If you want to see writer Arthur C. Clarke, you have to find him first. For the past 28 years Clarke has lived in the capital city of Colombo on the primitively beautiful island republic of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. If you write him there, you are likely to receive his “drop-dead letter,” a two-page reply that laconically answers all anticipated questions about his biography (“see Who’s Who”), his bibliography (“now about 60 books, detailed in the above references”), lectures (“I no longer accept lecture requests”), photos (“I’m sorry I can’t supply photos or autographs”), manuscripts (“under no circumstances will I comment on manuscripts”) and advice to writers (“read at least one book a day and write as much as you can”).
Lately, however, the genially reclusive Clarke, 64, has been a little more accommodating—for good reason. In the ’60s he co-wrote the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with director Stanley Kubrick and was stunned by the film’s success. Last year he tapped out a 10-page outline for a sequel and posted it to his New York agent with the idea that it might make a good magazine article. Instead, Clarke received a book contract and a $1 million guarantee. For those rupees, Clarke feels the least he can do is talk to a few reporters—not that it’s necessary. Published in mid-November, 2010: Odyssey Two (Del Rey, $14.95) has rocketed onto the best-seller charts.
“It’s interlocking panic,” grumbles Clarke, rummaging through an enormous pile of mail in the former Anglican bishop’s residence that he now calls home. “They’re having the University of Moratuwa convocation simultaneously with a meeting with the Prime Minister and the President. Simultaneously. The Amazing Randi was filming me to 10 p.m. last night for his new television series on miracles. I had a telephone call from Moscow. The sister of the man who invented the space elevator—have you read Rendezvous With Rama? I used it in that book—has cancer, and he wants a medicine I never heard of.”
Clarke wears a pale blue silk sarong and an air of bemused harassment. Despite Sri Lanka’s languid setting—surrounded by tropical waters, lapped only gently by the 20th century—Clarke fills his days with small urgencies much as he’s peppered his house with technology. The seagoing Hovercraft he used to park on the lawn is idled for repairs, but upstairs sits a pair of video recorders fed by a cassette library which includes movies, tapes of past interviews, the science series The Mysterious World he narrated for the BBC, and a spoof on that series done by a British comedy troupe. “It’s such a brilliant parody that I now show it instead of the others,” says Clarke. Next to his desk sits Clarke’s word processor, nicknamed Archie, no threat to 2001’s errant computer Hal but formidable nonetheless. Clarke composed 2010 on Archie, and in an exuberant communiqué to pals he calls an “ego-gram” enthused that the machine “totally eliminated the drudgery (mechanical, not mental) of writing…it gives a wonderful sense of power to know that I have only to press a button and I can zap off as many perfect copies as I like of any letter.” He has, however, ordered a new printer, dismissing his current 500-words-per-minute model as “steam-age technology.”
Topical technology pervades his work. “I’m a hard-core science fiction writer—I have seldom written anything that I thought could not happen,” says Clarke. “In Fountains of Paradise , I could see the earth-to-space elevator as absolutely engineeringly feasible.” Although he conceived of 2010 years ago, Clarke held off, he says, “because I needed the data from the Voyager flight to write the book.” The mysterious monolith from 2001 reappears in the sequel, continuing the theme that “something controlled evolution in the past and would intervene in the future,” says Clarke. “We tried to create a myth.”
Born in Minehead, England to a farmer and a postal worker, Clarke attended a nearby prep school and worked in His Majesty’s Exchequer and Audit Department before enlisting in the Royal Air Force in World War II. Assigned to ground radar work, he became fascinated with communications and in 1945 published a landmark paper predicting the feasibility of a global radio network beamed via “rocket stations.” His treatise predated the first communications satellite by almost 20 years. Clarke has written that an attorney once looked into his patent rights for fun and discovered that “(a) I couldn’t have obtained a patent in 1945 as the idea was too farfetched, and (b) if I had, it would have expired about the time the first communication satellite was launched. So that,” he concluded, “was the end of my yacht.”
After the war Clarke took math and physics degrees at London University’s King’s College. Earning his living as an assistant editor of a periodical, Science Abstracts, he published his first sci-fi novel, The Sands of Mars, in 1951. He was attracted to the then new sport of scuba diving (“Underwater you could produce something very close to weightlessness”), and on a diving trip to Florida met and married an American, Marilyn Mayfield. They split several months later (and divorced in 1964), and he shipped off to Australia to dive on the Great Barrier Reef and write a nonfiction book, The Coast of Coral. En route, the ship docked in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where Clarke met Major R. Raven-Hart, OBE, “a remarkable linguist and lover of exotic places, cultures and mores,” says Clarke. “It was my first introduction to the fabulous East. I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.”
Life has been isolated, but not dull. While diving off Sri Lanka’s southeast coast, Mike Wilson, Clarke’s then partner, stumbled upon a sunken ship containing clumps of Persian silver coins. They salvaged the million-dollar haul during three summers and shared it with the Smithsonian Institution and the British and Sri Lankan governments. Another accident was far less fortunate: Walking out of a marine supply shop, Clarke banged his head on a lintel. Within a week he was paralyzed. Doctors diagnosed a spinal injury. Six weeks in a hospital were followed by a year in a wheelchair, after which, says Clarke, “I learned to walk again.” Although his left arm “still isn’t much good,” the right-handed Clarke says that his table tennis is back in form.
He shares his spacious two-story house with his present partner in the diving business, Hector Ekanayake, a former boxer, Hector’s wife, Valerie, their 3-year-old daughter, Cherene, and 10 employees. There’s also a German shepherd, a squirrel, two cats but no more monkeys, to Clarke’s disappointment. “He wants another monkey [he has had three purple-faced leaf eaters], but I tell him that if he gets one, I go,” says Valerie. “You can’t have a monkey and a baby too. They fight over the bananas.”
There’s also a presence in the house, that of Hector’s brother, Leslie. “He was killed just before his 30th birthday,” says Clarke, who de dicated The Fountains of Paradise to his late friend and diving partner. “He was visiting a girlfriend on his motorbike in 1977 and was killed on the way back. The bus was on the wrong side of the road. Leslie ran this home—he was the fixture.”
Despite his aversion to the smaller demands of celebrity, Clarke did make three trips from Colombo this year: to The Hague to accept an international communications award; to the Soviet Union, where he’s as popular as in the West (2010 is co-dedicated to cosmonaut Gen. Alexei Leonov and exiled Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov); and to United Nation’s conferences in Vienna and Geneva, where Clarke pleaded for the peaceful exploitation of space. “My Geneva speech was probably the most important thing I’ve ever done,” says Clarke. “I’m very proud of that speech. I also had lunch with the American, Soviet and Chinese ambassadors, at the same table. They told me I should have been a diplomat—which I’m not sure is a compliment.”
Valerie worries about Arthur’s restlessness. “He’s very innocent,” she says. “I keep telling him he should slow down—otherwise he’ll just die. People make too many demands on him.”
Perhaps by accepting the fact he’s making at least one less demand on himself. “2010 is positively my last book,” says Clarke. “I want to enjoy myself while I am still young enough to enjoy myself.”