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Arthur C. Clarke Interview
by Marc Kaufman
Philadelphia Inquirer

In his adopted homeland of Sri Lanka, visionary author Arthur C. Clarke has embarked on what he considers his most challenging project: The third, and final, sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey.''

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- "Sorry, can't talk right now,'' said the breathless voice on the phone.

"You see, I've started writing The Final Odyssey -- the absolute end of it all -- and it's coming so well. It's 3001, you know. Got to run.''

He's 79 and not in the best of health, but Arthur C. Clarke -- the man who brought the world 2001: A Space Odyssey, two sequels and much more -- is pumped.

This living legend, an icon of both the space age and American culture, is embarking on what he has described as "the most challenging project of my career.''

(This was revealed in a note Clarke jotted to his friend, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, accompanying a local newspaper clipping Clarke was sending him. The clip announced the official naming of an asteroid after one Arthur C. Clarke, who already is the first, and only, "honorary resident'' of Sri Lanka.)

With the real year 2001 less than five years away, Clarke has warped into hyperspace and jumped forward in time 1,000 years. The Final Odyssey, he makes clear, can't occur a mere decade or century into the future (as his 2010: Odyssey Two and 2061: Odyssey Three sequels did); it requires the leap of a millennium.

"This is really exciting stuff,'' he said with a conspiratorial relish. "Call me later.''

Clarke, born British but now with an indistinct accent and nationality, was speaking from a compound in the diplomatic enclave of Sri Lanka's capital, his home now for almost four decades.

I didn't realize it then, but Clarke, a usually gregarious man who loves to meet visitors to his adopted homeland, was about to go into seclusion. The ideas for 3001 were coming to him with such speed that he had to retreat to a place more private than his own home and concentrate on nothing but work.

Not an easy thing for a man as alive to possibilities as Clarke -- someone who has not only written 70-plus books but has appeared in scores of TV shows; helped found several technology centers, including the International Space University, founded in Boston; imagined and described decades ago the technology that led to satellite communications; has been a very active patron of many astronomy, animal welfare, environmental and science writing associations; was instrumental in creating a significant new industry in Sri Lanka (he and a longtime diving friend began a reef-diving business); and has served for 17 years as the chancellor of the University of Moratuwa outside Colombo.

He also is a patron of the National Institute for Paraplegics, Sri Lanka. He was diagnosed several years ago with a post-polio condition, a relapse of the polio he contracted in the early 1960s. Clarke sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around, though he is not, his assistants make clear, wheelchair-bound.

But he definitely is in creative seclusion, these assistants said. Would I care to see the author's home, if not the author himself, they asked?

Pulling up to Leslie's Place, Clarke's home in Colombo, can feel as otherworldly as an imagined approach to Clavius Base, the moon station of 2001.

A large, walled compound, Leslie's Place is owned by Clarke and a Sri Lankan-Australian family he has "adopted'' as his own. Parts have the grace and charm of the British colonial days -- big arches, open verandas, swaying palms -- while a visitor to Clarke's section is greeted by a huge blown-up photo of Earth, as seen from the moon.

Adding to the mixed messages, the Embassy of Iraq lies just next door, with a smiling photo of Saddam Hussein peering down.

"Mr. Clarke is so sorry he cannot visit with you now, but he would like you to be shown some of his things,'' said Nalaka Gunawardene, a science writer who also works as an office manager of sorts. "Can I show you where he works?''

The office and study at first appear unremarkable -- lots of souvenirs and books, an enlarged New York Times front page reporting "First Man on Moon,'' and scores of photos amid the teak shelves. But closer up, the magnitude of what Clarke has done -- the stage on which he's played -- comes into focus.

There's an actual moon rock given him by NASA; a long-ago Christmas card from Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak when both he and his Macintosh were no big deal; a photo of Clarke with the Pope, who, Gunawardene explained, had invited the author to the Vatican some years ago for a discussion of the future of man in the space age. There's the T-shirt signed by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and, in the opening page of a published lecture by Neil Armstrong, these handwritten words: "To Arthur -- Who visualized the nuances of lunar flying before I experienced them.''

On the deck outside, overlooking the Iraqi compound, is Clarke's 14-inch telescope. (No, his assistant said, there have been no complaints about Clarke spying on the Iraqis.)

The office equipment that Clarke now uses is pretty tame stuff -- an ordinary PC and an IBM Thinkpad. The man who created HAL, the thinking computer at the center of 2001, seems perfectly happy to be living far from technology's cutting edge. Actually, the most important new piece of equipment he's acquired is an electric generator, recently installed because of Sri Lanka's regular and lengthy power blackouts.

And as Gunawardene explains, Clarke is really not much of a fan of the Internet, either.

"He doesn't go online very much, though he tells me that when he does he sometimes visits the Arthur C. Clarke home page that someone set up -- I think in Brazil. He doesn't say anything, but he likes to listen in,'' he said.

What a strange character. One of the great technological visionaries of his day, but himself not a techie at all.

Leaving Leslie's Place, I had the unhappy feeling I had seen the wizard's workroom, but would probably never see the wizard himself.

I really didn't try to find out where Clarke was hiding, I swear it. A 79-year-old creative force like Clarke deserves to be left alone if he wants to. And he clearly enjoys his privacy, or he wouldn't have lived in Sri Lanka for 40 years.

I just happened to overhear some people at the American Embassy say they were going to meet him over at the old Galle Face Hotel -- a 136-year-old treasure of the British Raj -- where he was in his secret seclusion. And once I knew that, well, I really had to make contact.

When the appointed time came for a visit two weeks ago, I entered his presence with some trepidation.

A large, craggy-faced man, Clarke was seated alone at the end of a long, dark mahogany table in the huge, first-floor stateroom normally used by the hotel owner. The walls were also sided in dark mahogany, as was the two-posted bed. The ceilings were a mile high.

Clarke was wearing a white T-shirt and a somewhat food-stained sarong -- his typical dress. He was eating chocolate ice cream. He had only a short time before his doctor-ordered afternoon nap, he said, so what would I like to know?

An awkward start, but from that point on Clarke was pretty gracious about it all. It turns out that he's not terribly disciplined in his time allotment and just loves to chat. Indeed, he's kind of a cut-up. A meeting that was to last 10 minutes can easily go for hours. I've seen it happen.

"Well, I'll stay up a while longer to listen to the news,'' he said a while after his proposed nap time had passed. He turned on the BBC and put his shortwave to his ear.

Clarke is attended by a staff of several Sri Lankans -- quiet, doting men in white sarongs and shirts (and one with a white coat and epaulets). They obviously love him; he calls them his "family.'' Once a married man, Clarke divorced long ago.

As the six ceiling fans circled slowly -- their whir silenced by the crashing of the Indian Ocean 20 feet away -- Clarke had this to say:
"I never intended to write a sequel to 2001 and I certainly never intended to write a four-part collection. But now it all seems preordained.''
"I find the concept of reincarnation to be interesting, but find no plausible physical mechanism to accomplish it. Of course, the mind of God can do what it wants.''
"I've never taken any drugs. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility that those geniuses who created the end of the movie 2001 did.''
"Please be careful with what I say. I recently told a local reporter that I thought cricket was the slowest form of life, because it takes so long. Well, he thought I said `lowest form of life' and wrote that. It so happens that Sri Lanka just won the world cricket championship, and I had a lot of explaining to do.''

The author is a little reluctant to discuss the 3001 project, which he promised to the publishers this fall. He said people were excited about the book -- "Stanley Kubrick says he can't wait to get his hands on it'' -- and he doesn't want to disappoint.

But he's already written an afterword, defending his decision to continue some of the themes and characters from his earlier books while making some significant changes as well. The universe he's creating is only parallel to the older one, not directly connected.

And so, what is the book about?

"It's mostly about philosophy and sex,'' Clarke said with a chuckle, "and not necessarily in that order.''

OK . . .

"But you know, I'm in a situation that not many writers would enjoy,'' he continued. "The story involves the planet Jupiter and its moons, and there is now a space probe -- the Galileo -- on its way there. The first detailed information is coming soon. So I'll be writing as the data comes in.''

He refused to let on any more, though later this did slip out: Both David Bowman and HAL, the stars of 2001, will be in the book, but somewhat transformed. "Right now, I'm thinking of a character HALman,'' he said, and stopped.

Clarke decided he wanted to get some air, so we moved out to the marble veranda overlooking the Galle Face, a long sweep of parkland along the ocean in the heart of Colombo. He was pleased to see it was being prepared for reseeding -- "The Pope's visit last year killed the grass and I never thought I'd see green there again.''

Clarke first visited Sri Lanka in 1954, loved it for its tropical beauty and depth of culture and, maybe even more, for its unexplored remoteness. He returned to stay two years later. He began diving on the Great Basses Reef off southern Sri Lanka and, along with his diving colleagues, discovered a 250-year-old wreck there. It was a diver's dream -- with old guns, cannonballs and tens of thousands of silver coins -- but Clarke said he almost went bankrupt salvaging it.

He said he hoped to be back diving soon; floating underwater is close to the feeling of weightlessness of space, he said, and he just loves it.

The discussion of diving got Clarke back to 3001, and why he can't exactly explain the plot of the book yet: He doesn't feel that he has full control of the project right now. But not because of a writer's block or anything like that.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm really not writing it, I'm discovering it,'' said this man who has explored so much and, wide-eyed, can't wait to see what's next.

"It's like I've discovered something that was happening in a different universe. And then I just report back what I find.

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