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Asimov, Clarke and me

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CLARKE’S ODYSSEY He profiled the universe with a child’s wonder and a master’s understanding
CLARKE’S ODYSSEY He profiled the universe with a child’s wonder and a master’s understanding

A personal interaction with Sir Arthur Clarke — the man and the visionary

“How did you get interested in science fiction?”

“Because of Isaac Asimov.”

“Who is your favourite Sci-Fi writer?”

“Isaac Asimov.”

“So why are you here?”

“Because Isaac Asimov says you’re the greatest.”

Of course, renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov had his own ways of showing this admiration, as when he chuckles over the identity of a letter writer with a pseudonym: “To be sure, the stamp on the letter is from Sri Lanka but the only person I know in Sri Lanka is a minor writer named Arthur C. Clarke, whom I don’t suppose anyone has ever heard of.”

Maybe this passage was on the interlocutor’s mind too. For he laughs and says, “You know what, I think I’m going to enjoy our talk!”

The year is 1991. I am in Colombo for the SAARC conference. How can I resist trying to meet the man whose imagination made him approximate to the ancient world’s definition of a writer as a prophet and visionary? In his own lifetime (1917-2008) he saw his ideas becoming the realities of science.

His concept of communication satellites in geostationary orbits took form as the Clarke Belt, he inspired the invention of the World Wide Web, and his notion of a space elevator opened up new areas for experiment. An asteroid and spacecraft were named after the seer-writer. The death of this British-born, Sri Lankan resident spells the end of the era of the Sci-Fi trinity of Clarke, Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.

All three left their own legacies — but Clarke’s fantasia is marked by a certain mysticism. At its best, his writing is as lucent as his ideas.

Everyone knows Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” from the Stanley Kubrick Academy Award winner, but hard core Sci-Fi fans have long thrilled to the romance of “Across the Sea of Stars”, “Against the Fall of Night”, “A Fall of Moondust”, “Rendezvous with Rama”, and the eerie-ended “Nine Billion Names of God”. His non-fiction profiles the universe with a child’s wonder, and a master’s understanding.

On that sunny day in Colombo, it is difficult to believe that the man sitting across the table, in printed shirt and sarong, afflicted by post-polio syndrome, had inspired a range of writers, intellectuals and scientists. You know the dystopian-utopian tangles in his stories. Has physical disability as much as the leaping mind spurred these flights? As Clarke talks on with characteristic whimsy, it is hard not to rue the conditions he had set for the meeting. “No interview, no recording, no notes.”

Moving from inflexible atheism (didn’t he insist on no-religious-rites at his funeral?), trust in imagination as the faculty to nudge the human race towards survival, amusement at own creation of benevolent aliens with Satanic forms, to ruminating on Asimov’s Foundation books against his own view that “advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, Clarke’s focus is as much on his words as on the little pup that twinkles around our feet. His “You don’t like dogs?” combines disbelief and disapprobation.

But the sense of well being on that day makes expansive Clarke overlook this fault. He needs no questions either. “You’re a journalist? With The Hindu? Good paper,” he says, adding mischievously, “Better to be stodgy than slick.”

Poetry drifts in, knowing time-space travel “long before modern science fiction did”. I mention a verse about a little boy who catches the bus to school, ends up on a lunar craft zooming to the stars, but has to whizz back to earth:

The planet of my birthI use my travelled feetTo walk me up the streetAnd through the garden gate. I’m home… five minutes late.

Was that young Arthur in a seaside town in England, lost in a haze of homemade rocket, telescope, and Astounding Stories of Sci-Fi pulp? He smiles and decides to autograph a photograph.

“You are not writing anything!” his warning floats to you as you leave, echoing a final question. “Writing clarifies, records. But have you ever thought that sometimes writing a thing can also mean losing it for yourself?”

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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