Book Essay - Summer 2008

The Grasshopper and His Space Odyssey

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A scientist remembers the celebrated science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke

By Jeremy Bernstein


A few years after I began writing for The New Yorker in 1960, the editor, William Shawn, asked me if I would like to do an essay on science fiction. I think there are two groups of scientists: those who love science fiction and those who can’t stand it. As a physicist, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I fall into the latter group. It is usually bad science and worse fiction. Nonetheless, being relatively new at the magazine, I felt that if Shawn wanted it I’d give it a try. My friend Gerald Feinberg, a physics professor at Columbia, loved the stuff. I put my dilemma to him and asked whom should I read. “Arthur C. Clarke” was his immediate reply.

I had never heard of Clarke—few people who were not devotees of science fiction had—but Feinberg suggested that I start with Clarke’s first important novel, Childhood’s End, about aliens known as the Overlords, who come to Earth to transform mankind. The Overlords establish a golden age, which is followed by disaster when the transformed human race alters Earth so that it is no longer inhabitable. Having failed, the Overlords leave to try again elsewhere. I was intrigued by Clarke’s unexpected use of Einstein’s traveling-twin paradox to describe how a space traveler would age as compared with his stay-at-home twin. I concluded that Clarke was someone I could write about, and so I did.

Some time later, Clarke sent me a letter from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he had been living since 1956, saying that he was coming to New York City and would like to meet me. To be honest, I was not enthusiastic. I was teaching full-time in New Jersey and didn’t have a lot of time to spare, but also I couldn’t imagine what we’d have to talk about. In the end I decided to meet him for lunch. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Clarke resembled my idea of a British farmer. Indeed, he was the son of a farmer and with his siblings had helped run the family farm after his father’s early death. He did most of the talking; occasionally I could get in a sentence to which he would reply, “Yes, yes,” and continue the flow. He was so amiable and interesting that I was perfectly content to carry on this way. I did manage to ask what he was doing in New York, and he mentioned a project for Time-Life Books. Then he said that he did not want his soon-to-be ex-wife to know that he was in New York because she would make trouble for him. I offered that if she would remarry his troubles might end, to which he replied that she would never marry again because she was a lesbian. “I,” he said, “am her mirror image.” I assumed that he was saying that he was gay, but I didn’t comment. He went on to say that he was working with movie director Stanley Kubrick on what Clarke called “Son of Strangelove.” (Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had recently been released.) “Stanley is a remarkable man,” he added. “You should meet him.”

As it happened, Kubrick was a hero of mine. The first time I saw Dr. Strangelove I was mesmerized and sat through the movie a second time. I had witnessed a couple of nuclear explosions in Nevada while working at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, and I’d consulted for the RAND Corporation. The model for the Strangelove character was largely that of RAND systems strategist Herman Kahn, who embraced atomic warfare—although Peter Sellers who played Strangelove got his accent from the Austria-born photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), who was taking stills on the set.

Kubrick disliked interviews but must have agreed to meet me in part because I had written a series of New Yorker articles, “The Analytical Engine,” about computers, which were to play a role in the project he and Clarke were working on. Clarke and I met the director in his Central Park West apartment, where the three of us had a fine time. They were collaborating on a science fiction novel that Kubrick was going to make into a screenplay, and in my Talk of the Town piece about our meeting, I wrote that the plot they’d described resembled a Homeric odyssey in which the planets replaced the islands of the Mediterranean. Clarke had made the same analogy in one of his short stories, and Kubrick named the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrick and I got on so well—we had a common interest in chess, among other things—that I ventured to ask if I could write a profile of him for The New Yorker, not knowing that he had already turned down my colleague Lillian Ross, who was doing a New Yorker series on film directors. He agreed, and I spent part of the next year commuting to London to watch the filming of 2001. We played a 25-game chess match that became the centerpiece of the profile. Once it was written Kubrick asked to see the proofs before publication to check on factual accuracy. Shawn reluctantly agreed, and Kubrick and I had many spirited discussions about the article, some of which Clarke observed. After the profile came out, Clarke said that I should do a profile of him, assuring me that he would be a lot less trouble than Kubrick. Since this would involve a trip to Sri Lanka, which greatly interested me, I asked Shawn and got his permission.

Before leaving for Sri Lanka in February 1969, I read Clarke’s books about his skin-diving adventures there and was particularly impressed by a friendship (if that is the word) he struck up with a very large fish—a grouper. The fish seemed to look forward to Clarke’s underwater visits, but an unwanted side effect of his writing about these experiences was that someone went down and caught the fish. In travel guides I also read about Adam’s Peak, a 7,360-foot-high conical mountain in the southern reaches of Sri Lan­ka’s central highlands. At its summit is a rock that appears to have a footprint in it. Buddhists believe this to be the footprint of Buddha; Hin­dus believe it is the footprint of Shiva; and Muslims believe Adam left it before departing Earth for heaven. I decided I would climb Adam’s Peak.

From Clarke’s writings one could get the impression that he had settled in Sri Lanka because of the skin-diving opportunities. That played a role in his decision, but there was more to it. In 1952 the British mathematician Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency—under the same Victorian law that had been used in 1895 to convict Oscar Wilde—and forced to take female hormones, a supposed cure for homosexuality. Turing committed suicide in 1954 by eating a poisoned apple. It was not coincidental that Clarke chose to make Sri Lanka his home soon afterward. He once told me that if he’d had the chance he would have urged Turing to immigrate to the island.

Clarke invited me to Colombo to stay with him at his place, a large cottagelike dwelling that also housed some of his staff. They, like he, dressed in sarongs. By this time Clarke was widely known and attracting celebrities on pilgrimages. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, for instance, was visiting when I was. One evening Jones dropped in while we were looking at the rings of Saturn through a large telescope Clarke had set up in the front yard. Jones took a look and commented, “Far out.”

I told Clarke that I planned to climb Adam’s Peak and had engaged a taxi to take me to its base. He said this was an entirely crazy idea, but when my taxi showed up, he announced that he was going too. His principal assistant, Hector Ekanayake, a former boxer, joined us, and we set off around 10:00 at night. The drive took a few hours. I fell asleep, and when the taxi stopped, I looked out the window and saw what seemed to be an illuminated stairway to heaven. Clarke never got over this sight, and it worked its way into his fiction. The stairway was in fact a path of steps leading to the summit. We arrived at the top just at sunrise to see the mountain casting its eerie shadow onto the mist below. On the way down in blazing sunlight, I came across a large black millipede and asked Clarke if it would kill me if it bit me. “No,” he said, “but you will wish it had.”

Later we went to see some land on the coast that Clarke had bought. A rundown shack on the property had become the home of a very large water monitor lizard. When Clarke showed a little too much interest in it, the creature went after him. I baptized the place Snake Haven.

My profile of Clarke came out in 1969. During the next several years, he visited New York regularly, always staying at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. Sometimes he came for medical treatment. He’d suffered a violent collision with a door frame and thought his head injuries might have been the cause of his various symptoms. Later he referred to them as a post-polio syndrome, although it was never obvious to me that he’d had polio. He became more and more wheelchair bound, and the last times I saw him in New York, he needed assistance to move around. Sometime around his 80th birthday he announced that he would not be leaving Sri Lanka again. The day after his birthday I got an e-mail in which he said, “I do not feel a day over 80.”

During his last years Clarke sent out an annual Egogram, which he signed Sir Arthur C. Clarke. He had been knighted in 1998 and was very proud of the distinction. I saved the one dated January 4, 2006. Like the others, it begins, “Friends, Earthlings, ETs—lend me your organs!” He was taking into account that some of the recipients might not have ears. It begins:

As 2005 drew to an end, I couldn’t help contrasting it with the last few days of 2004 when all Hell broke loose with the devastating Asian Tsunami. Much of 2005 was spent on recovering from this massive blow from the sea, and as we noted on the first anniversary, the recovery will take more time, effort and resources.

Although the tsunami struck coastal areas even a few kilometers away from Colombo, I didn’t visit any of the affected areas for several weeks. I just couldn’t bear to look at what had happened to my favorite coastal towns like Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. It was in early March that I finally ventured out on a quick trip. By then, a semblance of normalcy was beginning to return, but there were many telltale signs of the trail of destruction left behind by the power-packed waves.

The tsunami united the Global Family twice—first in grief, and then in solidarity. The unprecedented outpouring of donations from all over the world was largely inspired by the live television coverage of the disaster’s aftermath. I would personally have preferred a more benign reminder on how communications satellites bring us all together.

Clarke then recalls that 2005 was the 60th anniversary of his published concept for a communications satellite, a short piece in October 1945 in Wireless World. It demonstrates that he had the imagination and brilliance to have been a first-rate scientist. But he also had an acute case of what I call grasshopper mind, not being able to fix on anything for very long.

He once told me that nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. It is all grist for the mill. Clarke’s 2007 Egogram—his last one—begins:

I send you greetings and good wishes at the beginning of another year. I’ll be celebrating (?) my 90th birthday in December—a few weeks after the Space Age completes its first half century. When the late and unlamented Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957, it took only about five minutes for the world to realize what had happened. And although I had been writing and speaking about space travel for years, the moment is still frozen in my own memory: I was in Barcelona attending the Eighth International Astronautical Congress. We had retired to our hotel rooms after a busy day of presentations when the news broke—I was awakened by reporters seeking comments on the Soviet feat. Our theories and speculations had suddenly become reality!”

Clarke was 90 when he died on March 19, 2008. His body was failing, but his mind continued to glow.

Jeremy Bernstein is the author of a number of books, most recently Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know and a collection of essays titled Physicists on Wall Street. His forthcoming book, A Palette of Particles, will be published in February.


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