Sir Arthur at the millennium

CATCHING UP WITH ...ARTHUR CLARKE

He wrote the book on it, you might say. And at age 81, the great science fiction writer is still looking forward to 2001.

October 03, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

Sir Arthur C. Clarke may be the only science fiction author ever knighted, but in Baltimore last week, he was stealing in and out of town like a mere commoner. "Did you ever see my advice to the Colonials on how they should behave in my presence?" he says to his biographer, Neil McAleer, a Catonsville writer arranging a Sunday afternoon escapade to the Power Plant. "My secretary has written something to this effect: `As the natives of the North American Colonies may be unaware of the correct protocol, Sir Arthur has graciously issued the following instructions ...' "

At 81, the man who drew the first technical blueprint that created a global village, who wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" and who has become probably the most famous living science fiction writer on the planet, now needs a wheelchair. His feet are numb; his back is killing him.

Yet there he lay last Sunday, laughing, stretched out fully clothed on a queen-sized bed on the eighth floor of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, as chipper as a bantering schoolboy, feigning royalty.

Well, not exactly feigning.

"Then it ends something like, 'After removing shoes and standing in a suitably submissive posture, one may complete the act without a bow or a curtsy, and rather than departing by walking backwards, a normal sidestep will be quite satisfactory.'

"Now don't repeat that," he says, wagging a finger. "Some lunatic will take it seriously."

A revitalized life

Clarke had not left his home in Sri Lanka for six years. Only recently he decided to make the trip to Baltimore to see the neuroscientist who, he says, saved his life, Dr. Dan Drachman of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

In 1988, Drachman heard through intermediaries that the famous author, who had been told he had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, needed help.

He offered to see Clarke, and after talking to him directly and at length about his medical history, Drachman rediagnosed the illness as post-polio syndrome. Appropriate treatment brought him back to health.

"I didn't save his life, physically," Drachman said recently. "But mentally, I did. He was very gloomy when I first saw him."

Drachman proudly recalls the moment of good news and Clarke's immediate response: "Thank goodness, now I have a good chance of living until 2001!"

The date has been very much on his mind ever since.

"There are so many people I want to see," he tells McAleer as he flips furiously through a black briefcase stuffed with papers. "Look, this came out recently in the London Express."

"Oh! Sir Arthur's predictions for the new millennium!" McAleer crows.

"Extrapolations," Clarke corrects. "I never predict anything except sunrise tomorrow. And the other thing I'm very pleased with is ... dear, oh dear, oh dear ... Here! This very nice write-up in the London Times last week. And, here, I'm on two opposite pages of the New York Times today. Independently!"

The last in a rapid string of nonfiction compilations, new novels and essays is this gleaming, black deluxe hardcover reissue of "2001," which he has discovered handsomely advertised in the New York Times Book Review. On the opposite page, he has spotted his blurb for a new biography of Carl Sagan.

"It's a beautiful edition -- you've not seen it!" Clarke says, agog that his biographer is a step behind. "It's got a new introduction I've written since Stanley's [Kubrick] death. Now here's a good photograph."

He pulls from the briefcase photographs taken during his stop in London.

"Do you know who that is?"

The photograph shows David Frost smiling next to Clarke, marking their appearance at a museum exhibition of photographs called "The Centurions."

"Where are those Intelsat pictures?"

One of his two assistants from Sri Lanka digs up another stack shot in Washington and another from a reception at the Arthur C. Clarke Space Building in Massachusetts. There he was standing alongside John McLucas, former secretary of the Air Force.

Meanwhile, he's grabbed another file and plucked out a letter from the Dalai Lama, followed quickly by another from filmmaker George Lucas -- two of his many correspondents.

The range of associations seems incredible, reflecting the equally profound impact of his life on engineering and the arts.

During and immediately after World War II, Clarke spelled out the plausibility of space travel and global communications with satellites. With a stunning leap of imagination strongly rooted in physics and scientific principles, he forever influenced the dynamics of politics and culture throughout the world.

Today the geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles away from the Earth, where satellites broadcast and twirl, is known as the Clarke Orbit.

But to Clarke, at this moment, it is the fiction that matters.

"I'm going to get all my non-ephemeral work published," he tells McAleer.

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