20/01/2006

SATELLITE RADIO PART III: ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Finally, in this satellite special, an interview I did with one of my literary heroes, Arthur C. Clarke. I’d always wanted to talk to Clarke but though the sci-fi Arthur’s age and ill-health and my position as a lowly IT reporter would preclude any contact.
Then I happened to be at some boring geekfest, I can’t remember what sort exactly, but scanning the agenda my eyes lit up at the description of the special guest: Arthur C. Clarke, via tele-link from his home in Sri Lanka. After some technical hitches, Clarke appeared on the screen, remarkably lucid and witty as well.
The floor was thrown open for people to ask him questions. The geeks hesitated, an awkward silence blanketed the room. So I got up, took the microphone and proceeded to conduct an interview with Clarke via tele-link in front of a couple of hundred people. It made my afternoon.
A couple of years later I rented a house off Peter Escher, an eccentric satellite fanatic who runs Satlink, a company that installs large satellite dishes for those who want to catch random feeds mainly in Chinese and French from the several satellites that can be picked up here for free if the dish is big enough and you’ve got one of Peter’s decoders.
It turns out Peter was a Clarke fan as well and had paid a visit to the aging author in Sri Lanka. The two had stayed in touch and while living on Peter’s property at the top of the Waitakeres under the Waiatarua TV transmitter, I’d get to read the email correspondence between the two. They chatted mainly about their dogs but even throw away comments by Clarke revealed the genius in the man. It’s one thing to be prolific, but to be prolific and good is an achievement.
Clarke is both. Prophet who brought outer space into everyday life
04.12.2001

Science fiction writers seldom see their fantasy worlds come to life, but the king of the genre, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, has watched his fair share of scientific predictions come to life in a writing career spanning half a century.

The 84-year-old who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey rarely gives interviews, but checked in via an audio link from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to chat with IT professionals attending the South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation held in Auckland.

Some 33 years after the psychotic HAL 9000 computer system took on a life of its own, terrorising its human crewmates in outer space, satellites, fax machines, videophones and laptops play important roles in our lives. And they all featured in Clarke's books long before they turned up as expensive prototypes. Clarke is impressed at the progress space exploration has made since 1950 when he wrote The Sentinel, a short story which became the basis for his epic film. But the end of the Cold War slowed the race for the stars, he says. "There was no great impetus to go to the planets. But I'm very happy we've reconnoitred all the planets. I never thought we'd do that in my lifetime."

Clarke's 80-plus science fiction books have given glimpses of radically different futures on Earth and beyond our universe. "In the words of my good friend Ray Bradbury, 'I don't try to describe the future, I try to prevent it'." But these days, his visions of the future stem no longer from pure imagination, but technology that man is just beginning to grasp.

"The next great revolution will be in energy," he says. "Future generations will regard us criminals for burning oil." Nanotechnology - building computers the size of molecules will also take giant leaps. And communications will link an ever increasing number of people, creating "electronic tribes" and bridging the digital divide. "There'll be no reason every village can't have its own satellite.

All you need is a satellite dish and a solar panel." But Clarke is still waiting for Nasa to bring one of his more unusual creations to life. He calls it the space elevator - mass transit to the stars. "The rocket's all we've got at the moment," he says. But a cable from a spacestation in stationary orbit down to a point on Earth carrying an electronically-powered elevator will cut out the need for rockets.

Clarke's fascination with technology was sparked by the science fiction comics of the 1930s. He later joined the RAF and was in charge of the first radar ground controlled approach during its trials in the Second World War. But a few things have caught Clarke by surprise. He had astronauts sending text messages to Earth in the 1960s, but totally missed the impact of the internet and e-mail.

But he did forecast our eventual dependence on telecommunications in his story Dial F for Frankenstein, where a telephone system becomes conscious and takes over the world. Voice recognition technology has also developed beyond his expectations. "I thought it would be way off. Now I use it here in my office." Of the artificial intelligence hinted at in his books but so far (thankfully) elusive, Clarke is ambivalent.

"It seems like we're closer to artificial stupidity at the moment. Artificial intelligence has been 20 years away for the last 50 years. That would make 2020 a reasonable date." The discovery of extra-terrestrial life is what Clarke is most excited about - something he believes would be "the greatest thing in human history". It is the one remaining thing he hungers to see discovered, but realises he is unlikely to.

"The best proof of intelligent life in outer space is the fact that it hasn't come here," he chuckles. The elder statesman of sci-fi is winding down his writing career. But work on a host of TV projects, film adaptations and documentaries will keep him busy. In particular, Clarke is excited about the big-screen version of his book Rendevous with Rama, starring Morgan Freeman.

Finally, Clarke - who has had post-polio syndrome since the mid-1980s and is in a wheelchair - wants to lay a 2001 myth to rest once and for all. Since Stanley Kubrick made Clarke's book famous with the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, rumours have persisted that HAL represented IBM. Conspiracy theorists noticed the letters preceding I, B and M in the alphabet spelled HAL. That was pure coincidence. HAL stands for Heuristic Algorithmic Computer and nothing more, Clarke says.

"I've been trying to stamp that rumour out for 30-plus years," he adds wearily. "If we'd noticed its resemblance at the time, we'd probably have changed it," he says, noting that IBM did not get upset about the association. Big Blue even gave him a Think Pad to write a second followup 3001: The Final Odyssey. Clarke is comfortable with the fact he will not be around to see the contents of that book fleshed out.
"I like to write a million years out. So no one can correct me."

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