3001:; an encounter in cyberspace

At 79, Arthur C Clarke is still a very busy man - and at pains to let the world know
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The Independent Online
A year ago I wrote to the science fiction writer and techno-guru Arthur C Clarke to ask if he would like to take part in Seven Wonders of the World. This is a sort of scientific Desert Island Discs for BBC TV in which scientists tell us about themselves and their own seven wonders. Clarke replied from Sri Lanka by fax with a little satellite logo in the top right-hand corner (Clarke described the principles of satellite communication in an article in Wireless World in 1945):

I'd love to do this but I'm now very limited in time and energy and my post-polio condition is worsening. I can no longer walk without assistance, and I have to sleep every afternoon. I have eight movies or TV projects on option, with several others in orbit. But I'll think about it...

I sent cassettes of earlier programmes (on Miriam Rothschild, the world flea expert, and Stephen Jay Gould, the palaeontologist). Then came the first e-mail of a roller-coaster electronic correspondence (I wondered if Clarke's Internet address said something about the kind of ego we'd be dealing with. I've promised not to make it public, but "napoleon@sri.lanka.net" gives the flavour).

Re: 'Seven Wonders of the World': Herewith the first dozen of my wonders. Doubtless I'll think of a lot more and have to make some agonising decisions...

Clarke's list included the micro-chip, the CD-Rom, the mask of Tutankhamen, the Saturn V rocket, the giant squid, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D, the Mandelbrot set, fibre optics, Newton's Principia, DNA, termites, zero point energy, and the rock fortress of Sigiriya. There were suggestions for further research and a mention of

Then I filmed some other people for the series and by the time I got back to Clarke he was

He had been given something called the Von Karman Award and was expected to go to Beijing to receive it. Steven Spielberg had just optioned The Hammer of God (a Clarke novel about an asteroid collision with Earth) and so on. I e-mailed him and begged him to fit in a couple of days in the next couple of months.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: Sorry - thought it would be obvious from my schedule that I'm a non-person for the foreseeable future - and I'm sure lots of new projects will turn up at Beijing... Several major ones have already done so since this schedule was typed... also I'm completely exhausted from '3001'. Last month, weeping uncontrollably, had to turn down six-figure fee for two days work... But I'm still v. interested - pl. contact in New Year. All best, Arthur.

I wrote again in October.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: As my dear Mother used to say when we gave her a range of attractive alternatives to select from, 'I'm too tired to argue'. I've recovered a lot from Beijing/'3001' and January seems pretty clear though lots of people want to come diving with us (To mention a few, Patrick Stewart, Tom Hanks, J-M Cousteau, 'Darth Vader'). Please contact my agent and arrange mortgage on Broadcasting House - and remind me of the dozen wonders I'd already chosen... Over to you, Arthur.

Nothing stood in the way except Arthur's agent and the Sri Lankan government (nervous about television crews after a recent sex tourism investigation). We set the filming for 7 and 8 January. There was one more e-mail before the bad news.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: Re: 'Seven Wonders of the World'. When you say wonders of the world, must it be this world? I'd like to make SS433 the 7th. Looked at Miriam and Steve again - will be glad to join them. Best, Arthur.

SS433 turned out to be the NASA website astronomy picture of the day for 6 March, 1996. It's the strangest-known object in the universe, spitting out matter at a quarter the speed of light from some kind of black hole and revolving like a cosmic lawn-sprinkler. It sounded like a wonder to me.

Then the bad news. The day before we get on the jet, a phone call from Colombo. It's the first time we've talked on the phone. Clarke has bronchitis and can hardly speak. The filming cannot go ahead.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: Sorry to have let you down - was looking forward and had done a lot of work. But may well be in hospital Monday... too much of a gamble... Might be possible around May but can't promise. Overwhelmed by '3001', HAL's birthday (12 Jan) etc - see attached schedule...

But a couple of days later:

We'd passed that already but I thought we'd turn up in Colombo and take our chances.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: OK - let's risk it. I'm feeling 90% OK now, but have had several relapses. And, according to 'Flight', 15 Jan, I died in December...

On the plane I read 3001. It opens aboard the space-tug Goliath on a mission to nudge comets into a collision course with Venus. Comets are 90 per cent ice, and billions of gallons of water are needed to prepare Venus for colonisation hundreds of years in the future. By 3001 there is, of course, routine interplanetary travel, by tourists as well as scientists and explorers.

The taxi driver takes us to Arthur C Clarke House, an unremarkable building in a residential area. It's also called Leslie's House after Clarke's great Sri Lankan friend who died young in 1977. One of Clarke's best books, The Fountains of Paradise, is dedicated to him. We take off our shoes and a servant shows us upstairs, through what Clarke calls his "ego-chamber" covered in framed awards, VIP photographs and citations, and into Clarke's study.

He is surprisingly tall with very large hands and he's instantly likeable. He lives, and will probably die, in front of his computer which greets him every morning with the voice of HAL, the computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey: "All my circuits are functioning perfectly..." Clarke's circuits aren't doing so well. For a time doctors thought he might have the same horrible neurological condition as Professor Stephen Hawking, but it turned out to be something less vicious, so-called "post-polio syndrome".

He gives the impression he can't remember what his seven wonders were. I try to remind him but his attention span is short. Like a hyperactive child he is constantly reaching for letters and invitations to show us, or telling us how much e-mail has arrived today and wondering how he's going to deal with it all. We fix to start filming at 9am, and then Clarke says we should all go to the Otters for a drink and a game of table tennis. The Otters swimming club is a faded sort of place. Clarke is helped to his regular table near the pool and orders his usual iced tea. He doesn't drink and has never smoked or experimented with drugs, even in the Sixties when he lived along the corridor from William Burroughs in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Just before 6pm he tunes in to BBC World Service news on a portable radio with an ear-piece ("I'm a news junkie"). Then he plays ping-pong, leaning against the end of the table and cheating a bit (mainly illegal serves and pretending to have heart trouble). He beat all three of us easily.

Next morning Clarke is lying on the bed in a T-shirt and sarong and waves his arms about, pretending to have lost his voice. He likes jokes. We record three of his wonders that morning and four the next. Then we head off into the heart of Sri Lanka to film one of them, Sigiriya, a 600ft volcanic rock with stairs leading up to the ruins of a fifth-century palace.

Back in Colombo we drop in to say goodbye. Arthur, back from the Otters, is sitting at the computer polishing a book review for the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

He shows us a letter from Neil Armstrong and wonders aloud how he will cope with the stream of journalists who want to interview him about 3001. He checks the e-mail ("Sorry, you have no mail waiting"). When he switches off, the voice of HAL says: "My mind is going. I can feel it". Arthur will be 80 this year, and his mind is working fine.

A few days ago I sent Arthur an e-mail asking if I could quote from our cyber-mail for this article.

From: napoleon@sri.lanka.net: Re: 'Independent on Sunday'. Yes - but only if you say that I've had to disconnect from e-mail because of overload and now all mail goes through a private link to the Indian Ocean satellite, through the lap-top sized WORLD PHONE phone that INMARSAT has kindly given me! (Not quite true - but it may soon be! I've had to hire a ninth secretary just to deal with e-mail.) All best, Arthur.

The 'C', by the way, stands for Charles.

Arthur C Clarke's 'Seven Wonders of the World', produced by Christopher Sykes, can be seen on BBC2 at 7.40pm today.