|The Space Odysseus|
by Luke Harding
Thursday September 28, 2000
He may not have time to write any more, with the daily mountain of emails and the table tennis, but the ideas are still flowing. Arthur C Clarke talks to Luke Harding about what the future holds.
Sir Arthur C Clarke is exhausted. "I've just done a video for Australian TV," he wheezes from his wheelchair. "My executive secretary is away organising UN conferences. I can't speak to you for very long." He is dressed in a green sarong and a Hawaiian yachting shirt. He is not wearing any shoes. And he is about to go for his afternoon nap.
The reason the world's most famous futurologist has, at 82, grudgingly agreed to do yet another interview ("I'm fed up with them," he grumbles) is to promote the publication of his latest book, The Light of Other Days. It quickly emerges, though, that Clarke is already bored with this project. "I've done three novels since then," he sighs, swivelling to check his inbox. Which is a shame, because this novel is not just good - but fun, capacious, and in parts brilliant.
His home in central Colombo, Sri Lanka, is surrounded by a high wall and an electric fence. Sitting in the office, among three computers and a giant short-wave radio, Clarke explains that the "ideas" in the novel are all his. Most of it was actually written, though, by someone else - in this case Stephen Baxter, the 42-year-old doyen of modern British science fiction writing, and a Clarke fan. The two authors hammered out the text via a series of emails. But it was Clarke who came up with the WormCam, a time-viewing device which abolishes privacy, speculative biography and unsolved crime.
The book, with its vision of a relentlessly voyeuristic society, includes a memorable sex scene on a bench in 2041AD Rome. Who wrote the sex bits, I wonder? "I had an operation for prostate cancer 10 years ago," Clarke says. "I haven't the slightest interest in sex. But you have to keep up with reality."
Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins publishes the novel next week. Its principal baddie is Himal Patterson, a megalomanic media tycoon who invents WormCams (which can link any point in space to any other) merely as a means of getting to the news the instant it happens. Clarke concedes that "there are certain elements" of Murdoch in the scheming Himal.
Rupert and Arthur are good friends. The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey faced his trickiest moment three years ago, when he was turned over by the Sunday Mirror. It was Murdoch who wrote him a "very nice" note promising him that the reporters responsible would never work in Fleet Street again. "He is a rather shy, modest person," Clarke says teasingly. "I find him very deferential."
The Mirror claimed that Clarke had paid young boys for sex. It produced affidavits from the boys in question. Sri Lankan police later disproved them, he says. The story ran two weeks before Prince Charles flew to Sri Lanka to confer a knighthood on the grand old man of science fiction. The saga was the lowest point in his career. At a banquet in his honour Clarke, who has post polio syndrome, found himself hobbling away from the press, pursued by an unctuous reporter from the Daily Telegraph. The episode still upsets him. "I take an extremely dim view of people mucking about with boys," Clarke says. "The whole thing was distressing to me. It was vindictive and very unpleasant. I can only assume it was a plot to embarrass Prince Charles." The novelist finally got his gong this May, at a low-key ceremony at the British high commission in Colombo.
Clarke's private life remains a mystery. He was married briefly to an American, Marilyn Mayfield, now dead, whom he met while diving in Florida in the 50s. Asked whether he is gay, Clarke always gives the same puckish pro forma answer: "No, merely cheerful." The answer, presumably, lies in the "Clarkives" - a vast collection of his manuscripts and private writings, to be published 50 years after his death.
Like most brilliant obsessives Clarke was not, one suspects, an easy person to live with. His office is now a shrine to himself. There are photos of celebrities you would expect (astonaut Buzz Aldrin, Star Trek actorPatrick Stewart) and some you would not (Elizabeth Taylor). On the walls are photos of the moon and the Apollo landings. A vast bookshelf is devoted to his own works. Since growing up on a farm in Minehead in Somerset, Clarke has become exceedingly famous. He has written more than 80 novels, which have sold 50m copies. Back in 1945, aged 28, he wrote an essay for Wireless World in which he invented the concept of communications satellites. His celebrity reached a dizzy peak in the 50s and 60s, as the space age he had so confidently anticipated became a reality.
And then there is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Clarke story filmed in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick which transformed him into a household name. Did he think it would turn out like this? "I never dreamed I would be reasonably successful. Writing was always an enjoyable hobby. If it made some money, good." His accent is still distinctly west country. Before trundling off for his afternoon sleep, he recounts how the greatest influences on his career were HG Wells and his half-forgotten contemporary, Olaf Stapleton. To his regret, he and Wells never met. In his early teens, Clarke - a precocious grammar school boy - would sit on a stool in his local WH Smith's reading War of the Worlds. "I'm sure the kindly Smith's manager would have had to destroy the book afterwards because my hands were so dirty from the farm," he recalled.
He devoured science fiction magazines and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World ("a classic of its kind"). He also read Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's Sonnets, The Pickwick Papers, the Bible, the Georgian poets and AE Housman. He has still not got round to reading Hamlet. "I have not read TS Eliot, still less Larkin," he adds.
After leaving grammar school, Clarke got a job with the national audit office. By the time war arrived he was already writing technical papers - and his first science fiction short stories. When his civilian unit was evacuated to Colwyn Bay, north Wales, he was faced with the prospect of conscription; instead he joined a secret team of scientists working on radar. The days left plenty of time for writing. "I was a devout coward. I was never in any danger. We were a long way from the action," he recalls.
When the war ended he enrolled at King's College, London, taking a first in physics and maths. He summons one of his assistants to show me a 1947 photograph of his university year. The bespectacled Clarke is instantly recognisable: already balding, arms crossed, wearing a heavy suit and striped tie. Within five years he was an established writer.
Clarke makes it clear when he has had enough of my company. He has to speak to Alastair Cooke later, he says. Most afternoons he also pops down to his club for a game of table tennis. He has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, when he stopped off in what was then Ceylon on a diving holiday. He doesn't go out much these days and spends most of his time at the home he shares with Hector, his business partner. He is a surrogate grandfather to Hector's three daughters, Cherene, Tamara, and Melinda whom he describes as "the apples of my eye".
Since the eldest two girls went away to study in Australia, Clarke admits things have been "rather lonely". He has seven staff - including an apolitical private secretary called Lenin - to deal with the fan mail and interview requests. He also has a pet chihuahua called Pepsi. "I'm surprised you have not been attacked by my killer chihuahua," he says. It is an eccentric, affected, self-regarding, bachelor-ish existence, but then at 82 why not?
Just before we say our farewells, Clarke reverses his wheelchair and heads back to his desk, with its three computers and giant Logitech mouse. He has to check his emails again. Most mornings, the novelist wakes to a groaningly large inbox, filled with messages from fans, friends, scientists, fellow authors, publicists and eccentrics. He is a compulsive emailer. Without Sir Arthur C Clarke, much of what the 20th century was about - the space race, moon landings, satellites, laptops, and even email itself - seems unthinkable. These days, though, in the context of a generation which has lost interest in space travel, one can't help thinking that the technology he has helped to create has in some way enslaved him. "The last thing I wrote was a little squib of 500 words. It isn't easy to write because I spend so much time dealing with emails." And then he goes off to bed.
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