Author continues his exploration of ideas: Susan Watts observes a legend of science-fiction holding court

'PERHAPS my ideas on whale ranching might need updating,' Arthur C Clarke suggested yesterday, as he looked back over the imaginative outpourings that have characterised his life. 'But even they were a lot more humane than what we do to whales now.'

Mr Clarke - perhaps the world's most famous champion of the science in science-fiction writing - is visiting Britain to celebrate his 75th birthday. Saturday sees the start of a week of celebrations in Minehead, Somerset, where he was born in 1917, including the launch of his official biography and a Space-Age festival.

Yesterday, it was the House of Commons' turn to celebrate the author of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama. In the latter he describes a project to search for asteroids on a collision course with Earth, in which Nasa has since shown an interest.

He did not let the MPs down. His Nehru-style suit took on Star Trek overtones on his shoulders, and he bubbled with visions of the future, reminiscent of the television series. His ideas are worth listening to, for this is the man who wrote about communications satellites in a trade journal in 1945 - 20 years before the first one was built.

He is confident that some of his other ideas may yet come true, including the lunar launcher - espoused more than 50 years ago - that would send satellites into space cheaply from the surface of the moon. Others, such as stirring up the nutrients that lie on the seabed to make them fertile, seem more far-fetched.

Yesterday he was excited by news that the Japanese government and industrialists are to invest several million pounds on cold-fusion research - generating unlimited power in a test tube - an idea that came and, most scientists agree, went three years ago. He passed round computer-generated images of Mars, based on shots taken 16 years ago by the Viking probe. He had enhanced them to show how the planet would look after its atmosphere is altered by an artificial greenhouse effect to allow farming, and 2,000 years later under an industrial smog.

He said he had not read much modern science-fiction, characterised by 'cyberpunk' writers such as William Gibson whose nightmare worlds controlled by computer junkies are the order of the day. 'I have tried to read some, but the punk bits were just too horrible,' he said.

Nevertheless, he believes that today's science fiction is still valuable. 'Any exploration of ideas is important. One of the most valid uses of science fiction is as an early-warning system,' he said, adding a quote from his fellow author and friend, Ray Bradbury: 'I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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