To The Last Word An Interview with Sir Arthur C Clarke

Sir Arthur C. Clarke – 28 March 2005

I conducted the following interview with Sir Arthur C. Clarke on or about 21 April 2000. At the time I was a judge of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and I arranged the interview as a promotional tie-in with the Award, which was to be presented at the Science Museum in London the following month. The Award itself is a jury award given to the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the previous year, and is actually just one of several awards, the others being for various scientific achievements, which carry Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s name.

Rather than an in-depth interview about a current book or project the idea was for a general overview of Sir Arthur’s life and major achievements. The interview was conducted by telephone between my home in Dorset, England and Sir Arthur’s in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A conversation which would have been impossible without the existence of the geostationary communications satellites which Sir Arthur himself hypothesised in the now famous article ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’1 published in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World magazine.

On the day we spoke Sir Arthur’s office had just been reorganised and he was suffering from what he described as a rather ‘husky throat’. After drinking some tea and mentioning that on the Tuesday just gone EUTELSAT has launched a new satellite which was dedicated to him he was ready for the interview. I should note that Sir Arthur was in good spirits throughout the interview and there was much laughter on both sides of the world.

Gary Dalkin talks to Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Gary Dalkin: There are many things we could talk about, but given how communications technology has so transformed the world, in ways which weren’t even imagined by science fiction writers not so long ago, talking about communications seems a good place to start. Particularly as you’ve covered the whole span of communication, from being a postman, to 65 years later actually being on a stamp. How does that feel?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well it makes me feel almost posthumous. But you are quiet right. We are a communications family. My mother and father were both post office types and in fact I believe they did their courting by Morse code. Which dates them, doesn’t it?

Gary Dalkin: It does. No one will know Morse code in another few years.

Arthur C. Clarke: I think it’s already been abandoned.

Gary Dalkin: They stopped using it officially here last year.

Arthur C. Clarke: Shades of Titanic.

Gary Dalkin: You’ve always been very interested in Titanic. It struck me that you wrote in Imperial Earth that every generation made its film about it. So I’d imagine you weren’t so surprised by the success of that film.2

Arthur C. Clarke: I’m delighted of course by it. And my friend Bill MacQuitty who lived here in Ceylon, as it was then, for many years made A Night to Remember. He directed that and he told me many stories about that production. In many ways that’s still the classic. Bill had many people who were Titanic survivors working with him on that film.

Arthur C Clarke - The View from SerendipGary Dalkin: You wrote in The View From Serendip that it was in 1933 that you first heard a very early telephone call coming in from America. Things like that are now commonplace. How was that at the time? Was that a remarkable experience?

Arthur C. Clarke: I don’t remember it very well, but I was a night telephone operator and I was woken up by a call which was from America. It would have been shortwave radio then. There were no telephone cables across the Atlantic until much later. I couldn’t resist listening to it, and after I’d listened for a few minutes there was an angry call from the supervisor in Taunton saying that I was draining the signal. So get off the line!

Gary Dalkin: Things are very different now.

Arthur C. Clarke: Very much so. Of course everybody will have very soon their own personal communicator and they won’t know where anybody else is – it’s really a global village.

Gary Dalkin: You came up with the term ‘comsol’ in the ‘70’s, and of course we’ve all got them now. We call them a multimedia PC.

Arthur C. Clarke: Yes, I’m surrounded by screens at the moment which are blinking at me, and pretty strange things happen. The email has certainly transformed my life, as I am sure it has many people. I get very little mail now through old fashioned flying snail – it’s only from strangers. All my personal and business mail all comes by email.

Gary Dalkin: And yet just 100 years ago the telephone was science fiction itself. You wrote about one very important government official who couldn’t see any need for the telephone because we’d got plenty of messenger boys; the Americans might need it.

Arthur C. Clarke: That was Preece3, who was the chief engineer of the Post Office. But he learned his lesson because after a few years he backed a young Italian engineer called Marconi. It is funny looking at some of the predictions that were made. My favourite one is still the American mayor who when he heard about the telephone said he thought this was a wonderful invention. He said, “I can see the time when every city will have one.”

Gary Dalkin: You grew up reading the pulp magazines. Science fiction was fairly scarce and probably considered a little eccentric in the 1930’s. In 1938 you wrote in a British Interplanetary Society brochure, “Looking out across the immensity to the great suns and circling planets, to the worlds of infinite mystery and promise… do you… believe that his destiny (Man) is indeed among the stars and that one day our descendants will bridge the seas of space.” That’s a very romantic vision. Had just been to see Things to Come?

Arthur C. Clarke: I’m afraid I was rather addicted to purple prose, and I haven’t got over it even now. Really my final statement on this is the epilogue I did for the astronauts own account, First On The Moon, which ends up saying that the old astrologers got it completely reversed when they thought that stars controlled the destinies of men. The time may come when men control the destinies of stars.

Gary Dalkin: Of course that was the period of very grandiose visions like those of Olaf Stapledon.

Arthur C. Clarke: Yes, Stapledon had tremendous influence on me. And I’m involved in a Stapledon symposium in the near future.

Gary Dalkin: And you also corresponded with C.S. Lewis as a young man. I understand that is going to be republished?

Arthur C Clarke & CS Lewis - From Narnia to Space OdysseyArthur C. Clarke: Yes, we had a considerable correspondence and we met at least once, and I knew his wife pretty well. She was one of the White Horse gang4 who used to meet every Thursday. Our correspondence is going to be published. In fact it’s supposed to be out now. I’m still waiting for it to arrive.

Gary Dalkin: In the Second World War you became more involved in technology, in particular in the development of radar. What do you remember about that period in particular?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well it’s the basis of my only non-science fiction fiction, the novel Glide Path, which is a slightly fictionalised account of my dealings with the ground controlled approach radar which was invented by Luis Alvarez. Now Luiz is much more famous now for his theory, though he said it wasn’t a theory but a fact, that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet or an asteroid 65 million years ago. And so Liuz was an extraordinary man. Besides inventing microwave radar – ground control approach radar – he designed and built the mechanism for the first atom bomb and flew, I think he flew, over Hiroshima. Oh, he was a fantastic fellow, Luiz Alvarez. He son Walter is a geologist and the two of them together came up with this very fundamental discovery of what happened to the dinosaurs, and what may happen to us. Of course that’s also intrigued me; the danger from asteroids, and I invented the Spaceguard Foundation sometime ago, which now exists.

Gary Dalkin: And you wrote the novel The Hammer of God based around the possibility, and I you said you cried all the way to the bank because Steven Spielberg didn’t credit you on Deep Impact.

Arthur C. Clarke: Yes, I have a little present for Steven shortly. I am one of the very few people who has a Tyrannosaurus Rex in his garden. It only arrived yesterday, and I’m going to get photographed beside it and send the photograph to Steven saying “Greetings from Jurassic Park East”.

Gary Dalkin: Steven is supposed to be reviving Stanley Kubrick’s project, A.I.. Have you been asked to have any involvement in that?5

Arthur C. Clarke: Well I was heavily involved right from the beginning, and in fact Stanley went through a number of writers and eventually he sent me a fax for which many writers would have murdered their entire families, saying “only you can write the script. Name your figure.” Well that was a challenge I couldn’t resist and I did write an outline and really I did it because I owed him so much – I never got a penny for it I never asked for anything. But I spent a lot of work on it and developed a script which I thought was pretty good. My agent thought it was the best thing I’d ever done. But unfortunately Stanley hated it. So nothing came of that. But now Stanley’s brother-in-law, Jan Harlan was here filming me recently for a retrospective on Stanley and Jan is with Steven now and he’s got a copy of my script, and I very much hope they may find it useful. Whatever happens, it will be a most interesting film.

Gary Dalkin: You mentioned flying over Hiroshima, and it was just after the bombing of Hiroshima that you published your famous article in Wireless World where you wrote about geosynchronous communications satellites, and of course that’s completely transformed the world now. It’s the means by which we are talking today. But how did people react to that at the time?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well actually I wrote the article early in ’45 and before it was accepted and printed the atom bomb was dropped6 and I realised of course the world had changed. So I added this footnote, rather optimistically saying that space travel would be brought decades earlier by atomic energy. Which in fact hasn’t happened. We still haven’t used nuclear propulsion and we may never do so. But at the time I don’t recall any particular reaction to the piece because it did arrive just after the Bomb and the V2 rockets and people were prepared to accept almost anything. I think the general feeling was the same as mine; it would certainly happen one day, but probably not in our time. In fact it was only 20 years.

Gary Dalkin: The future seems to come ever more rapidly.

Arthur C. Clarke: Very much so.

Gary Dalkin: As you said in Clarke’s Third Law, the world seems to be becoming more magical every day. It’s almost exactly 50 years now since your first television appearance. You’ve been on television hundreds of times since, but what was television like then?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well it took place in the studio at Alexander Place, which was only a few miles from the home I shared with my brother and his wife in Wood Green. Perhaps my most vivid memory is being smeared with horrible green make-up, which my sister-in-law said ruined all the towels in the house trying to get it off.

Gary Dalkin: Of course there wouldn’t be any recording of that, because all television was live then.

Arthur C. Clarke: Exactly. In fact I had to talk for thirty minutes on the fourth dimension, you know, live. And that’s quiet a challenge and as a result of that I was rehearsed to within an inch of my life by Robert Bauer, who was a leading producer who did quite a bit of science fiction, including The Time Machine. Again all live in those days. It’s hard to realise.

Gary Dalkin: It’s incredible that anyone could be so ambitious to attempt to do so.

Arthur C. Clarke: Well Captain Video was even more so. That was Olga Druce, who was a dear friend in America. She had to do a live space programme every day of the week.7

Gary Dalkin: The ‘50’s went on and the satellites started to go up, and then you met up with Stanley Kubrick and started work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. That took a long time to make, and course it nearly is the real year 2001 now. So how do you think the film holds up now?

Advance lobby poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Advance lobby poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke: Remarkably well. It’s some time since I’ve looked at it. But in fact the last occasion was very memorable because that was in London at a sort of retrospective screening. Stanley had been working on the print, improving it in various details and it was shown at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank and I came back specifically to see that. It was very impressive and in a way it was almost like seeing it for the first time.

Gary Dalkin: And just as 2001 was coming to an end you became involved with the Apollo program. You were commentating and helping to present that around the world. What are your memories of that time?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well sitting with Wally Schirra and Walter Kronkite in the studio, and before that actually seeing the launch from the Cape. It doesn’t seem real now. It’s sort of frozen in time. I think the moment when we saw those murky images from the moon of the first footsteps on another world, I say that is a singularity in time.

Gary Dalkin: I actually remember basically ordering my mum to wake me up in the middle of the night so that I could get up and see it and being woken up at two in the morning when I was seven and going down and watching it. And I still just can’t forget that. And of course the internet was starting developing, for the military at first, and then it became an academic resource. When did you actually first go on-line?

Arthur C. Clarke: You know that it seems I’ve always been on-line. It must be two or three years ago and of course it’s still developing in all sorts of directions, and I’m still going through old fashioned copper wire. But this new satellite which was launched – the EUTELSAT – which they dedicated to me when it went up on Tuesday that’ll hopefully be carrying the internet at much faster rates than I can do at the moment. I’m stuck with 20 or so k and it’s nice talking about a few hundred k.

Gary Dalkin: I understand you’re going to be getting an IDSN8 video camera soon, for hopefully real time transmissions?

Arthur C. Clarke: Yes, I’m not sure I should mention this, because of course one of the problems we face now is over-communication. I had more than 50 emails today for the first time. Actually I think something went wrong at the server and they sent me eight copies of four emails, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. You know I’m fond of saying that in the happy, early days of email it was just like drinking from a fire hose. Now it’s like drinking from Niagara.

Gary Dalkin: Some days it does feel like that. Seeing how you helped promote the idea of space travel and satellites so much how did you react when America came up with the SDI9, or as they call it, ‘Star Wars’? The military taking technology into space.

Arthur C. Clarke: Well, some of my best friends are involved in that and when I went to America last year to be checked over at John Hopkins I was met by a certain general who goes happily under the nick name ‘Darth Vader’, so I’m on both sides of the fence as far as this is concerned. Some things should be done, are worth doing, not just for the ‘Star Wars’ side, which I think is mostly nonsense, but you know we’ve got to watch out for these asteroids.

Gary Dalkin: That’s true. You’re books are almost unique among science fiction novels; there’s virtually no violence in them. You’re most recent book, with Michael P. Kube-McDowell is actually specifically an anti-violence book about getting rid of weapons…

Arthur C. Clarke: Trigger, yes, very much so.

Gary Dalkin: It’s been a big theme…

Arthur C. Clarke: Yes, yes, and maybe this is what’s gravitated me to a Buddhist country. Though I only wish that Sri Lanka was free of violence, which is really far from the case at the moment. My new novel, Light of Other Days, with Stephen Baxter, in a way touches on the theme. If we could see everything that ever happened or everything that was happening the effect of violence and crime would be colossal. So that is really a theme in that as well.

Arthur C. Clarke - The City and the StarsGary Dalkin: I was just re-reading The City and The Stars, and it struck me there is a description there of young people playing a virtual reality roll-playing game. Now this was written 45 years ago. That’s pretty far sighted. You’ve also got computer banks in there which record every molecule, memorising the pattern of the city so that it becomes unchanging. That’s a very advanced view of computers. How do you see computer technology and multi-media developing over say, the next decade?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well first of all I can’t claim priority for any of these ideas. It’s very hard to find anything that some writer hasn’t said in perhaps embryonic form some time in the past. But The City and The Stars is going to be an oratorio at the Royal Festival Hall sometime I think next year. David Bedford’s writing that, so that should be something to look forward to. To answer your question, it’s rather hard to see what more we need to do, or can do with multi-media until we – and I’m afraid this may actually happen – are wired in ourselves.

Gary Dalkin: Can you actually foresee a time where people will be so immersed they couldn’t tell the real world from their computer world?

Arthur C. Clarke: I think it’s already happened to a lot of people.

Gary Dalkin: Possibly, yes. You mention in The View From Serendip about mobile watch phones.

Arthur C. Clarke: It’s an old idea. Dick Tracy, and mobile televisions and that sort of thing on your wrist.

Gary Dalkin: You say that we might not be allowed to switch them off. It’s not just we’d be bombarded with communication, we might not be able to, and that would be Big Brother.

Arthur C. Clarke: Exactly. Or Big Sister.

Gary Dalkin: So there are dangers in the technology in the wrong hands.

Arthur C. Clarke: That’s true of all technologies. Everything we’ve mentioned is potentially dangerous and could be misused.

Gary Dalkin: There are actually several Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Could you explain what the others are?

Arthur C. Clarke: Well you know, it’s a terrible admission; I can’t read fiction any more. I don’t think I’ve read a novel – I can’t remember the last novel I read. I can’t even read short stories. I’m very sad about that, so I don’t know anything about the titles. I see Stephen Baxter is one of the nominees. And there are several other books which I wish I could read, and may yet get round to doing. But yes, there are several awards for people who’ve done important work, such as John Pearce and Harold Rossen, who are the two pioneers of Telestar and Early Bird. I can’t remember, but some very distinguished people have come and received major awards, and there are three or four other Arthur Clarke awards. In fact I think there are rather too many! I think there should be a closed season on Arthur Clarke Awards.

Arthur C Clarke - Rendezous With Rama - UK First EditionGary Dalkin: A lot of your books have been optioned for films. But Rendezvous With Rama has Morgan Freeman’s name attached to it at the moment. Is this one actually going to happen do you think soon?

Arthur C. Clarke: I very much hope so. I had a message from his office only a few weeks ago and they think they can get it in under 95 million. So I’m very optimistic about that, and there are several others are optioned to people working on them. The one I would like to see most is The Songs of Distant Earth, which is my own favourite novel.

Gary Dalkin: If you could chose, who would you like to make it?

Arthur C Clarke - The Songs of Distant EarthArthur C. Clarke: Oh dear, well er, I don’t think I’d better answer that one. Otherwise I might upset someone. I don’t see many films. I haven’t been to a cinema for years, partly because I’m wheel-chaired and it’s too difficult. But I do catch up with a fair amount on tape and now of course on DVD, and obviously I’d be really happy if Spielberg or Cameron, to name two at random…

Gary Dalkin: Well either, and certainly Cameron with Titanic and the science fiction films he’s made, that would be really something special to see. You are now almost becoming the centre of a mini-empire. You’ve got the Arthur C. Clarke Centre, the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, and there’s the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Future Technologies in Minehead. Is that going to happen at the moment?

Arthur C. Clarke: No it won’t be in Minehead. It will be in Taunton. Although Minehead was my home town, where I was born and spent most of my youth. Taunton was where I went to school, which is now the Richard Huish College. My brother Fred is handling all of this. He was here for a few months recently.

Gary Dalkin: What are you’re plans next. There must be other things you want to achieve?

Arthur C. Clarke: You’ve seen my schedule. It changes every day. Something new comes up. I’m just trying to keep my head above water. I get two or three projects a day now, and many of those I would love to do, and some of which I will do. Others are still confidential and I can’t make any promises. I’m not sure what I will be doing, but just stay tuned.

Gary Dalkin: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Arthur C. Clarke: I’d like to send my very best wishes to all concerned. The Science Museum is where I spent much of my not always misspent youth, and in fact they have an exhibition there with my Wireless World paper I believe somewhere in the Space Gallery.

Gary Dalkin: As we were talking about the information overload which is a possibility with the emails flooding in, it strikes me that you ended one of your books with something which might be very appropriate to end this interview with. You were talking about the knowledge and information that could come through satellites and you said, “let us use them well, always remembering that information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.”

Arthur C. Clarke: In fact I’ve taken that a few stages further. Beyond wisdom there must be foresight. You know that’s really the end of the line. Wisdom itself isn’t enough. The whole series is data, information, knowledge, wisdom, foresight. There may be something beyond that, but I can’t think of it at the moment.

Well nice talking to you, and my very best wishes to all those concerned and I wish I could be there in body, though I will be there in spirit and I look forward to seeing the result in due course.

Gary Dalkin: Thank you very much indeed for talking to me. It’s been absolutely delightful.

Arthur C. Clarke: Thank you.

*

1: In the book Ascent to Orbit Clarke writes that his original title for the article was ‘The Future of World Communications’. He wrote the article in late June 1945 and sent it to Wireless World on 13 August. It was the editor of Wireless World who changed the title to ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’.

2: James Cameron’s hugely successful film Titanic, which at the time of this interview was just over two years old.

3: Sir William Preece, who was made Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office in 1892.

4: An 18th C. pub at 52 Broad Street, Oxford, near the entrance to Balliol College. A group overlapping with the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams and other writers and teachers) met there during WWII. The pub is also thought to have been the favourite of Inspector Morse.

5: A.I., directed by Steven Spielberg, premiered in June 2001.

6: On 6 August 1945.

7: Arthur C. Clarke wrote at least one episode of this TV series, full title Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-55). Other notable SF writers to work on the series include James Blish, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Walter M. Miller Jr., Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance.

8: An already forgotten technology which briefly sought to fill the gap between regular ‘dial-up’ internet access and broadband or ADSL.

9: SDI – Strategic Defence Initiative. An American military project introduced by President Reagan in 1983 to use ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. It was popularly dubbed ‘Star Wars’.

10: The winner was Bruce Sterling for his novel Distraction.