|Saturday 08 January, 2001
Arthur C Clarke Looks To The Future
Scientist and author Sir Arthur C Clarke, has helped create the techno-world in which many of us now live and through his writings he has shaped our vision of the future. He talks to Agenda about his past, the future and the potential of space.
'Hello, is that Arthur C Clarke?'
I'd called the world's most famous futurologist at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
'Speaking,' came the reply.
'It's Graham Hill of the BBC World Service.'
'Oh yes, Agenda – I listen to it every Sunday morning in bed.'
I never thought anyone took much notice of producer credits at the end of programmes. But it was a good start, and so it was fixed: an extended interview with the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first weekend of… 2001.
Born in Minehead, Somerset, in 1917, Arthur C Clarke is a remarkable man – writer, inventor and visionary, he devoured science fiction magazines and the work of H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle as a boy.
After completing his science degree, war came and, as an RAF officer, he was put in control of experimental trials of the first radar 'talk-down' equipment, allowing pilots to be guided to airstrips from the ground. It was the beginning of a career devoted to our technological future.
In 1945, aged 28, Clarke wrote an essay for the magazine Wireless World. In it he calculated that it would be possible to find an orbit in space in which an object would remain fixed over a particular position on the planet, and which could therefore be used to bounce signals from.
He had invented the concept of communications satellites – a speculation that became reality 25 years later. The article Clarke had been paid £15 for has now created a satellite industry worth hundreds of billions of pounds. But he has a reward of a different kind: a geostationary orbit in space – at 42,000 kilometres – is officially called 'The Clarke Orbit' in his honour.
2001: A Space Odyssey
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 came 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick, transforming Clarke into a household name. The film, famously, took many years to make, with Kubrick insisting Clarke write a full-length novel of the story before they even started work on the screenplay.
'We met in Trader Vic's bar in New York,' Clarke recalls, 'Stanley wanted to do the “proverbial good science-fiction movie”. I took him to see Things To Come, the H G Wells classic, made in 1936, and I remember Stanley's reaction: “What are you trying to do to me? I'll never see a movie you recommend again.”'
When the film was released it received a mixed critical reception – though today, the epic drama of adventure and exploration, set to waltzes by Johann Strauss and featuring the rebellious space-ship computer Hal, has become a classic.
Apollo Moon Landing
During half a century of predicting – and shaping – the future, Clarke has written more than 80 novels, which have sold 50 million copies. They tend to be a mixture of ripping space-adventure yarns and inspired imaginings and visions.
Some people take his work more seriously than others. A report in an American tabloid last year suggested that the Apollo moon landing had been faked by the CIA 'from a script written by Arthur C Clarke'. On reading the story, Clarke wrote to NASA's chief administrator:
“Dear Sir, on checking my records, I see that I have never received payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”
Interestingly, the man famous for his technological foresight says he doesn't like to use the term “predictions”.
'I prefer to say extrapolations,' he explained.
|'I make a spectrum of possibilities, and they include what I think might happen and what I hope won't happen. I'm always quoting the writer Ray Bradbury: “I don't try to predict the future, I try to prevent it.”' |
The millennium, Clarke insists, was celebrated a year early. 'There is no year zero,' he told me on the phone from Sri Lanka, a place he moved to in 1956 in order to scuba-dive on the reef that surrounds much of the island – and get as close as possible to the weightlessness of space. '2001 will be the beginning of the new millennium.'
He did forecast – sorry, extrapolate – the millennium bug as far back as 1992. By 2030, he suggests in his latest book Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!, we will have made contact with intelligent life on other planets. And by 2090, we will have discovered the secret of immortality – though, he says 'our brains will quickly be overloaded with any increase in lifespan, so they would have to be downloaded.'
At 83, Arthur C Clarke shows no signs of letting up. Looked after by his seven-strong private staff – including, apparently, an apolitical private secretary called Lenin – he works from his wheelchair at a big desk with its three computers and giant Logitech mouse. Most mornings, he wakes to a groaningly large box filled with messages from fans, scientists, fellow authors, publicists and eccentrics.
He helped create the techno-world in which many of us now live, and one can't help feel that, like us, he too is partly enslaved by it. 'The last thing I wrote was a little squib of 500 words,' he said. 'It isn't easy to write because I spend so much time dealing with e-mails.' A problem with computer communications even Arthur C Clarke failed to extrapolate.
|In 1945 Arthur C Clarke made a prediction for the future, which many years later would come true.
'It will be possible, in a few more years, there will be radio controlled rockets that can be steered beyond the limits of the atmosphere and left to broadcast scientific information back to earth. A little later manned rockets will be able to make similar flights with sufficient excess power to break the orbit and return to earth.'