|Arthur C. Clarke On Life (and Death)|
by Jeff Greenwald
Last March I traveled to Sri Lanka to visit the well-known futurist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Despite the fact that he's written more than 70 books, Clarke is most famous for a 1968 screenplay - 2001: A Space Odyssey - which he co-authored with director Stanley Kubrick. What he should be most famous for (and is, actually, in scientific circles) is far more impressive: In 1945, at the tender age of 28, Clarke sketched out the idea of orbital communication satellites.
Now 75, Clarke is afflicted with post-polio syndrome; a debilitating disease about which little is known, since - as he himself dryly points out - few polio survivors have lived long enough to contract it.
But if I was concerned about Clarke's mental state, my anxiety was misplaced. I found him as warm, engaging, and tirelessly curious as ever. One of my most treasured hopes, I confess, was that age and illness would have at least weakened Clarke to the point where I could finally beat him at table tennis. This was not to be. In a humiliating repeat of my past experiences, he won every single game - gloating shamelessly all the while.
Clarke's refuge in seaside Colombo (where he has lived for 37 years) is a kind of "technoasis;" a self-contained media center, work station, observatory, and cerebral playground under a single roof. It's the best of multiple worlds. Outside, exotic birds squawk from the branches of plumeria trees; inside, the fax machine chortles away ceaselessly (the monthly telecom bill for this "failed recluse" runs well over $1,000).
During the three days I visited, Clarke was juggling a number of projects - 102, to be precise. "I'm a serial processor," he confided, showing me his master list. "I can't work in parallel." I was amazed at the intensity and variety of the projects - everything from hosting a Japanese TV series based on his latest non-fiction book (How the World Was One, a history of global telecommunications) to discussing plans for a new musical based on his favorite novel, The Songs of Distant Earth. One morning he was generating fractals on his Compaq notebook, the next he was reviewing the galleys of his forthcoming novel (The Hammer of God, due this summer).
Though Clarke generally despises interviews, he was excited about appearing in Wired - although he wryly insisted, after looking over the premier issue of the magazine, that "a crucial letter in the title has been transposed."
WIRED: If you had been born in 1970 - the year after Apollo 11 - where would you be putting your energies? What would you be doing today if you were 23 years old?
ACC: Was I ever 23?! I might be anxious, for instance, to get to Mars. But much of the excitement and enjoyment of the early years, you see, was that everyone thought we were crazy - but we knew we weren't. So it was great fun. Now, everybody takes everything for granted. I think, possibly, I'd be keen on getting to the Moon. If I'd been born in 1970, I'd have had a chance.
WIRED: I needn't remind you that 2001: A Space Odyssey celebrates its 25th anniversary this year (the film was first released on April 2, 1968). How do you think it's held up?
ACC: Extraordinarily well. Some things have gone, of course, like Pan Am and Bell Systems. That's rather amusing. But of course the whole political ambience is gone too; the Cold War, the Soviet Union...those issues were in 2001 and 2010. That's what dates the movies the most - economics and politics, not technology!
WIRED: As you look at the future - as you talk about it, or predict it...
ACC: Now first of all I've never predicted the future. Or hardly ever. I extrapolate. Look, I've written six stories about the end of the Earth; they can't all be true!
WIRED: Okay, you've talked about the future. Do you feel that, by and large, the future you anticipated has come to be?
ACC: Yes. Certainly. And as far as space flight is concerned, it's gone far beyond anything I ever expected to see in my lifetime. I was sure we'd go into space; sure we'd go to the Moon and planets; but I didn't really believe I'd live to see it. Or live to see it finished! That's something I never would have dreamed of: that we would go to the Moon, and abandon it after five years!
WIRED: What would it take to get us back out there?
ACC: You can't make much of a case for man in space until you've got efficient and reliable propulsion systems. Once we've got that, everything else will follow automatically. It only costs about a hundred dollars to go to the Moon - in terms of kilowatt hours, if you were to buy the energy from your friendly local power station. Whereas it costs about a billion dollars the way we've done it.
WIRED: Is all that cost propulsion, though?
ACC: To be fair, you have to include life-support systems, which make it a bit more. But as far as energy's concerned, it's about a hundred dollars to get to the Moon.
WIRED: That sounds like pure fantasy to me. Do you really believe we'll ever bring the real cost down to that kind of figure?
ACC: Of course. There's no reason why, in the next century, it should cost more to go to the Moon than it costs to fly around the world today.
WIRED: Do you think our infatuation with novelty in technology is useful, or is it an addiction of some kind?
ACC: It's both. It's addiction - but it does generate things that are really useful.
WIRED: Name three.
ACC: Ha! Okay...cellular telephones and communication devices. Many of them are gimmicks and gadgets, but I remind you that the telephone was once regarded as a gadget, and now it's completely essential. The fax machine is going the same way. And how about this "emerging technology?" (Clarke picks up a Sony Data Discman, flips it open and calls up an entry under C.) The display is not very good, but that will be improved. It will be made smaller and lighter, too. It's quite useful; and see here...to my pleasure there are not one, but two Clarkes: Clarke, Arthur C. and Clarke Orbit.
WIRED: Clarke Orbit?
ACC: Yes. You can read it off the screen. Just arrow it down and press the button...here: "Clarke Orbit: An alternative name for the geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles high, in which satellites circle at the same speed as the Earth turns. The orbit was first suggested by space writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1945."
WIRED: Incredible to think that it's been close to 50 years since you came up with the idea of communications satellites. What do you see as the next natural - or inevitable - step that we'll be taking in terms of global communications?
ACC: The personal telephone. I mean, it may be a waist-belt, but that's it - when everybody has his or her own personal communications devices. The end of the telephone as a fixed instrument. It's started with the cellular telephones, and it'll go farther with the cellular satellite telephones.
WIRED: You suggest in your most recent non-fiction book, How the World Was One, that telecommunications companies ought to celebrate the year 2001 by abolishing all long-distance phone charges. Do you think the phone companies are taking this proposal seriously?
ACC: There'll be so much more business if they do. We've been through this whole thing already with the Penny Post. Charles Babbage, the father of the "difference engine," worked out that the cost of sending a letter was independent of the distance it traveled. In those days, every letter was charged a different rate depending on how far it had to go. There were armies of clerks working it out. Mail was very limited and very expensive. But once they had a flat rate it multiplied, and totally transformed the postal service. It's a similar thing with long-distance calling.
WIRED: Another theme pervading that book is the notion of communications and social change. Do you have any ideas about what the next thing to change everything might be?
ACC: The Brainman, which I write about in The Hammer of God. I take that idea half seriously!
WIRED: How would it work?
ACC: The idea is to feed impulses directly into the brain so that you bypass the senses. That way, virtual reality is theoretically indistinguishable from reality. What I've sort of hinted at is, if we did have our skulls shaved, and put on some kind of helmet fitted with thousands or even millions of microprobes that could map out and zap the bits of the brain that were required, we could feed sounds and images into the brain directly. That would be a revolution, of course.
WIRED: Do you really believe that people would shave their heads?
ACC: If that's the only way it could work, they'd do it.
WIRED: One piece of advice you often give to writers is that "there's no substitute for living." Do you share the uneasiness about VR that a lot of people feel? That it may one day compete with direct experience?
ACC: Oh, sure. I can envision an era of total couch potatoes, when we have our legs amputated because it just wastes energy to keep them functioning!
WIRED: You know, I still have some crazy faith that reality will be able to keep its edge over artificial reality.
ACC: I hope so. But is it logical to think so? I mean, if you could experience everything, be everywhere, know everything, sitting in a chair - "wired," to coin a phrase - why bother with reality? It's an interesting philosophical question; I don't know the answer.
WIRED: You're a well-known agnostic; but you've lived here in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, for almost 40 years. Do you believe in reincarnation?
ACC: No; I don't see any mechanism that would make it possible. However, I'm always paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane: "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine."
WIRED: What sustains you? What keeps you going?
ACC: Curiosity. What will happen next? And why am I curious? Is it genetic? Was it my upbringing?
WIRED: What, for you, remains the greatest mystery?
ACC: Oh, ETs. You can't think of anything bigger or more important than that, can you? If in fact we are alone, it means that we're not only the heirs to the cosmos, but its guardians; which is a portentous thought.
WIRED: It's equally portentous to imagine that we might be that lonely.
ACC: Exactly. It does seem incredible. But either alternative is amazing; whether we're alone or not alone.
WIRED: And the question could be answered any time: tomorrow, next century, or never. Which brings me to a more personal question: As a futurist, do you spend much time thinking about your own death?
ACC: I think about it more than I ever did in the past, of course, since I've had these brushes. It doesn't worry me; I hope I won't have any discomfort, is the main thing. And I'm more concerned with the people I love, and the animals I love, than myself, in a way.
WIRED: What is it that you'd most like to be remembered for?
ACC: I'm happy that people are calling the stationary orbit the Clarke Orbit. I think that's enough. And of all my books, The Songs of Distant Earth. It's got everything in it that I ever wanted to say.
WIRED: Have you given any thought to what you'd want your epitaph to be?
ACC: Oh, yes. I've often quoted it: "He never grew up; but he never stopped growing."
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