Turned on by the Internet? Not the high priest of hi-tech

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The Independent Online
The two squirrel-sized Chihuahua dogs curled beside Arthur C Clarke - science-fiction writer, cyber-hermit and visionary - leapt off their cushion and yapped viciously. "If you stand perfectly still, they won't attack," laughed a voice from behind a battery of computers, video-telephones and electronic gadgets that would be the envy of a Star Trek captain.

"Forgive me for not standing up, but I have a kind of polio. Hurts like hell, sometimes," said Dr Clarke, his Somerset twang still intact after living in Sri Lanka, his Indian Ocean island retreat, for nearly 40 years. He is 79 and wears a tropical sarong. Visitors are requested to enter barefoot into his space-age study, as if it were a temple of science, and Dr Clarke its high priest.

The Clarke reliquary boasts a moon rock, a spoon telepathically twisted by Uri Geller, and a Christmas card from long-haired Steve Wozniak, co- founder of the Apple computers company, from the early days soon after the machines took shape in a back garage. Dr Clarke's two dogs bounded off their pillow and pounced, barking tinnily.

"You know, it won't be too long before no home is without its own miniature Tyrannasaurus Rex as a guard dog," said Dr Clarke. He explains. "I'm a part owner of a Tyrannosaurus Rex egg from China. It's in quite good condition. We're scanning it for the DNA sequence. Someday, it may be possible to recreate the T-Rex from DNA. Just like in Jurassic Park."

Dr Clarke, more than most people, has need of a trained dinosaur pet to keep away intruders. As the man who first dreamed up telecommunication satellites exactly 50 years ago, Dr Clarke now finds himself desperately wanting to un-plug himself. "I'm thinking of a new book title: 'Only Dis- Connect'," he chuckled.

Even on remote Sri Lanka, he is being deafened by a cacophony of requests from UFO-seekers, mad inventors, film-makers, novice writers, and sci- fi fans of his 70-odd books. On the Internet, the many web sites and fan clubs devoted to Dr Clarke are a favourite halt for cyber-cruisers. It is possible to access his old interviews, circa 1983, before the advent of Internet, in which he predicts "briefcase-sized computers" and companies with "no offices, but a telephone number and space rented inside the memories of computers". Yet Dr Clarke guards his own e-mail address on the Internet as zealously as the number of a Swiss bank account.

"I've avoided networking like the plague. I'm terrified. It would be like drinking from Niagara Falls. The flow just wouldn't stop," he said. Modern man is in danger of falling victim to "an information overload", he claimed. "There's too much information pollution. You can imagine that with Rupert Murdoch planning to have 500 television channels for viewers, soon, we'll need programmes just to enable us to find our way through all this."

In many ways, a conversation with Dr Clarke is like having a television with 500 channels and a jammed remote control button that switches stations every half-second. His mind ranges across a galaxy of different subjects: the Voyager space probe, a message that he might send to future colonists of Mars, how Steven Spielberg has "optioned" a Dr Clarke story of a comet slamming into Earth, how he received a fan letter from Tom Hanks, the star of Apollo 13 - all this in a single burst.

Every few minutes he breaks off, like the Mad Hatter at the Tea Party, to look at his watch. He has ideas to expand, new planets to colonise. "Goodness, I can't talk any longer. The BBC are coming to film me. Next week I'll become a virtual Arthur Clarke," he said. In many ways, he has already become virtual reality; with polio crippling him, Dr Clarke has taken refuge in the electronic dimensions: on CD-Rom, the Internet and, for special conferences, on visual satellite link-ups with Nasa scientists and futurists around the world.

In one recent link-up with the British Interplanetary Society, Dr Clarke mused about extra-terrestrial life. "We have had television for 50 years, therefore a volume of space containing several hundred suns has been filled with news of our wars, our atrocities and our crimes - real ones and fictional ones, which an alien intelligence might have great difficulty in distinguishing. I conclude that there is no, repeat no, superior civilisation in our immediate vicinity. For if there was, their cops would already be here, sirens screaming across the radio spectrum."

War has engulfed Dr Clarke's tropical Eden of Sri Lanka. When he arrived on this island in the Fifties on a diving expedition, it was a emerald- green utopia. Many of its peaks are crowned by ancient Buddhist ruins, and the view stretched the imagination of a visionary like Dr Clarke, enabling him to gaze as far into the future as he could into the past.

Today, Sri Lanka is divided by ethnic wars between the Tamils and Sinhalese. Suicide bombers stalk Colombo, and it is not safe for Dr Clarke, the island's most famous "resident guest" to venture out.

"If a civilisation can't advance technically without corresponding moral progress, it will self-destruct," he once said. As he walked round the garden, one dog bit him, drawing blood. At that moment he was glad they were not T-Rexes.

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