|Arthur C. Clarke looks back on the lifetime of influences that led him to become a science-fiction Grand Master
By George Zebrowski
Arthur C. Clarke happily recalls that "at the age of 12 I saw my first science-fiction magazine, the November 1928 Amazing Stories.
"The cover is in front of me at the momentand it really is amazing, for a reason which neither Hugo Gernsback nor artist Frank Paul could ever have guessed.
"A spaceship looking like a farm silo with picture windows is disgorging its exuberant passengers onto a tropical beach, above which floats the orange ball of Jupiter, filling half the sky. The foreground is, alas, improbable, because the temperature of the Jovian satellites is around minus 150 centigrade. But the giant planet is painted with such stunning accuracy that one could use the cover to make a very good case for precognition; Paul has shown turbulent cloud formations, cyclonic patterns and enigmatic white structures like earth-sized amoebae which were not revealed until the Voyager missions over 50 years later. How did he know?"
Clarke's first appearance in Amazing was in the July 1953 issue (we won't count what is probably his first appearance in print, the full page occupied by his letter in the February 1935 issue), with the memorable story "Encounter at Dawn," also known at "Encounter in the Dawn" and best known as "Expedition to Earth," which is also the title of Clarke's first story collection of the same year. His next publication in Amazing was in Cele Goldsmith's June 1961 issue, with "Before Eden."
It's hard to know where to begin detailing this SFWA Nebula Grand Master's career. This unique recipient of that award, and in recent years of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and a knighthood, was born at Minehead, Somerset, England, in 1917. After a number of significant moments in his early life (well documented in Arthur C. Clarke, The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1992), he went on to King's College in London, from which he was graduated with first-class honors in physics and mathematics. He was chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and is a member of the Academy of Astronautics and other scientific bodies. As an RAF officer during World War II he was in charge of the first radar talk-down system tests. His novel Glide Path (1963), which he was fond of describing as his only non-science-fiction novel, is based on his early experiences with radar. The novel is a kind of reverse science fiction and would have been SF if he had written it in 1940. It contains all the insights and prophetic passages to be found in Clarke's works of foresight, fiction and nonfiction.
Clarke's more than 50 books have been translated into more than 30 languages. His many other awards and honors also included the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for science writing (previous winners have been Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley); the AAAS-Westinghouse science writing prize; the Bradford Washburn Award; and the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Awardsthese last three, the triple crown of science-fiction awards, for Rendezvous With Rama (1973). Stanley Kubrick and he shared an Oscar nomination in 1968 for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1981 Clarke received an Emmy for his contribution to satellite communications. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a 13-part television series, has been seen in many countries, but he became a television figure much earlier by joining Walter Cronkite during the CBS coverage of NASA's space missions and the Apollo lunar expeditions from 1957-1970.
Clarke's engineering depiction, in 1945, of communications satellites earned him the 1982 Marconi International Fellowship; the gold medal of the Franklin Institute; the Vikram Sarabhai Professorship of the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmadabad, India; and a 1994 Nobel Peace Prize nomination. He was the chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, near Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he made his home until his death in 2008.
Clarke's varied short fiction fills nine volumes and is also available in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz, 2000; Tor Books, 2001). His well-known novels include Childhood's End, The City and the Stars, The Deep Range, Earthlight, Imperial Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fountains of Paradise and The Songs of Distant Earth. His most important nonfiction includes Profiles of the Future, The Promise of Space and Ascent to Orbit (a collection of his technical papers). Recent novels are The Hammer of God, The Ghost From the Grand Banks and 3001: The Final Odyssey.
This man, whose influence on our planetary culture is comparable to that of H.G. Wells, has been described as "a multifaceted, divided man, but this is illusion. Clarke is whole; it is our culture that is divided. More than any other SF writer, Clarke truly lived in the interzone between science and literature. His career was a deliberate struggle to make this no-man's-land a place worth living and working in. And he has made both sides respect him on his own terms."
I can only add that the culture of literary criticism, on the whole, still does not know how to write about Clarke without referring to myths and metaphors, rather than to knowledge and possibility, while the scientific culture perhaps fails to value his fiction enough.
This interview was conducted by phone, e-mail, snail mail, audio recordings and in person in New York City. It was completed in March of 2000, after follow-ups running through the end of the preceding year, most notably in early October 1999, at the Chelsea Hotel, where Sir Arthur greeted me and writer/scientist Charles Pellegrino with the warmth of a family member and the playful wit of a friend in between visits from Walter Cronkite, Woody Allen, Rupert Murdoch and many other notables, while vigorously fielding phone calls from the United Nations and other insistents who had learned of his presence in the United States.
This interview is the final piece of Sentinels: In Honor of Sir Arthur C. Clarke
, edited by Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski, a book that is still seeking a publisher. No other iconic SF figure has to date been denied such a volume. Writers worldwide responded to a call for stories and contributions, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin to write the introduction; but commerce has so far ignored this call.
Now that our friend is gone, I am reminded of his saying that if you listened to him about the near future, you would go broke, but if you failed to take the longer view, your descendants would go broke.
In his last days, Arthur expressed the wish to be remembered primarily as a writer. (Photos courtesy Mary Leung, copyright 1999 Mary Leung. Used by permission. Taken at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, Oct. 8, 1999.)In your introduction to the 1984 edition of Profiles of the Future you wrote: "I also believeand hopethat politics and economics will cease to be as in important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. 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."
Given this view, would you describe politics, especially, as a pathology, whose power struggles should be identified as such and then rejected?Clarke:
My crack at economics and politics was, of course, rather tongue-in-cheek. I'm afraid that these are unavoidable necessities in almost any society one can imagine. As I'm speaking, at the height, or depth, of the Clinton Caper, I am tempted to say that politics is a pathology, at least as practiced in the U.S. of A. at the moment. But nobody is in the position of throwing stones at anybody else.But given that this is the way issues are dealt with in our world, how might politics be replaced?Clarke:
I can only hope that improved education and communication, which will enable us to appreciate, if not share, other countries' and societies' points of view, will make politics healthier. And there is only one way of resolving political disputes. As Winston Churchill said many years ago, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."With economics, might not one ask that even if technology gives us a world without scarcity, will not people still struggle for power?Clarke:
Technology can certainly give us a world without scarcity. Another famous figure's quote: "There's enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed" [Gandhi]. People will always struggle for power, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.But how will we overcome our problems if we do not first achieve self-mastery? How would we achieve the self-mastery that would make politics and economics less oppressive to mature human beings? How do we get to this maturity?Clarke:
The world would be a very dull place if there was no personal interaction and even competition. What matters are the methods employed. And contrary to the Declaration of Independence, we aren't born equal. See J.B.S. Haldane's collection of essays, The Inequality of Man and Other Essays
, London, 1932. I'm rather fond of a cartoon, probably in The New Yorker
, showing a psychiatrist telling his patient, "You don't have an inferiority complex. You're just inferior."Turning to other matters, in a recent front-page article on global warming, The New York Times asked whether the uncertainties in the science justify inaction.Clarke:
This is obviously a major concern. My friend Professor Fred Singer, who we British space cadets brainwashed into joining us in the late '40s, has written a book doubting the whole thing. We need more information, but there are obviously things that should be done, whatever the final verdict. For example, the avoidance of unnecessary pollution. But if in fact, as some people believe, this is the end of the current inter-glacial period, we may be encouraged to burn fossil fuels to build up the carbon dioxide content to create global warming to keep the glaciers at bay. Many years ago I wrote a story called "The Forgotten Enemy," in which I had the glaciers coming back within a few years. Sharmini Tiruchelvan thought that was very unscientific, but now there is evidence that the climate flip-over can indeed occur in a few decades, not millennia.
But what is your opinion of the continued warming of Alaska, where for the first time the permafrost is melting and large areas are falling into sinkholes?
(The phone rang at this point.) A little later:Clarke:
... I had to stop dictation to receive a phone call from a woman who was once called the most beautiful in the world. I have her portrait by Annigoni, or at least a copy of it, hanging on my wall. She is also a concert pianist, and has written books on cookery, and is now working on a novel. It doesn't seem fair that people have so many talents, does it?Moving to a more personal note, would you talk about people you have admired or looked up to?Clarke:
People I've admired or looked up to ... if I restrict myself to people I've actually met or known, and delete historical characters, like Newton or Shakespeare ... um, proceeding more or less at random, um ... Lord Dunsany, who I met only onceand I've written quite a bit about him. In fact our correspondence has been published now. Olaf Stapledonvery much so, of course he made a colossal influence on me. I only met him a couple of times. J.B.S. Haldane. John R. Pierce and Harold Rosen, the true fathers of the communications satellite. And of course Stanley Kubrick. I've written a whole book about our encounters, the result of which is widely known. See The Lost Worlds of 2001
I have so many friends in the science fiction and science fields, it's very hard to place one above others. But I've always had a special feeling for Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and E. E. Smith, who I only met once, and consider to be a much underrated writer.Perhaps we can return to this subject a little later. In the meantime, I'd like to ask you my favorite question. What did you feel when you first started to write fiction? How did you envision the effort? What did you hope for?Clarke:
That's nearly 70 years ago, and I haven't the faintest idea. It was just fun, I'm sure. I never imagined I'd be able to make a living out of it. And of course it did begin as an amateur occupation, in the various fan magazines. All I hoped for at the time is that it would be enjoyed by my friends. And later on, as I got involved with The British Interplanetary Society and the space movement generally, I realized I could use fiction to put across my ideas, not just purely for entertainment. How do you feel about your fiction today?Clarke:
Well, I haven't looked at it for years. In fact I can scarcely ever remember rereading any of my fiction. Writing has always been a sort of hole in my life, and perhaps I resent the fact that it was a way to avoid livingalthough of course it has enabled me to live as I wished to do.How do you feel about your non-fiction?Clarke:
I have been rereading that for Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds
, which Ian T. Macauley is editing for St. Martin's Press, for publication in August, 1999. I've seldom drawn the distinction between my non-fiction and fiction writing, although of course I've made it quite clear in the contextbut they've been the opposite sides of the same coin, with many themes and ideas, concepts in both fiction and non-fiction, starting on one side and moving to the other. Perhaps the best example is an essay I was asked to write about the star of Bethlehem, which eventually led to the short story, "The Star."Which won the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, after being rejected by the major slicks. As noted by your biographer, Neil McAleer, "The Star" was considered "blasphemous" by The Saturday Evening Post. I recall that even many years later, the television adaptation for the new Twilight Zone series was watered down to be more acceptable.The story appeared in one of the lesser science-fiction magazines of 1955, Infinity Science Fiction.Clarke:
I'd like to revert to your earlier question of people I've looked up to or admired ... there must be so many in my lifetime that it's hard to do justice to them all. But what I'm doing, cunningly, is going through the index of the Arthur C. Clarke biography you mentionedan amazing book. I don't know how McAleer gathered all that information. I'll note the people who have influenced me. Here they are, and not necessarily in alphabetical order.
Four people I enormously admire, because of their connection with the conquest of space:
James Webb, who was NASA's administrator after deputy administrator Hugh L. Dryden. Webb is now almost a forgotten man, but I don't think the Apollo Program would have succeeded without his drive. Then Thomas O. Paine, who was NASA's administrator after Webb. And of course Wernher von Braun, the driving force behind the development of the giant Saturn rocket. Wernher was the one I knew best. I'd known him for many years, and I'm sorry that now there's a sort of campaign against him because of his association with the Nazis, who he thoroughly disliked. This raises a moral issue. Of course, the atomic scientists were also being criticized. I'm not going to come down on either side of this difficult argument.
Webb, Paine, and von Braun are all dead, but somebody who happily is not is George E. Mueller. He NASA's associate director of Manned Space Flight, and a very good friend.
I admire these men for their ability to accept responsibility on an enormous scale, something I don't think I could ever do. In fact one of my aims has always been "Power without Responsibility," and as a writer I think I've probably achieved that.
Continuing through my list of names, Walter Cronkite is a man I've always admired, since we started working together in the 1960s, I think, when I joined him and Wally Schirra on the Apollo
coverage. Walter is, I think, exactly as he appears to be, a real thoroughly nice man. I've had the pleasure of showing him around Sri Lanka and taking him for a ride in my hovercraft. He once took me for a trip in his sailboat, off Martha's Vineyard, and when we got back to land I said, "Walter, I now understand the feelings of the man who said why should you go to all this trouble when you can get exactly the same sensation by standing in a cold shower and tearing up hundred dollar bills." Today, thousand dollar bills! I was happy to meet him in the Hotel Chelsea in October of 1999he hasn't changed a bit!
Another man I liked and admired, and who died at a tragically early age, and is now almost forgotten, was the British writer John Keir Cross, who wrote a number of science-fiction and fantasy stories in the '40s and '50s, and did a lot of radio plays, and also adapted some science fiction for radio. He was the first, I think, professional writer I got to know. He lived not far from me when I moved to north London, and he had quite an influence on me, and encouraged me, I think, to become a pro.
And talking of pros, of course, my late and sadly missed Isaac Asimov is the epitome, although the pro of pros is Robert Silverberg. Isaac and I had a long relationshipand of course you know about our comic feud.
You're referring, of course, to the famous Clarke-Asimov Treaty, about which Isaac has written in I. Asimov, A Memoir, Doubleday, 1994: "We came to an agreement many years ago in a taxi which, at the time, was moving south on Park Avenue, so it is called the Treaty of Park Avenue. By it, I have agreed to maintain, on questioning, that Arthur is the best science fiction writer in the world, though I am allowed to say, if questioned assiduously, that I am breathing down his neck as we run. In return, Arthur has agreed to insist, forever, that I am the best science writer in the world. He must say it, whether he believes it or not."Clarke:
We always needled each other. Some people probably thought it was for real, but I don't think either of us had the slightest jealousy of the other's success. We only pretended to.
Continuing through my list of names, another writer I admire greatly was John Brunner, who I think was perhaps the most brilliant of all the British science-fiction writers, and never achieved the success he should have done. He died at a tragically early age, of a heart attack at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, 1995.Brunner was in many ways a beloved figure, but at the time of his death nearly all his books were out of print in Britain and the United States.Clarke:
Carl Sagan has recorded how I started his career as a writer and science popularizer. The essay I wrote about him in Roddy McDowell's Double Exposure
, Third Edition, describes our relationship. Incidentally, I was very sad that Roddy died recently. I met him here in Sri Lanka briefly, and he was a very nice, sweet person, best remembered, I expect, for his Planet of the Apes
Gene Roddenberry is another person I admired, and I was able to help in his early struggles when the studios didn't think Star Trek had any potential. He's described our relationship in the biography that Yvonne Fern has written about him (Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation
I can't fail to mention Roger Caras, whom I met first when he was Stanley Kubrick's Vice President on 2001
. Roger has had many careers now, among them president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's done a lot of radio and television about animal welfare. He's quite a character.
And while we're on Hollywood. Dear old George Pal, who made some of the best early science-fiction movies. I only met him a couple of times, and he invited me on the set when he was filming The War of the Worlds
(1953), and I saw one of the Martian explosions being done by one of the special effects people. They wouldn't do that sort of thing nowadays, with so much secrecy surrounding everything.
Another friend from my early radio and TV days was Olga Druce, who produced the Captain Video
series, which incredibly were done in real time, five nights a week. No video tape then!And just as incredible today is the fact that only one episode of this series survives in kinescope.Clarke:
Olga was a dear friend, and tried to get me involved in Captain Video
. I was wise enough not to accept, but that didn't affect our friendship.One of your own stories, "All The Time in the World," survives handsomely from this period, as adapted on Tales of Tomorrow, with teleplay by one Arthur C. Clark (name misspelled in the credits). It reruns often on the SCI FI Channel.Clarke:
You must send me a copy. I wonder if I'm due any royalties.I will.Clarke:
Moving on. Hugo Gernsback. How could I have forgotten him? I think we only met once. Dinner somewhere. Of course, he's rather a controversial character. His reluctance to pay his authors may have been involuntary, but he certainly had a tremendous impact on the field. The Hugo Award is justly named after him. We did have one comic encounter some years later. He wrote, chastising me for saying that the Orbital Post Office had been invented by me. He claimed to have thought of it first. I was able to reply that it had appeared (1) before he'd said he invented it, in a book of mine, which (2) was dedicated to him! I had a very amusing, contrite reply.
Ian and Betty Ballantine, of course, had a great influence on me. They accepted my early novels, and I was happy to get a Christmas card from Betty only the other day. (Just phoned 80th b'day greetings!) Their impact on the science fiction field was enormous, matched only perhaps by that of Judy-Lynn del Rey and her husband Lester del Rey. There's a photograph, I believe in Locus
, of my then agent, the late Scott Meredith and Judy, who came down to Washington to sign the contract for my next two novels. I think they were 2010: Odyssey Two
and The Songs of Distant Earth
. When Judy passed me the advances of one dollar and ten cents, I passed the ten cents and one penny on to Scott for his commission. Incidentally, I think I can claim to have received the lowest rate of payment any author has or had or will receive [laughs], for a one-page story that Frederik Pohl published under the title, "A Recursion In Metastories," in the October 1966 Galaxy magazine. My title had been "The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told." Fred wrote in his editorial note, "Clever of us to get it on a single page!" It contains an infinite number of words.I recall that there was an illustration by Jack Gaughan on the facing page. Does that make it two pages?Clarke:
One of the people I most admired, and met quite a number of times, was Buckminster Fuller. I had the privilege of flying him around Sri Lanka once, and contributing a plug to his final volumes, Synergetics
and Synergetics 2
. What a pity that he never lived to see the discovery of the Buckminster Fullerene molecule, which will make possible the space elevator one day, as depicted in The Fountains of Paradise
.I was particularly gratified by the Fullerine's discovery, because it was fashionable in the '60s, when I was in college, to denigrate Fuller, especially in philosophy circles, and here was nature imitating a great thinker's insight. Clarke:
Another person who had a great but indirect influence on my life was Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the co-inventor of the aqualung. We met a couple of times, and more recently I met his son. Cousteau was a great man, and a great popularizer of the ocean and its inhabitants. Again, as in the case of von Braun, there's a reaction against his reputation now.
Another important influence on my life, of course, has been Gentry Lee, who was introduced to me by Peter Guber, who wanted to make a film based on Gentry's ideas. It was never filmed, but it led to the novel, Cradle
, which was based on our joint ideas but almost entirely written by Gentry. Since then Gentry has collaborated on Rama II
and The Garden of Rama
, and Rama Revealed
, which was written virtually entirely by him, though with consultation with me. I've described our collaboration in the preface, "Co-Authors and Other Nuisances," I think in Rama II
My mind seems to be slipping into the past, so I'd like to give a tribute to my first editor, Walter Gillings, one of the pioneers of science fiction in England during, good heavensthe 1930s. Wally, to whom I dedicated my first collection, Expedition to Earth
(1953), gave me my very first typewriter, a massive vertical machine, which will now be a valuable antique. I think it's still in the Clarkives. I remember carrying it back in a London bus, and I tapped out my first stories on that machine. Walter launched the first British science fiction magazine, Science Fantasy
in 1950, and was a very dear friend. Like Ted Carnell, another of the early science fiction pioneers.
Another writer who influenced me very much was Eric Frank Russell. I don't know how well he's remembered now, but he was the first of us to break through into the American Unknown Worlds, John W. Campbell's companion magazine to Astounding, with his novel, Sinister Barrier, in 1939. He wrote many excellent stories, which are I'm sure well worth reading. I seem to recall that my very first money from fiction was as a result of giving some ideas to Eric, which he duly incorporated in one of his stories. Don't ask me which one.
No problem. The story is "The Prr-r-eet," and was inspired by Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey." It was published in Tales of Wonder, edited by Walter H. Gillings on June 29, 1937. Sam Moskowitz's Seekers of Tomorrow (1966) records that the alien being of the title gives humankind "a device for simultaneously blending color and sound into a new type of music. This idea was supplied by Arthur C. Clarke, who had met Russell at a London meeting of the Science Fiction Association, and he received 10 percent of the proceeds for his contribution, something under three dollars, but was the first money Clarke ever earned from science fiction." Clarke:
Another writer that I knew very well was John Benyon Harris, better known as John Wyndham, whose 1951 The Day of the Triffids
seems an immortal story. It's often being revived in some form or another. John was a very nice guy, but unfortunately suffered from an almost fatal defect for a fiction writer: he had a private income. If he hadn't, I'm sure he'd have written much more.
I seem to be traveling further and further back in time, but I'd be remiss if I didn't give a tribute to my very first schoolmaster, Arnold Goodliffe at Huish's Grammar School. He was an impressive man in the best Dr. Arnold tradition, and I think filled us all with awe. And later still, my English master, a fiery Welshman, E.B. Mitford, inspired my early writings for the school magazine. Some of them were published recently in a small collection, a small edition.
I mentioned the influence of E. E. Smith, yet earlier, Edgar Rice Burroughs had probably an even greater influence. And Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Lost World
(1912) is still I think a perfect example of the science fiction action story.
I'm sure I could discuss lots of writers from the '30s; yet the one I remember most vividly is still with us, incredibly. I refer of course to the apparently immortal Jack Williamson. I can still recall, it couldn't be later than 1930, passages from The Green Girl
. I've only met Jack once or twice, if indeed that, but I think he's a superb writer, and deserves much better recognition than he's received.I think you'll be happy to know that Haffner Press, a new small house, has just begun a lavish multi-volumed edition of Williamson's work. Volume one, The Metal Man, contains the first in hardcovers edition of The Green Girl, on permanent paper, thus saving it from the magazine and paperback editions that are rapidly turning to dust. Volume two, Wolves of Darkness, is notable for containing the never reprinted novel, The Stone From the Green Star, a boyhood favorite of Fred Pohl! Wizard's Isle is volume three of a projected eight books, I think.Clarke:
Let me also pay a tribute to the tragically short-lived Stanley Weinbaum. Again, I can recall quite vividly a day in 1934, when "A Martian Odyssey," (Wonder Stories
, July, 1934) fell into my hands. I think it's the only time that I've ever read a story and had instantly gone back and reread it.Are there perhaps one or two books that have had the greatest influence on you?Clarke:
Besides Stapledon's Last and First Men
, perhaps the book that had the greatest influence on me was David Lasser's The Conquest of Space
(1931). Until I persuaded my Aunt Nellie to buy me that, having seen it displayed in the window of Smith's Book Store, I had no idea that space travel was for real, or could be one day. It was a great honor to have met David Lasser as a very old man, when he attended a lecture I gave in California. I wish he'd written his memoirs. He got into troubles as a labor organizer in the '30s. He was also assistant editor to Gernsback, I believe, at one time. He told me that one of the grounds on which he was attacked in Congress as a dangerous radical was that he was obviously insane because he had written a book about the possibility of flying to the Moon. As of course did my friend Willy Ley, who was the chief pioneer of space travel in the days before and immediately after the war. I guess Willy was the nearest thing to a polymath I've ever met. His field covered not only astronomy, but also paleontology and most of biology.Speaking of space pioneers, I've read that you knew Hermann Oberth.Clarke:
In 1951, when the British Interplanetary Society arranged the second International Congress on Astronautics in London, which I chaired, I had the privilege of having Hermann Oberth as my house guest. He didn't speak much English, and I spoke even less German, but I still have pleasant remembrances of him as a very courteous house guest. It's amazing what he anticipated. Very few things have happened that are not described in his books, although this is even more true of Konstantin Tsiolkovski, the Russian pioneer of astronautics who was half a century earlier than Oberth, and the American, Robert Goddard.Speaking of space travel pioneers, you may not recall, but you introduced me to Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun at the American Rocket Society gathering in New York in October of 1961, where I also met you for the first time. It was an incredible evening for a high school student.Moving along, tell me about Robert A. Heinlein.Clarke:
I must mention Bob Heinlein, who I stayed with on my first visit to America in 1952, at his beautiful house in Colorado Springs, where he and Ginny looked after me very well, and showed me around Pike's Peak and other picturesque places. I later stayed with them when they moved to California, and I am sad that on our final encounter we had a public falling out, which has been well recorded in Neil McAleer's biography of me, and elsewhere.What happened?
I had rather gate-crashed a meeting at Larry Niven's, at the height of the Star Wars caper, and perhaps tactlessly gave as my whole view that the whole thing was nonsense, which is rather an exaggeration. Clearly there are some things that can and should be done, but from the very beginning I regarded the idea of an umbrella over the entire United States, which some people had been touting, as total technological nonsense. I believe that virtually everyone now agrees with me. The situation then was summed up by my good friend Luis Alvarez, who said that the people behind the more extreme positions were a very bright group with no common sense. How ironic that many years later I had as my house guest in Sri Lanka, George Keyworth and his wife Polly, because it was Jay as President Reagan's science advisor who actually wrote his notorious Star Wars Speech. He had to do, as he said later, a great many drafts in order to retain his credibility with the scientific establishment.
I don't think I mentioned Luis Alvarez earlier. Well, Luis invented the Ground Approach Radar, which was based on his linear radar array, which could produce fantastically narrow beams, a fraction of a degree wide, and I was chosen as RAF technical officer to join the unit, my selection being made by Group Captain Edward Fennessey, who later became director general of British Telecom. Ned later told me that he had selected me because my immediate supervisor had said that "I was quite mad but brilliant." He went on to say that he regarded my selection as one of the best decisions of his career.
I didn't meet Luis Alvarez until well after the war, in fact until I went to California in '53, I imagine. That was before I'd written my novel Glide Path (1963), which is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of the Ground Approach Control epic, in that I gave the inventor a Nobel Prize, which I am happy Luis did receive a few years later, for inventing the bubble chamber.
On the last time I met him, Luis told me of an invention he was working ona pair of binoculars through which you could see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. There's no problem getting the necessary magnification, but you can't hold them steady enough to use them. Well, image-stabilizer binoculars have now been produced on exactly the principle Luis was working on. It's an optical system that cancels out the shaking of your hand. I've just bought the SONY 15X magnification pair, and the other night I was able to see three of Jupiter's moons when I switched on the image-stabilizer. I'm sure Luis would have been delighted.
In The View From Serendip (1977), you wrote: "If the decades and the centuries pass with no indication that there is intelligent life in the universe, the long-term effects on human philosophy will be profound, and may be disastrous. Better to have neighbors we don't like than to be utterly alone."
How will these effects on the human outlook be profound? How will humanity be affected, one way or the other?Clarke:
In fact I'm now bored to tears with the whole subject of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and wish it would have a few decades of benign neglect, especially by the purveyors of mind-rotting garbage in such journals as The National Prevaricator
Still, to have a go at your question. It seems to me that humanity might be overwhelmed by the effect of alien contact. Any intelligent person couldn't fail to be awed by the knowledge that we're not alone in the universe, though of course a great deal depends on what "they," quote-unquote, are like. If they're so superior that we can't begin to comprehend them, the effects might be devastating, as has been seen by the impact on primitive societies by more advanced cultures, even without deliberate attempts at destroying them.
I think it was an American Indian chief who said, "You've stolen our dreams."
We all have to have dreams, and when they are stolen it can be tragic.Fermi's paradox asks, if the universe is so full of life, where are they? What is your answer to Fermi's paradox, if it is one?Clarke:
I don't have an answer. There are dozens of answers. In no particular order: (1) They know all about us and have sensibly kept away. (2) We're actually quarantined, as C.S. Lewis suggested in Out of the Silent Planet
. (3) They couldn't care less, or they are so far away they come here every million years or so, and may be back at any moment. (4) Or as I suggested in 2001
, they may be monitoring us, but not doing anything until we become important enough to deserve their attention.Everyone has one thing they care most intensely about, we are told. Is there one thing, or more than one, that you care most intensely about?Clarke:
That's an easy one to answer. Melinda, the youngest of the three Ekanayake daughters. And my killer Chihuahua Pepsi.Bertrand Russell once said that at his age he felt that he was humanity, as much as one man can represent it, and that he would speak truthfully about what was most important. If you were addressing humankind, and all its groups were listening, what advice would you give?Clarke:
The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: "Don't panic."
And then there was the French general who told his officers: "Above all, not too much zeal."
In other words, avoid fanaticism and intolerance. In fact intolerance and active cruelty are the two things I hate most.In their time, H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon scolded humanity. In my view, the world needs to be scolded as Arthur C. Clarke might scold it, as great thinkers and artists have tried to shame it. What would you like to say?Clarke:
I'd hate to be remembered as a scold. You might add Shaw to that list, incidentally. I think I've probably done enough scolding, indirectly, in my writings.What, if anything, would you like me to ask you that I did not ask?Clarke:
Frankly, I can't think of one, but perhaps by the time we get closer to publication I may have thought of one. I see that I'm finishing taping these answers on the morning of the 29th of December 1998, and just waiting for Valerie and the two younger girls to come back from a visit to Egypt, I'm sure bringing back lots of photographs and full of stories.One final question, and I think you guess what it's about. In this year of 2001, what are your thoughts about the movie? Seems it's a long, long science fictional way from E.E. Smith's Arisian patron race, via your Overlords in Childhood's End, to the subtle cosmic engineers of 2001: A Space Odyssey.Clarke:
Having just seen the special edition Stanley has been working on for the last five years of his life: it couldn't have been done better even nowmerely in a 10th of the time, thanks to today's computers!
Arthur Clarke, over and out.