From the Archives: A Day With Arthur C. Clarke

A too-brief encounter with Arthur C. Clarke, the grand old man of science-fiction visionaries.
The master spinning his visions in his Sri Lankan redoubt. Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

In 2004, Matthew Teague traveled to Arthur C. Clarke’s Sri Lankan home for a Popular Science_ profile. They candidly discussed Clarke’s incredible legacy as well as his insatiable thirst—even at age 87—for the next Big Idea. Here we present again this feature in tribute to a man whose visions still continue to profoundly influence the world of science and technology today._

The gate to Arthur C. Clarke’s compound stood tall, white and blast-proof. We ran our hands over its surface, poking around for some secret doorbell. “Hello? Can anybody hear us?”

I wasn’t trespassing–I’d called ahead, and Clarke agreed to see me, apparently curious why an American would track him down to this doorstep in Sri Lanka, the tiny, troubled island nation off the coast of India. But the place spooked Thilac, my Sri Lankan driver. “Maybe wrong house,” he said, looking around. “OK?”

Cinnamon Gardens is Sri Lanka’s most lavish, powerful neighborhood. Clarke is the country’s most famous resident. On an island where the caste system remains in force, taxi drivers don’t go pawing at castle walls. When the gate mysteriously pulled back, triggered from inside, Thilac turned on his heel and walked back to his car. “You go,” he mouthed from the driver’s seat.

A mustached valet appeared and waved me in: “He is waiting.” The main garden was barren but for the miniature headstones of pet dogs Clarke has owned during his almost five decades on the island. Dust blanketed every surface inside a glass atrium attached to the main house; sun-faded movie posters from 2001: A Space Odyssey decorated the walls. It appeared that only house staff lived in this stale place, until my guide threw open the door to Clarke’s library and a gust of cool air rushed out. The library was full of light; rows of lovingly organized books covered the walls. In the room’s center sat Clarke, 87 years old and wheelchair-bound from the effects of post-polio syndrome but still spry. “Look!” he said without preamble, spinning his chair to face a bank of computers. “You must see something!”

Monitors surrounded him. One displayed a paused DVD: Independence Day, Will Smith’s mug frozen in goofy horror. Others blinked with e-mail alerts. “Look,” Clarke said again, waving for me to look over his shoulder. On one screen he summoned recent photos transmitted from Mars. He cycled through shots of an orange landscape, a mountain, a canyon. Here we sat, in this wood-paneled study, on this remote island, and, as if by magic, stared out at a Martian sunset.

The world owes that sight, in part, to Clarke’s own vision as a writer and thinker.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.

Only a handful of science-fiction writers have reached beyond the bounds of their genre and grabbed the attention of the world: H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. But it wasn’t Clarke’s lyrical prose that carried him there. His ideas did the job.

As a child in England, he explored in the way little boys often do: Dinosaurs. Chemistry sets. Science-fiction magazines. But his obsession with what lay ahead–the Big Idea–never subsided. When he was a soldier in World War II, he joined a military team attempting to harness the power of radar.

He was no scientist or inventor. But when he was 27, seemingly out of the blue, Clarke offered the world a remarkable vision: satellites. At the time–1945–there was an ongoing to-do about ways to create global communication. The reigning idea was to plant television towers across countrysides everywhere, an impossibly expensive and ugly notion. Then came Clarke’s outrageous idea, in a paper called “Extra-terrestrial Relays.” “Many,” he wrote, “may consider the solution proposed in this discussion too far-fetched to be taken very seriously.”

Rockets, he suggested, could carry into orbit lightweight units that could act as superhigh relay towers. Two decades later, when the world caught up, scientists named what we now call the geostationary orbit the Clarke Orbit.

Despite the Luxe surroundings–the mansion, the attendants, the reminders of his fame and influence–Clarke opened our conversation with a disarming nervousness. He fidgeted, toying with his eyeglasses, playing with my tape recorder. Time has claimed pieces of his memory, and he seemed aware of it. When I asked about his latest book, a collaboration with science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter, he looked down sheepishly and said, “Yes . . . Time’s Eye. . . What was that about?”

For a while he wouldn’t reply to my questions at all but instructed me to direct them to his Sri Lankan assistant. (“He can answer all these,” Clarke said. “I can hardly talk.”) Later, instead of speaking aloud, Clarke flipped through his older books for passages relevant to our conversation.

“Read this,” he would say. “It’s all in there.” He could trust his words better, it seemed, when he could see them in black and white. “So,” I ventured. “You’ve written every thought you’ve ever needed? No more need to speak?”

At this mild provocation he came alive. The question bumped our discussion out of the past–slippery terrain for a man in his late eighties–and into the future. He felt comfortable in the future, the home of Big Ideas.

“You’ve reminded me of something,” he said. “How many books could ever be written?”

“Like . . . how many songs could ever be composed?”

He practically came out of his wheelchair. “Exactly! I think I worked it out one time, and it’s some big number, like 10 to the power of 100 to the power of 10.” I sat dumbfounded, feeling dense. He added for my benefit, “Since there are only a limited number of letters.”

And so a pattern emerged in our talk, like a game. I asked a question, and he picked a random point elsewhere in the conversational universe and answered from there. Then, just when I thought he had blasted off into the void of senility, he would touch down neatly on our topic.

I mentioned cloning, a subject Clarke has written about. Halfway through my question he held up a silencing hand. He mumbled something to his assistant, who handed him a snapshot. “I’m still crying,” Clarke said, passing the photograph over to me, and his lower eyelids went liquid. “I lost her last week.”

The picture was of a Chihuahua, whose name, he said, was Pepsi. “I’m going to get another one today,” he said.

“Another Chihuahua?”

“Yes. Oh yes. The same one again.”

Talking with Clarke was like spending time with a prophet. No answers came easily, and when they did come they often took the form of parables. Rather than entangle himself in a long argument over the ethics and viability of cloning, he simply handed over a picture of his beloved Chihuahua–a fine candidate, one might infer, for cloning.

As a young man, Clarke was pals with some of Britain’s fastest-rising literary stars, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. That was before he made a name for himself in 1953 with Childhood’s End and before he fell in love with the Indian Ocean’s coral reefs. “I came for the sea diving,” he told me of his move to Sri Lanka in 1956. “Underwater was the closest I could come to the weightlessness of space.”

While we talked, something reminded him of his London days, and although he could hardly recall his latest book, conversations from decades ago still rang clear in his mind. “C.S. Lewis! I just remembered our parting words,” he said. “We were at a pub. The Eastgate. Fleet Street.” He leaned back in his chair, chasing the memory down the street and finally cornering it. “Ah,” he continued. “As we staggered out into the street, Lewis turned to us. He said, “I think you are very wicked people, but wouldn’t the world be a dull place if everyone was good?’ “

Clarke laughs uproariously at this gentle rebuke, slapping his desk and shaking his head. Lewis is the most widely read Christian apologist since the apostle Paul, and Clarke is surely among the most widely read opponents of faith. “Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses,” Clarke declared, warming to the topic.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s not a very. . .generous. . .view of religion.”

“Most malevolent and persistent of all mind viruses. We should get rid of it as quick as we can.”

“So,” I said, extrapolating, “do you think that ultimately religion will be banished like a virus? A vaccination against religion, maybe. Could be an interesting book.” There was a silence as Clarke appeared to mull over the concept, and then: “I’m working on the novel now,” he said. “I don’t know how many of these ideas I’ve actually used already. I think of them in the night, such ideas, and think, Did I write this? Sometimes I find I have.”

Clarke’s turn to dazzle the world came in 1968, when he shared an Academy Award with Stanley Kubrick for the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inspired by a 1951 Clarke story. In it he laid out, with wizardlike foresight, several notions that time would validate: Videophones. Lunar landings. The Internet. Before long, Clarke was co-broadcasting Apollo missions with Walter Cronkite.

Now I asked whether he expects computer intelligence to one day intercept human intelligence, as he predicted in 2001. He laughed. “Assuming it hasn’t already?”

Gently, I eased into an attempt to get Clarke to issue a few more predictions for posterity. “You were way ahead in your understanding of satellite orbits,” I said, “so where do you think communications will go next?”

“Well, brain to brain, obviously.” He described something he calls a “brain cap,” by which people could swap thoughts in the air. Instead of blowing a kiss to your spouse at the airport, you could blow him or her an entire farewell letter, with photos and audio clips. Brain caps, he explained, would also eliminate menial tasks. “I think it’s imminent,” he said, “for some simple things like switching lights on, or the air conditioner, or starting your car.”

When might the brain cap emerge as a viable tool? “Well, it depends what bandwidth you’re talking about!” he replied, laughing. He got the faraway look that signaled the arrival of another Big Idea. “Ultimately it’s sort of a total merging of two minds. So you don’t even know who you are. . . Maybe 10 years.”

As his predictions kept coming, Clarke developed a running joke about all the exciting developments that would happen roughly 20 years from now: Cryogenic freezing? Who needs it? We’ll bypass the body and upload our essences to computers–if we so choose–about 20 years hence.

We’ll also ride elevators into space soon, he said. It’s one of his favorite predictions, one he has trotted out for years. “When?” I ask. Oh, in 20 years.

Also at about that time, nanotechnology will allow us to retool the atoms in common lead and turn it into gold. But lead will become more expensive than gold because it is more useful. This radical reconfiguration of value will lead to the abolishment of money as we know it, and instead people will trade megawatts as currency.

What about interplanetary tourism? Sure! Twenty years. “What a year that’ll be,” he said, grinning. Ah, but we may not make it that far, he added. Because the end of the world just might arrive at about the same time.

It’s a sobering prediction. And so, sitting with this unsettling man in this exotic land, a final question occurred to me: If humanity does find itself in extremis, what will be Arthur C. Clarke’s message when we turn to him for guidance?

Clarke dwelled on the thought a moment, smiling. He seemed to relish the idea that he would still be around in 20 years–and even better, that the human race would come to him for one last word of instruction.

Well, take heart, people, because in these twilight hours he decided to keep it simple:

“Don’t panic.”