Arthur C Clarke

When history begins

The inspiring and prophetic stories of Sir Arthur C Clarke were rooted in a sound knowledge of science and engineering. E&T recalls working with the visionary writer and former IET employee, who died last month.

The street entrance to Sir Arthur C Clarke's home near the diplomatic quarter of Colombo was modest enough, but behind the whitewashed walls a substantial compound lay hidden. Next door, the Iraqi Embassy's flag fluttered in a light wind, while jacaranda trees in Clarke's garden waved lazily in response. I had just arrived with a TV film crew. The Iraqi flag held no special significance for us. Our minds were fixed on the more optimistic predictions for the year ahead - 2001 - that had made Clarke so famous. A flat rooftop on Clarke's house incorporated a modestly powerful reflecting telescope and a rather more urgently exploited satellite dish, mutely absorbing and transmitting Clarke's endless stream of fax and email correspondence with scientists, politicians, literary agents, movie producers and fans of his science fiction novels. Widely branded by the press as a recluse, Clarke was nothing of the kind. It was simply that his attendance in the wider world was mediated by the communications technologies that he had done so much to inspire.

The house itself was furnished simply, large and bright, with the air conditioning set for maximum cooling. After more than four decades of living in Sri Lanka, Clarke's metabolism, originally that of a Somerset farmboy, had reached only a fitful compromise with the tropics. Other adjustments were entirely to his liking, however. There was a constant bustle of loyal and affectionate Sri Lankan staff, and it was abundantly clear that he'd never had to lift a finger to do the housework. Beyond the walls of the compound, the scene could hardly be described as a tropical paradise. Rickshaw drivers, ramshackle cars and impatient rusty buses constantly blared their horns. Meanwhile, inside the cool of the house, all human activity on those bustling streets seemed as nothing compared with the energy of Clarke. He greeted me warmly and shook hands with the camera crew and our producer, but like an excitable boy he was soon bored by formalities and eager at once to move on to the next opportunity for stimulation: "I'm afraid I have to go out. Why don't you come with me?" The last two decades of Clarke's life were inconvenienced by a post-polio condition, leaving him barely able to walk. His arm muscles were in good shape though. I discovered one physical exertion that he simply refused to surrender, come what may. Every afternoon he was escorted, in a wheelchair, to the Colombo Country Club to play ping-pong. The wheelchair was kicked aside for a while, and he would grip the edge of the table firmly with one hand while wielding a bat with the other. He was ferociously good against all comers.

While his assistants readied Clarke for the ping-pong outing, he beckoned me into his study. With an eager grin he said, "Piers, I have something for you. I knew we had a spare one somewhere. It's an original, so look after it". He gestured to a table on which rested a sturdy cardboard envelope. Inside was a mint-condition colour publicity brochure for a film that, as Clarke knew perfectly well, had changed the course of my life. I first saw Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' in September 1968, at the age of nine. I was taken to a cinema in rural Sussex to see what was supposed to be the grandest film about space exploration ever made. I was looking forward to heroes conquering the galaxy in sleek starships, laser guns at the ready. The film began well: a sunrise seen from space, arcing across the Earth's horizon, and some loud, exciting music. Ten minutes later I began to feel bored. It was all so slow. Then that powerful music came on again, an apeman was swinging a bone and smashing a skull, and that certainly looked like a lot of fun. When the bone flew off into space (Kubrick's famous 'jump-cut' from prehistoric tool to futuristic nuclear satellite), I felt excited again. This was my kind of film, after all. On first viewing, the film's plot simply passed me by. I was gripped by the fabulous orbiting space hardware and the politely-spoken, murderous talking computer, HAL9000. I will never forget the giant Earth-orbiting space station. Its gentle waltz against a backdrop of stars was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I still get a lump in my throat when I review that moment today. When we came out of the cinema, my parents were frowning, puzzled. "Did you enjoy that?" I spent the journey home rattling off all the wonderful things I had seen. "And did you understand any of it?" they asked me. I didn't know what they meant. "You're not supposed to understand it!"

I blurted out. "You're just meant to watch it!" I felt guilty for nagging them to take me along to a film that, quite obviously, they had not enjoyed. I worried that I must have missed something. Well, of course I hadn't.

I think that similar scenes must have been acted out between parents and children across the length and breadth of the cinema-going world in that summer of 1968, at least as far as 2001 was concerned. Other, more serious, battles between generations were unfolding that year, but I was too young to understand their nature. I may not have stood behind the barricades, but at least I knew, as my parents never could, that 2001 was not a normal narrative film at all, but a new kind of sensory experience; not just pictures projected on a screen, but an early cinematic experiment in virtual reality. And it was conjured up, in large part, by Arthur C Clarke.

My career choices were inspired by '2001', both Kubrick's film and Clarke's screenplay and novel. Desperate to share in that kind of creative adventure, I learned photography, made television films and wrote and sometimes designed a number of books on scientific, technological or film making themes, along the way becoming fascinated by the politics of the space industry. In addition, Clarke's many other books, all written in smooth, elegant prose, unleashed a scientific and philosophical curiosity beyond anything I was taught in school.

Of course I was not alone in finding Clarke inspirational. Countless thousands of people around the world have expressed the debt they owe him. I have every confidence that many members of the IET will recall the pleasure they found in his writings. In many cases, he gave practical support too. He and his family employed me for several months to archive some of his papers: a generous arrangement designed to help finance me through writing my first book. Many others benefited from similar largesse. Clarke was tirelessly generous, and almost always answered his correspondence, at least until his illness took away his strength.

Clarke never stopped believing that the human race is capable of progress. Today, in this age of uncertainty, we need his childlike optimism more than ever. If we don't allow ourselves to think that we might be capable of building a better future, then the danger is that we won't even try. We must remember our nine-year-old selves, looking forward to new treats and toys, always knowing that the future is going to be fabulous. The trick, as Clarke knew very well, is never to grow up; but now that he's gone, I have to confess, I do feel a bit older

Piers Bizony has written about science, space and technology for a wide variety of magazines in the UK and the US. His books include '2001: Filming the Future'.

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