Midweek Review
Exclusive interview with Arthur C. Clarke
Life beyond 2001

 

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Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Now 83, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of the visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a new forecast for the coming century: holiday domes on the Moon; the end of agriculture - and swimmers bred with webbed feet and built-in snorkels The world's most famous science fiction writer talks to Gyles Brandreth at his home in Sri Lanka ``I may have saved the human race, you know.'' Sir Arthur C. Clarke rolls his wheelchair back from his desk and, baring an alarming set of pearly-white dentures, drops his jaw and grins at me. I had been thinking how like P. G. Wodehouse he looks. Suddenly he is Dr Strangelove.

He laughs triumphantly and tosses two documents towards me: papers from NASA and the British National Space Centre detailing strategies for protecting Earth from devastation by asteroids.

Clarke - who, in the 1940s, developed the basic theory of communication satellites (for which he was nominated for a Nobel prize) and, in 1948, anticipated, in detail, man's first landing on the Moon - turns out also to be the man who has inspired ``Safeguard'', the international initiative that will keep lethal near-Earth objects at bay and, ``with a bit of luck'', he says, ensure the future of the planet, ``at least for a while''. He chuckles. ``I try to be helpful if I can.'' Last Saturday in West Virginia, to mark his 83rd birthday, an observatory for detecting near-Earth objects was dedicated in his honour.

As the pre-eminent science fiction writer of his generation (with more than 80 titles to his credit and sales of over pounds 50 million) and the undisputed prime seer of the space age, Sir Arthur's claims to fame are many: he was the first to predict reusable spacecraft, the millennium bug and the proliferation of the mobile phone. He inspired Gene Roddenberry to create Star Trek. Most famously, with Stanley Kubrick, he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, for many the definitive space movie. ``It's a film I still enjoy,'' he says. ``Whenever I hear that opening music the hair on my neck stands on end.'' Clarke, an English farmer's son from Somerset, was born on December 16, 1917. When he left school (Huish's Grammar in Taunton), he joined the Civil Service. During the war, in his early twenties, he volunteered for the RAF and worked in radar. When he was demobbed he went to King's College, London, read mathematics and physics, and took a first. An obsessive ``sci-fi nut'' since childhood, he published his own first stories in the 1940s and, as author and visionary, never looked back.

In the early 1950s a passion for underwater exploration took him first to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and then to Sri Lanka, the beautiful war-torn island in the Indian Ocean that has been his permanent home for more than 30 years. Here he lives, honoured and tax free, Chancellor of the local university, the first person in the nation's history to be granted ``Resident Guest'' status. I have come to Colombo - where the sun is shining brilliantly and the street stalls are overflowing with inflatable Father Christmases - to wish the great man a happy 83rd birthday, to salute his achievement, to secure his predictions for life beyond 2001, and (if I have the courage and bad taste) to ask him about the allegations made by a British tabloid that, in the past, he had paid for sex with doe-eyed Sri Lankan boys. We are sitting in his workroom, on the first floor of his rambling, slightly ramshackle villa, in one of Colombo's smarter areas (the Iraqi ambassador lives next door). The room boasts a personal computer and a widescreen television, but, these apart, the feel is more faded 1950s writer's study than 21st-century space module. We are not alone. Throughout the interview, assorted servants - a secretary, a valet, a personal assistant, two houseboys, a woman bearing tea and sweetmeats - come and go. Beneath the desk, Pepsi, Sir Arthur's one-eyed ``killer chihuahua'' (``she's 10 years old and the love of my life'') dozes fitfully. Across the room, slumped in front of the television, headphones clamped to her ears, is a fair-haired, 17-year-old girl.

``She is Cherene,'' explains Sir Arthur, looking at her with pride. ``She is one of my three adopted daughters. They are everything to me, especially the youngest one. I love them more than I can tell you.'' Sir Arthur shares his home with the girls' parents: his partner in a deep-sea diving business, Hector Ekanayake (formerly Sri Lanka's flyweight boxing champion), and Hector's Australian wife, Valerie. ``More people should live in extended families,'' says Sir Arthur cheerily, tucking into his second slice of cake. ``It works extremely well.'' Sir Arthur is in a wheelchair because, in Sri Lanka in 1962, he contracted polio. He made a good recovery, but is now the victim of ``post-polio syndrome'': he cannot walk unaided and is subject to sudden fatigue. When I arrive he seems full of beans, his voice rasping but strong, his accent ``old Somerset'' with a touch of Transatlantic.

Once tea has been served and he has checked (and double-checked) his screen for e-mails, and given me a copy of his standard handout for journalists, explaining that he no longer talks to the press (``except in the event of a major development - eg, a genuine message from space or an ET landing on the White House lawn''), he says, quite crisply, ``I have to play table tennis at five. That means we've got two hours. Where shall we start?'' ``With where you went wrong?'' I suggest hesitantly. ``Good place to start,'' he laughs. (To my surprise, he laughs a lot.) ``I thought the hovercraft would be really big. I even went out and bought one. That was a mistake. Hovercraft are wonderful over ice and excellent for military purposes, but they've not become universal in the way I thought they would.

``And the timescale in 2001 is a bit adrift. We thought we'd be well established on the Moon by now. We've discovered more about the solar system than I envisaged, but not done as much human exploration as I had hoped. There isn't a Hilton in space quite yet, but Mir is a sort of hotel in space - only one-and-half stars of course.'' I ask about HAL, the talking-thinking-plotting computer that (or should I say who?) became the star of 2001. ``HAL is certainly possible now. We're a long way down the road with the development of artificial intelligence. There will undoubtedly be machines at least as intelligent as man by around 2020.'' ``Will they will be able to develop a conscience, a sense of moral values?''

``Some say no, but I'm not so sure. I like to quote Marvin Minsky, `Can a machine think? I'm a machine, I think'. I like to quote J. B. S. Haldane, too: `The universe is not only stranger than we imagine. It is stranger than we can imagine.' All I will say is this: if there is a war between man and machine, I know which side will start it.''

Can he say when we will discover life on other planets? ``To date we haven't the slightest positive evidence that there is any life out there. I'd settle for a microbe on Mars, but so far - nothing. That said, there are a hundred thousand million suns and a hundred thousand million galaxies, so it seems to me 99 per cent certain there must be other forms of life.

``I've a feeling that by about 2030 we will have made contact with intelligent life on other planets. Of course, the first messages we pick up may have taken millions of years to reach us and come from lost civilisations.''

When I ask him what the immediate Clarke predictions for life on earth are, he counters: ``I prefer to call them extrapolations rather than predictions. The greatest technological invention of the 20th century has been the microchip. The great discovery of the next century - which begins on January 1, 2001, by the way - will be new forms and sources of energy: cold fusion, hot fission, goodness knows what. ``And there'll be a change in our personal fuel, too. We'll be able to synthesise all our food quite soon. All it will take is water, air and a few basic chemicals.

Unquestionably, we are going to see the end of agriculture and the end of animal husbandry, so-called. That could happen within my lifetime. ``And for the next generation, of course, the impact of genetic modification will be profound, and not only in terms of health and longevity. Athletics, for example, will be transformed. You'll have swimmers with webbed feet and built-in snorkels.''

The Peter Pan in me is suddenly aroused, ``Will we be able to fly?'' I ask. No, I don't think we'll have flying men on earth, but there will be space tourism and huge domes on the Moon where you can go for flying holidays. You will be able to travel on my space elevator: a carbon-fibre cable car to the stars. I want the first one to be tethered to Sri Lanka's highest point, Adam's Peak. Look.''

With boyish glee, he produces another NASA report, showing that the concept which began as a twinkle in his eye is now being developed as a real possibility. Within an hour of my arrival, the table in front of me is piled high with reports, documents, books, videos, which he is urging me to borrow so that I can explore his ideas further.

He wants to show me the pictures he has taken of the Moon using a 14in telescope on the roof. He is so full of good humour and infectious enthusiasm that I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that to raise the sorry matter of the allegations made against him is going to be so downright discourteous as to be impossible.

Just then, Valerie comes into the room. She is forty-something, slim, attractive, friendly, forthright. She has brought in the draft of a letter she plans to send to her youngest daughter's school. She wants Sir Arthur to read it. While he is looking over it, she turns to me and, without any hostility, explains that they've been somewhat wary of journalists ``since that paedophile crap''. She smiles, she says she hopes she'll see me later, she leaves.

The unmentionable subject has been raised. Clearly, it hovers in the air all the time. Three years ago, just as his knighthood was announced in Britain's New Year's Honours list, the London Sunday Mirror produced a front-page story suggesting that the legendary writer chooses to live in Sri Lanka for more than the sun and scuba-diving. It accused Sir Arthur of ``paying for sex with young boys''. Immediately, he angrily denied the charges and threatened legal action.

The accusations coincided with the Prince of Wales's visit to Colombo to mark the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence. The Prince had planned to knight Sir Arthur during the visit. In the event, the ceremony was called off.

Sir Arthur is looking straight at me and smiling. I glance towards a photograph of him with Prince Charles on the wall and say, ``Given what he's had to put up with himself from the press, didn't you think it was a bit feeble of Prince Charles to chicken out of the ceremony in the face of one unsubstantiated Sunday tabloid story?''

Sir Arthur leans across the table urgently. ``No, no, he didn't chicken out. I withdrew. I didn't want to cause him any embarrassment. We met up at the banquet. He couldn't have been friendlier.'' ``So when did you get your knighthood?'' ``A year or so later, at the British High Commission. I missed out on the dubbing, but I got the gong eventually. Better late than never.'' ``Why didn't you sue the paper after all?'' ``Time and money. It would have cost a fortune and dragged on for years. These things always do. I'd have won, then they'd have appealed. It would still be going on now. ``I'm an old man. It wasn't worth it. My conscience is clear. I have always had a particular dislike of paedophiles, so few charges could be more revolting, but they didn't stand up. I knew I was innocent, so I wasn't troubled.''

No other paper has followed up the charges. For what it's worth, I met a young man who regularly played table tennis with Clarke 20 years ago - at the club where he was alleged to have picked up boys - and he had no evidence of any kind to offer against him. What are Sir Arthur's views on homosexuality? ``When impertinent reporters ask if I'm gay, I say, `I'm mildly cheerful.' I go along with Mrs Patrick Campbell: `I don't mind what people do in the bedroom, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.' '' He shakes his head, a touch despairingly. ``People have strange attitudes to homosexuality.''

I take this as my cue to mention a surprising essay of Clarke's that I happen to have come across. Entitled The Gay Warlords, it is an ironic squib that mocks those who want to keep homosexuals out of the armed forces. Citing the Spartans, Alexander, Hadrian, Richard the Lionheart, even Gordon of Khartoum, Clarke suggests that the real reason to keep gays out of the military is that ``they're too bloodthirsty and warlike''.

The piece concludes with the true story of the turn-of-the-century commander-in-chief of the Ceylon Forces, Sir Hector Macdonald, VC, known as the bravest soldier in the British Army, who achieved the astonishing feat of winning promotion all the way from private to general. ``Alas,'' writes Sir Arthur, ``to the great embarrassment of the local Brits (and doubtless the amusement of everyone else), Fighting Mac was caught in flagrante with some Colombo schoolboys - not the natives, by gad! At least they were burghers (upper-class Eurasians). Whitehall recalled the general prontissimo; he got as far as Paris, and shot himself. . .'' The author narrows his eyes. ``What did you make of that?'' ``Of the piece? I liked it. I thought it was remarkably sane, humane and very funny.'' ``Good, good,'' he says, smacking his lips. ``No one has picked up on it before. It's been out there a year now and no one in the world has noticed it before you, no one at all. I'm glad you liked it.''

I liked the piece and I have decided I like Sir Arthur, too. He is self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-regarding (of course he is: he has been a star for half a century), but he is original and brilliant, too - and (this is the surprise) wonderfully funny and almost touchingly eager to please. He has a fund of good stories and no time for humbug. His way of life and his views may not be to everybody's taste, but he is hearteningly unapologetic about them.

He doesn't smoke, he barely drinks (``two bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream per year''), but he believes, firmly, that all narcotics should not only be ``unbanned'' but also be made free, ``so that those who want to kill themselves with them can, and the rest of us can get on with life''.

He has decided he will never leave Sri Lanka again. ``Travelling is simply too tiring for me now. And if I want to go back to Somerset, all I have to do is close my eyes.''

I ask him if he has any regrets. ``I wish I had learnt to play the piano. I bought one, but then the computer came along and I was distracted.''

What about his marriage? He was briefly married to an American, Marilyn Mayfield. Does he regret that? ``No, everybody should be married at least once. In 1952 I went to the United States and went swimming with my aqualung. I stayed at Key Largo and met Marilyn. A week later we were married. It didn't work out, but we stayed friends until she died.''

What about children? ``No. With my extended family, I've had all the fun with none of the responsibility.''

When I ask whether the three girls will inherit his money, he glances towards Cherene, who is still sitting fixedly in front of the television screen. ``Yes, if there's any left. I'm not in the Stephen King class, you know, and I've got about 50 people dependent on me in different parts of the world.'' I suspect money is quite a preoccupation.

He pauses. ``I regret the fact that I never really knew my father. I was 13 when he died. I would have liked to have known him properly. And I'm quite surprised by how much I miss Stanley Kubrick. We didn't see each other often, but he was the most intelligent man I ever knew.

``We talked about mathematics together. He was fascinated by transfinite numbers - the numbers beyond infinity. He introduced me to my favourite line from Thackeray: ``Good or bad, guilty or innocent - they are all equal now.''

It's time for table tennis. ``Look,'' says Sir Arthur, grinning as one of the servants arrives with his leg braces and gym shoes, ``one of my beautiful houseboys.'' (The staff are all friendly, but clearly none has been chosen for his youth or looks.)

Does Sir Arthur think much about death? ``When I was last in New York I met Woody Allen and I agree with him: `I'm not frightened of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens.' When I joined the RAF they put me down as C of E. I got hold of the man handling the paperwork and made them change it to `pantheist'. Now I say I'm a crypto-Buddhist, but I'm anti-mysticism and I have a long-standing bias against organised religion. I don't believe in God or an afterlife.''

``So you won't be joining the ranks of the great immortals?'' I say, packing away the assortment of papers he has given me to study overnight.

He is struggling to his feet. ``I didn't say that,'' he chuckles. ``Far from it. In fact, not long ago a guy came and removed six strands of my already scanty hair. Those hairs have now been launched in a satellite. Yes, my DNA is on its way to the stars. So, who knows, I might be created all over again. Think of that: a million years from now half-a-dozen Arthur C. Clarkes floating round the galaxies.'' ``Incredible.'' ``No, quite credible. Remember Clarke's law: `Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' '' The Sunday Telegraph


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