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The Next World According To Arthur Clarke


Science & Technology: THE FUTURE

THE NEXT WORLD ACCORDING TO ARTHUR CLARKE

The 2001 author, who inspires physicists and engineers, imagines the fourth millennium

Frank Poole could scarcely believe his eyes. He had drifted, frozen in space, for nearly 1,000 years since HAL, the spaceship Discovery's errant computer, murdered him by thrusting him away from his ship. Now, revived by doctors and regaining his strength, Poole peered down from a room 1,240 miles above the earth. "My God!" he cried, looking out at a cylindrical elevator tower that tapered far, far below--all the way down to the African plain. Then, he turned his gaze upward, where the tower stretched to the geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles high.

A "space elevator"? That's pure science fiction. And yet the scene from Arthur C. Clarke's new novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey (Ballantine), has an eerie and compelling plausibility. So do the "brain caps," micro robots, virtual-reality vistas, and vacuum-energy space drives that crowd the pages of Clarke's latest--and last--Odyssey novel.

Clarke's new musings on technology remain as intriguing as ever. And scientists are bound to take them seriously because Clarke's lifework, more than that of any other living writer, has blurred the line between what man can dream and what engineers can achieve.

The monumental space elevator, fleshed out in Clarke's Fountains of Paradise in 1978, is just one example. The underlying physics "is very good," declares Richard E. Smalley, a Rice University professor of physics and chemistry who won a Nobel Prize last year for co-discovering new carbon molecules called Buckminster Fullerenes. Strong, lightweight cables of the material would be ideal for building such elevators, he notes. Clarke's meticulous treatment "reveals that he would have been a wonderful physicist and engineer," says Smalley.

At his stately, high-ceilinged home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a barefoot, sarong-clad Clarke plays down his role as visionary. Suffering from post-polio syndrome, which keeps him in a wheelchair when outside the house, the 79-year-old writer maintains a lively correspondence with scientists and other writers via E-mail. "Much of my writing is anti-prophetic," he says, echoing a famous statement by fellow sci-fi luminary and longtime friend Ray Bradbury. "I try to prevent the future."

ALIENS. Perhaps so. But in advance of Clarke's latest novel, a host of respected scientists, engineers, and writers are saluting him for infusing science fiction with verisimilitude and helping to inspire real-world scientists. "When you dream what is possible and add a knowledge of physics, you make it happen," says Charles Kohlhase, science manager ofNASA's Cassini Mission, which will launch an exploratory probe to Saturn in October.

Many scientists respond to transcendent themes in Clarke's work, such as his leitmotif of evolution through contact with an alien intelligence. That, plus nuts-and-bolts accuracy, "are a powerful combination that grabbed a lot of us when we were young," says David H. Grinspoon, assistant professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado.

Not everyone will love the latest book. Readers and moviegoers who were entranced by 2001: A Space Odyssey may find that this sequel hastily ties up a few too many loose ends. Gone is the epic sense of mystery Clarke and film director Stanley Kubrick used to brand their vision of space exploration on the popular imagination.

Transcendence, though, and whiz-bang technology, are here in abundance. In a nutshell: A space tug at the fringe of the solar system picks up what its captain thinks will be another piece of space junk. It turns out to be Frank Poole, who is revived from his cryogenic sleep. Poole's first task is to acquaint himself with the technologies and culture of the fourth millennium (table). Then, he heads for Jupiter to find former 2001 colleagues Dave Bowman and HAL, who have assumed a new existence as part of an enigmatic monolith.

Casual glimpses of space engineering are a high point. That's no surprise: Most of Clarke's serious work for the past half-century relates to satellites and orbits. In 1945, a four-page article titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" in the British magazine Wireless World secured his influence. Clarke, then 27 and without a university degree, argued that it should be possible to blanket earth with signals from three communications satellites spaced apart in geosynchronous orbit. Coming 12 years before Sputnik, the article went largely unnoticed. Yet today, our planet is ringed with geosynchronous communications satellites in what some people call "Clarke" orbits.

As an undergraduate at King's College, London, Clarke became enthralled with so-called libration points between two or more orbiting bodies, where gravitational forces cancel each other out. He proposed that systems comprising two satellites could be situated at such points to permit continuous contact with the far side of the moon. In 1966, his writing on the subject inspired a graduate student named Robert W. Farquhar. After corresponding with Clarke, Farquhar determined that a communications satellite could orbit a point in space--a "halo orbit"--instead of circling a star or a planet. Today, a giant solar observatory is en route to such an orbit a million miles from earth. Says Farquhar, now director of the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission at Johns Hopkins University: "I wouldn't have started on this thing if I hadn't seen his stuff."

Clarke has received many such tributes. In August, 1992,NASA did experiments in space with a 13-mile long tether--a step toward building much larger structures. In the Atlantis' in-orbit press conference, the crew paid tribute to Clarke by flashing a copy of Fountains of Paradise.

GOLD STANDARD. Then there's HAL, the H-euristically programmed AL-gorithmic Computer. His talents remain far beyond the grasp of modern computer science, but he's still the gold standard in artificial-intelligence circles. "This kind of conversational metaphor for human-computer interaction dominates everything we do," says James C. Lester, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University.

Clarke's commitment to realism stems from science training. After World War II, he took just two years to earn first-class honors in physics and mathematics from King's College. Then, he got the ideal job for a budding sci-fi writer: assistant editor of Physics Abstracts at the Institution of Electrical Engineers. It gave him access to the latest research, which had been squelched during the war, and established a disciplined respect for current findings, which he tracks via the Internet.

Society has rewarded Clarke for his vision. The book 2001 has sold more than 3 million copies, and the film is shown regularly around the world. Ballantine Books Inc. gave Clarke an advance of more than $1 million for 3001, a record for a sci-fi work. His literary agent figures some 70 million copies of Clarke's books have appeared over his 50-year career. Eight of his novels have been optioned for movies, including The Hammer of God, which was snapped up by Steven Spielberg.

Clarke's reward didn't depend on predictive accuracy. Like most writers of the '60s, he underestimated the impending microprocessor revolution. Nor did he dream up all of the ideas in his books. Artificial intelligence, brain implants, and even space elevators have precedents, which Clarke carefully lists in his novels' acknowledgements. Still, as celebrated Red Mars author Kim Stanley Robinson notes, the scientific rigor permeating Clarke's 80-odd works of fiction and nonfiction has made him godfather to a generation of "hard science fiction" writers. It hoists him above the popular--and wholly unscientific--genre of space fantasy epitomized by Star Wars.

Clarke's work reflects his personal odyssey from math-and-physics major to penniless writer to well-rewarded visionary in a secluded paradise. While he still has a firm grip on life, Clarke has already composed his epitaph: "He never grew up; but he never stopped growing." Clarke's ideas have helped civilization grow. Engineers will be mining his works for years to come.By Steven V. Brull in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Neil Gross in New YorkReturn to top


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