Celebrating Arthur C. Clarke 100th Birthday

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Today would have been the 100th birthday of futurist, science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, best known for his screenplay (with director Stanley Kubrick), “2001: A Space Odyssey”, inventing the concept of the communications satellite, and shedding tears on TV (with US commentator Walter Cronkite) when the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon. He earned the title “Prophet of the Space Age”.

 

I spent a day with Clarke in his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1994, watching him redesign the surface of Mars on a primitive computer, having long chats about everything under the sun, and interviewing him for a documentary I was producing on the future of travel. Following are excerpts from my upcoming book “Tales of the Radio Traveler” and a video memorial I put together upon his death in 2008. 

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya may represent a destroyed palace from which an elevator ascended into space in Clarke’s novel “Fountains of Paradise”.

Arthur C. Clarke lives in a neighborhood called Cinnamon Gardens where, as in many matured cities, fashionable homes have been converted to embassies, advertising agencies, and schools. Leslie’s House, named for Clarke’s late longtime partner, is located next to a girl’s school. It looks as if it has been a work in progress for the many decades Clarke has lived here. A colonial house with modern appendages clashing with musty colonial charms. I walk through the entryway past a poster of the moon.

“I hope you are not intimidated,” says Clarke as I enter his study. He refers to the yipping chihuahua that is charging toward me.

Pepsi skids to a halt about three feet away.

Clarke introduces me to the tiny beast he originally named Pepe. His Sri Lankan friends couldn’t pronounce it, however, always adding an “s”. So the name of the cola stuck. Clarke gets up from his chair and calls Pepsi. The dog hesitates for a moment and comes to me instead. I have an extreme negative predisposition to two animals on this earth: monkeys and chihuahuas. When I was a child, my best friend owned a shrewish little mutt that made shreds of my pantlegs. I expected the worst. Pepsi, however, is more like a house cat. He nuzzles my hand when I lean over to pet him.

Clarke’s mind moves like a ballet dancer, jetéing from one subject to another, but always, like a successful space mission, returning to earth to the right spot.

Arthur C Clarke Terraforming Mars“I have something to show you,” he says.

I walk up to his desk and around behind him. He switches on the monitor of his Atari computer and shows me a picture of an eerie landscape. He is using a graphics program to paint the surface of Mars the way he thinks it will be like when it is colonized. His friend Benoit Mandelbrot invented the concept of fractals, the geometric figures he is using to render one Marscape after another. He brings up a new screen and giggles like an ten year old.

But I have something to show him too, a primitive version of a program called 3D Studio (still used to design special effects in Hollywood). To me it was a complicated way to design a bouncing ball. I present him my creation. After hours on a plane plowing through a thousand page manual, scrunching myself over the black and white screen of my primitive laptop, I have managed to create a ball and a ramp. Furthermore, I show him that I could make that ball roll down that ramp, then off into space, or off my screen, wherever that is in my newly discovered digital universe.

We giggle like a couple of little boys comparing captured bullfrogs.
We head to the garden.

Clarke’s garden has served as his salon for the world of good men and great who have come to call: friends like American newscaster Walter Cronkite, with whom Clark shared tears on television the moment man first set foot on the moon, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Fellow science fiction writer Issac Asimov, who jousted verbally with Clarke over many years, wrote him a limerick:

Old Arthur C. Clarke of Sri Lanka
Now sits in the sun sipping Sanka
And taking his ease
Excepting when he’s
Receiving pleased notes from his banker

Clarke shows me a tiny, formal cemetery in one corner of the garden. The gravestones mark the dogs who have been his companions.
A servant brings us tea.

“OK, it is 1994, what is in our future?” I ask.

“Space tourism by 2020,” he answers.

“We can already go to Mars in virtual reality, in a sense, because we already have beautiful maps of Mars and we can treat them with virtual reality programs and show Mars as it will be when it is colonized in a thousand years or so and has an atmosphere and water. But virtual reality does present problems and challenges and indeed dangers. There is an old idea in science fiction that when we have virtual reality or what has been called the ‘dream machine’ and when we can experience or think we can experience something that is indistinguishable from real reality, then why should we bother with reality? Why not just lie back and enjoy anything you ever wanted to do and become a sort of ultimate couch potato. In your edited virtual reality, all of the nasty things will be removed, the mosquito bites which maybe give some extra dimension to the experience…the discomfort as well as the enjoyment”.

He talks about a 1930 story called “City of the Dead” by Lawrence Manning (some say it was a prequel to the movie “The Matrix)”. “The people were apparently dead but they were all plugged into their own very private universes having a wonderful time. What will happen to society? Who is going to change the light bulbs? Its a real danger, in fact its already started to some extent. The weapon which has doomed the human race is the remote controller because it has removed the last need for any exercise. Ultimate reality will be the last straw”.

Clark chuckles.

“And what will we humans do?” I ask.

“There may be very few jobs that require highly-skilled and educated people and most of the public will have to become consumers. I know a science fiction story by Frederick Pohl many years ago about a society in which you were compelled to consume so much — the very reverse of the present — and if you didn’t use up your quota of material and wear the number of suits you had to wear and eat the number of meals you had to eat, you’d be in deep trouble”.

I’m not so sure that I am liking Clarke’s vision of the future.

“But I am an optimist,” he says. “Being an optimist may just increase the chances of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

I leave feeling optimistic, and thrilled about having a play date with one of the great minds of the 20th Century. We would stay in touch, by FAX machine. He confessed that he wasn’t spending a great deal of time on the internet.
“Networking is like drinking from a waterfall”.

In 1996 I received a fax from Clarke saying that he might have e-mail by 1997.

In late 2007 I was headed to Sri Lanka and wanted to see Clarke again. I asked some mutual friends, who told me he was very ill. In December, on his 90th birthday, he recorded a video message bidding his friends and fans farewell.

On March 19, 2008 there was a huge flash of light in the heavens. A burst of gamma rays, which started half the visible universe away in the constellation Bootes, struck Earth after traveling for 7.5 billion years. It was the farthest, brightest thing ever to be seen with the naked eye.

It was the day Arthur C. Clarke died.

The event was described by astronomer Philip Plait as “A poetic alignment”.

Here is an eleven minute interview with Clarke that covers everything from future travel to virtual reality.

 

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