The man who wished upon a star: Arthur C Clarke's fantastic theories of communications are now the basis of global media empires

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The Independent Online
ARTHUR C CLARKE gets the strangest calls. Barefoot and wearing a sarong, the science-fiction writer and futurologist sits at his computer in Sri Lanka. He is busy conjuring up the planet Mars in 1,000 years' time, colonised by man, with an atmosphere, and oak forests carpeting the slopes of giant, extinct volcanoes. Then the telephone rings.

It is always ringing. And desperate though he is to finish planting computer gardens on Mars, organising underwater explorations, writing novels and filmscripts, and paying for radio antennae to search for aliens in outer space, Dr Clarke cannot resist a ringing telephone. His curiosity is insatiable.

'Hello?' He inquires wearily. Then his gnarled, Somerset features break into a smile. 'It's the boys from the Hubble telescope,' he tells me. 'Yes, I've seen the new photos. They're sharp, incredible.' Chuckling, Dr Clarke decides to fax the scientists a cartoon that shows men in spacesuits turning the Hubble's gaze away from galaxies to fix on Princess Diana.

Sometimes, he is pestered by calls from the cryogenics people who want to flash-freeze his body, 77 years old and crippled with post-polio, and thaw him out in a century or two. ('Absolutely not interested,' he says). Often, he is rung up by people buzzing with ideas about time machines and UFOs.

Even Rupert Murdoch has called him. On the surface, it seems an odd friendship: Mr Murdoch, the acquisitive, media empire-builder who is too busy with corporate conquest to muse on utopias, and Dr Clarke, a technological visionary, happiest playing ping-pong or plugging in to an electronic web glowing with the latest stellar discoveries.

'I was surprised to find out that I'm supposed to be Rupert's guru,' Dr Clarke says.

William Shawcross, in his recent biography of Mr Murdoch, wrote: 'After his juvenile interest in Lenin, Murdoch did not honour many prophets. He was not known for reading books . . . But one man whose vision he constantly applauded was the science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. He was fond of quoting Clarke's prediction that 'in the struggle for freedom of information, technology, not politics, wll be the ultimate decider' . . .'

The thoughts of Mr Murdoch, a down-to-earth magnate whose influence, through newspapers, television and films, spreads over continents, often stray to a place exactly 22,300 miles up into space known as the Clarke Ring. The telecommunications satellites that form the hub of Mr Murdoch's empire are orbiting there.

Without Dr Clarke's ideas, global television and telephone exchanges would have been total fantasy. And Mr Murdoch's dreams of a global media empire would never have materialised. It is out of gratitude that Mr Murdoch calls Dr Clarke 'the prophet of satellites'.

Back in 1945, when he was an RAF flight lieutenant, Dr Clarke wrote an article in Wireless World that seemed at the time to belong to the realm of never-neverland. His theory was that radio and television beams could be bounced off a flock of satellites moving at a speed synchronised with the earth. Then, space travel seemed half a century away, and a network of communications satellites was even more distant. Yet today hundreds of satellites sail in Clarke's Ring.

When, some months ago in London, Mr Murdoch launched his grandiose plans for a global telecommunications expansion that promised viewers up to 500 channels, he arranged a satellite television link-up with Dr Clarke in Sri Lanka. Wearing a Nehru jacket with a sartorial touch of Star Trek, Dr Clarke chatted amiably with Mr Murdoch about a rather frightening future when every human would be wired up to the rest of mankind by a communications system the size of a wristwatch.

'I was able to get in a beautiful crack at Rupert. He made the point that English would become the world language. 'What English?' I said. I reminded him that before Mad Max could be shown in the United States, it had to be dubbed out of Aussie so that Americans could understand it,' laughed Dr Clarke.

At times, Mr Murdoch's global designs seem to beggar even Dr Clarke's far-ranging imagination. 'What's he after? I don't know. To become the Emperor of Asia? I just can't imagine one man coping with all those companies and plans.'

Hobbled by a worsening muscle disease, Dr Clarke seldom leaves his Colombo granny flat, above a mansion inhabited by his longtime companion. A blind masseur was being led away as I waited. I was asked to remove my shoes and, barefoot, join Dr Clarke in his study. He sat at a desk, an electronic battle station of computers, telephones, fax machines and a new video-telephone gadget. His roof has an array of telescopes, but climbing the stairs is painful for him. In his mind, though, Dr Clarke roams much further across the universe than his telescopes can see.

'Two regrets: I wish I could stay alive long enough to see man landing on Mars. And I'd like to be around when we make contact with extraterrestrials. But I've seen so much already. Here, look at this,' he says, flicking on his computer.

Using data and photos from the Viking space probe, Dr Clarke has managed to create a mini-Mars in his computer and peer, god-like, 1,000 years into the planet's future, when man colonises it.

Dr Clarke has breathed oxygen into the red planet's thin atmosphere, seeded forests and pastures of green across it, and poured a turquoise lake into the craters of a volcano three times higher than Everest. For the past two years, he has been writing The Snows of Olympus: a Garden on Mars, which will be available in the autumn.

Then the telephone rang. The H G Wells Society wanted a lecture from Dr Clarke on time travel. A plot began to emerge in his mind. The title came quickly: 'Robinson Crusoe in the Cretaceous'.

'He'll be marooned in the past with dinosaurs,' said Dr Clarke, adding with a grimace: 'I don't think I'll have him rescued. Anyone who wants to go back to the future ought to stay there.'

(Photograph omitted)