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Arthur C. Clarke – the Visionary


Sixty years after Arthur C. Clarke predicted communications satellites, what lies inside the mind of the leading science fiction writer and science guru?

by Heather Couper

The heat and humidity knock you for six the moment you step off the plane. Then you hit downtown in a big way –it’s heaving, tatty and gridlocked. Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Ironically, my mission in this earthy city is to track down a human being who, more than any other, has his sights set firmly off this planet. For Colombo is the home of science fiction writer and future-guru, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

Exactly 60 years ago, Clarke published an article that changed the face of life on this planet. In an era when there were no space launchers, no satellites, and uncertain ideas about radio propagation, he predicted global communications, weather satellites and even satellite television.

The guru with a few of his books and his dinosaur phone

CREDIT: Paul Parsons

Having alerted the BBC to this anniversary, they have commissioned me to present a programme on Radio 4 and on the World Service. I don’t sleep well that night… and I’m nervous as our driver pulls up outside ‘Leslie’s House’ (named after a Sri Lankan friend of Clarke’s who died in a motorbike accident). Arthur, in his adopted sarong, greets me in his book-lined study. It’s more like a library: a celebration of the hundreds of books and stories that Clarke has produced in his lifetime – not to mention photographs of the author with virtually every great person of the last few generations, plus awards, doctorates and a Tyrannosaurus Rex which roars when the telephone rings. .

Arthur is now 87, and suffering from the after-effects of polio. But the legendary Clarke sense of humour is still very much intact. I joke with him about the Web. For someone who has pioneered global communications, Arthur is notoriously Web-unfriendly. “Oh yes – The World-Wide Wait”, he quips. “Have I told you about my invention of the Spam-Bomb? It blows up your computer if you send messages that the other guy doesn’t want. Stand back, your computer is about to blow up – KABOOM!”

So – who is this man who has shaped the way we live our lives today – and whose futuristic predictions have turned out to be so uncannily accurate?

Clarke was born in Minehead, Somerset, in 1917, and spent his early years on the family farm. He was always an investigative and adventurous child. “Somewhere in me is a curiosity sensor”, he tells me. “I want to know what’s over the next hill. You know, people can live longer without food than without information. Without information, you’d go crazy”.

But surely living in the backwoods of the English countryside was hardly a fast-track to space? “I guess I grabbed every book and article as soon as it came out”, recalls Clarke. “So being in deepest Somerset gave me time to think about these things”.

While his siblings were enjoying life on the farm, Arthur was building telescopes and launching home-made rockets. Did the other children join in their brother’s activities? “No!” recalls his younger brother Fred with a shudder. “We kept away from the dangerous blighter”.

In 1934, Arthur C. Clarke joined the newly-formed British Interplanetary Society. “People then must have made fun of it”, says Arthur. “I mean – British Interplanetary Society. Were we going to make another Empire out there?”

After Clarke moved to London, his flat became the centre of activities for the growing number of ‘space cadets’, and he began to write the Society’s journal – in addition to fictional pieces for ‘fanzines’.

Then World War II struck. Aircraftman Class 2 Arthur Charles Clarke found himself working on a top secret, hi-tech project – the use of radar. Arthur’s wartime experiences led directly to him writing his prophetic 1945 paper in Wireless World. It was entitled Extraterrestrial Relays, and it predicted communications satellites in an orbit where they would stay above the same point on the Earth’s surface. The paper went largely unnoticed at the time, but its contents were noted with interest by organisations such as the US Navy Department.

Title page of Clarke's historic paper 1945 paper in Wireless World

Clarke pocketed the £15 cash payment and settled down to a post-war life of more financially productive writing. Delighted with the success of his first non-fiction book, Interplanetary Flight, Clarke turned to fiction – including a stint as advisor to the comic strip ‘Dan Dare’ in Eagle magazine. His favourite science fiction novel – the mystical Childhood’s End (1953) – was groundbreaking: a true work of literature in a genre that had largely concerned itself with boys’ toys.

Arthur is driven by science, almost to exclusion of everything else. I wonder whether this is the reason why his marriage to Marilyn Torgenson failed in 1953 after a mere six months.

But Clarke undoubtedly has his passions. One is table tennis; the other is scuba-diving. In 1950, Arthur met Mike Wilson, a romantic adventurer with an obsession for ‘skin diving’ (as it was called then). The pair embarked on a scuba trip to the Great Barrier Reef in 1954, then followed it up with a major dive in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956.

Heather Couper presents Arthur with British donations for tsunami relief

CREDIT: Martin Redfern

What got Clarke into diving? “Entirely my interest in space travel. I realised I could experience weightlessness”. Diving led Clarke into deeper waters that he could have anticipated – like a dramatic move out of London to Sri Lanka, with which he had totally fallen in love. He founded a dive centre, and wrote a number of dive books, illustrated with his own underwater photographs. The recent tragic tsunami in Sri Lanka carried off a number of the dive centre boats, though the west of the country came off relatively unscathed.

Clarke’s fans were disappointed when he appeared to swap science fiction for scuba diving in the mid-fifties. But they needn’t have worried. Arthur was to return with a vengeance. He was about to tackle the screenplay of 2001.

In 1964, film director Stanley Kubrick had just put the finishing touches to his epic movie Dr Strangelove. Then he came up with his latest idea – “a film on ETs”. But who could advise him? Colleagues said that there was only one choice – Clarke.

Kubrick’s first reaction was: “Clarke? He’s a recluse – a nut who lives in a tree in India”. But he was soon persuaded otherwise. The relationship between Clarke and Kubrick was rewarding but rocky, and the project was four years in the making. The special effects were utterly groundbreaking, influencing movie moguls like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to go even further.

Would Clarke himself like to go into space? “Of course – I’d go like a shot. The Moon’s an obvious one. And Mars. Plus the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – wonderful views and possibilities of exotic lifeforms”.

Cracks in the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa are home to aliens in Arthur’s novel 2010

2001 established Clarke’s reputation and gave him millions of new fans. But science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter believes that the influence of 2001 goes further than that – it gives us an insight into the mind of the man. “The fascinating thing about his fiction is that it’s written with a both rational pole and a dreaming pole. The dreaming pole is almost mystical, as in Childhood’s End”.

“In the screenplay of 2001,” Baxter continues, “Stanley Kubrick effectively mapped Arthur’s mind. It’s how he juxtaposes the immediate future of space technology with visions of the destiny of mankind that are so powerful”.

Perhaps this visionary aspect explains why Clarke has managed to court members of the literary fraternity. He persuaded George Bernard Shaw to become an active member of the BIS, and welcomed both the writer J.B. Priestley and the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes to Sri Lanka. Gore Vidal was also a visitor.

Stephen Baxter is also quick to point out how valuable Clarke’s rational side has been. “His influence on science has been very important. He’s taken very seriously by the space community – I think his skill is that he combines engineering with imagination”.

That combination has led to Clarke’s reputation as a guru of the future. But how do we determine the future? “New space technologies are the way ahead,” he emphases. “Let me make an analogy: ask an intelligent fish what new technologies it would find if it crawled out of the sea to explore the land and air. I bet you it wouldn’t have thought of fire”.

And finally, I couldn’t leave Arthur C. Clarke without posing the ultimate question: what will be the destiny of the human race? “I think we’ve had hardwired into us this impulse to explore, to examine, to play – and if we lose it, we’ll cease to be human. The machines will take over, and it will serve us right!”


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First Science 2014