo to his private club. Yet, private audience aside, the mysteries remain. In constant contact as he is, reputedly, with Rupert Murdoch (who, let’s face it, clearly owes him one for his satellite blueprint) you almost get the impression Clarke casts an imperious eye over the planet from this self-sufficient technoasis .Far removed from the world at large, he’s an exile from the day-to-day splurge of the twenty-first century (news from the West is greeted locally with general disinterest) who plugs into the mainframe and instantly becomes an overseer of the madness below him. The secrets of the universe, you feel, can’t be far from this one man media-plex Clarke has created for himself on his island hideaway.
“I must leave,” he says, breath deserting him again, before talk can turn to his latest thoughts on (as he sees it) the probability of life on Mars. “I’m getting tired. But you may ask one more question before you leave…”
Hmmm. Having spent a lifetime searching in the stars and beyond for inspiration, does the man the New York Times calls the ‘colossus of science fiction’ ever wish he could escape the planet for real, and head into the cosmos like recent space tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth?
“Oh no,” he smiles, eyes suddenly back to their full-beam, crystal blue intensity. “I’ve been far further than any astronaut’s ever been…”
And with that he’s gone, off into the future.