Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, 1988
I first met him at the 1979 science fiction worldcon in Brighton, though he had loomed in my life for decades before. Five minutes into our friendship he said amid the crowded convention floor, “Let’s go up to my room so we can think.” In the elevator he said he’d wanted to get away from the press of crowds, because he was feeling “unsteady” – first signs of the post-polio that would shadow his later life.
So we sat in his hotel room and waxed on about the future, ideas, stories we loved. He saw the past as a guide, but what could come next filled him with wonder. In Profiles of the Future (1962), an elegantly phrased “inquiry into the limits of the possible,” he balanced knowledge with his fictional side, exploring what might be achieved within the bounds of scientific law. Books on futurology date notoriously, yet this one has not, because Clarke was unafraid of being adventurous.
Talking to him, I recalled that back in 1962 Clarke foresaw that the mobile telephone would mean that no one could fully escape society, even at sea or on a mountaintop. He went on to describe huge electronic libraries, the breakdown of censorship and high definition electronic screens. He got almost all his many predictions right.
About such ideas he was often wryly witty. I can hear in memory his quick darting mind, seen in his many aphorisms. On religion: “I don’t believe in God but I’m very interested in her.” Of space and politics: “There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.” On progress: “New ideas pass through three periods: It can’t be done; it probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing; I knew it was a good idea all along!
His vision carried precisely because he remained almost obliviously above the fray: “Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of full-grown men.” But speculation had to be rigorous. “Exact knowledge is the friend, not the enemy, of imagination and fantasy.”
He was quite aware that his greatest success was his coauthorship with Stanley Kubrick of the film and novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its blend of hard technology and mystical opening was a huge cultural benchmark, bringing to life his assertion that “whatever other perils humanity may face in the future that lies ahead, boredom is not among them.” Kubrick observed, “He has the kind of mind of which the world can never have enough, an array of imagination, intelligence, knowledge and a quirky curiosity, which often uncovers more than the first three qualities.” Clarke later relished telling the story of visiting United States when an immigration official looked at his passport and said, “I won’t let you in until you explain the ending of 2001. “
Since the 1980s he sometimes used a wheelchair but could still continue one of his lifelong passions, scuba diving.. He founded the first diving shop in Asia, having moved permanently to Sri Lanka in 1956. He felt “perfectly operational underwater” and restored the business after the 2004 tsunami. I was to go diving with him in 1995 but the weather turned bad Sri Lanka gave Clarke creative isolation, but he became the first citizen of the global village, traveling and later keeping in touch with friends, colleagues and fans via daily e-mails. Surrounded by spicy tropical cusine, he never gave up his taste for a steady diet of bland English food, preferring roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I ate this dutifully in his home, and dined on local zippy curries the rest of the day, during my two visits to Sri Lanka.
In 2007 when we visited him again in Colombo, he seemed unsettled by the unending Tamil Tiger war. The fascist Tigers have been assassinating major public figures to draw attention; there were armed guards at both intersections by his home, and one near his driveway. Arthur hated small-mindedness, and the Tamils had come haunt him. Luckily, they’re gone now. Arthur didn’t live to see their demise, alas.
He took us to the Swimming Club for lunch, a sunny ocean spot left over from the Raj. It felt somehow right to watch the Indian Ocean curl in, breaking on the rocks, and speak of space, the last, greatest ocean. Our hotel with a similar ocean view, the Galle Face, is the oldest grand Raj hotel east of Suez, dating from before the Civil War, and reeks of atmosphere. Since the Galle Face is next to the British High Command compound, and just down the street from the presidential residence, subtle security lurks everywhere. A heavy machine gun on a nearby tower peered over us as we swam in the pool. Arthur mused, “All this effort, all this death, when we could be building the staging area for a seaborne space elevator.” In The Fountains of Paradise he had moved the island five degrees south so it could sit on the equator.
In his home’s “Ego Chamber,” amid many awards, I noticed a page by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, saying, “To Arthur—who visualized the nuances of lunar flying before I experienced them.”
His last wishes were for the further expansion of human horizons, saying to the Mars Society, “Whether we become a multi-planet species with unlimited horizons, or are forever confined to Earth will be decided in the twenty-first century amid the vast plains, rugged canyons and lofty mountains of Mars.”
It is easy to see him as a monument now, but he was more interesting as a man. That’s what I miss most.