"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I HAD THE PLEASURE of visiting Arthur C. Clarke in his home in Sri Lanka in 1995 in my role as one of the directors of the Paramount Television syndicated series Sightings. The interview was for the story “Sci-Fi Prophets.” He lived in the capitol city Colombo, in a large stately house that he told me used to belong to The Vicar. He was warm, welcoming, and possessed a certain childlike glee. In one of those moments not captured on videotape, while the crew were setting up lights, he said to me, “Listen to this, you must listen,” with a pure, Christmas Eve’s level of anticipatory delight. He pressed several keys on his computer, shutting it down, which caused the unmistakable voice of HAL to say, “My mind is going, I can feel it.” Looking at me with pure joy he said, “Now listen to this,” and turned on the computer. As it did, we heard HAL again — “I’m a HAL 9000 computer, fully operational and ready to serve.” The creator of HAL enchanted by the steps being made for fiction to become fact.
TOD MESIROW: You were a rabid fan of science fiction writing in the 1930s. Why did you find science fiction so appealing then? What made it so much fun?
ARTHUR C. CLARKE: Well, it appeals to people with, you know, imagination, and science fiction in various forms has been popular for a long time. Of course Jules Verne is a classic and then Wells in England and there’ve been various other writers who — there’s a lot of science fiction in the 19th century, most of which, except for Wells, has been forgotten. I was turned on by the early Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories in the 1930s and then by a book called The Conquest of Space, which was written by the assistant editor of Wonder Stories. That was published in, in 1931 and I’m happy to say the writer, David Lasser, is still around and still active. [Lasser died soon after this interview — Ed.]
TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?
ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that.
TM: The idea of an intelligent computer, an artificial intelligence like HAL, do you think we’ll achieve that?
ACC: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question of that. I think that the people that say we will never develop computer intelligence — they merely prove that some biological systems don’t have much intelligence.
TM: What was it like to create the scene when HAL is dying in 2001?
ACC: Well, Danny Curry deserves most of the credit for that, and by the way, when I switch off my computer you hear HAL say, “My mind is going.” It happens every time I switch it off. [laughs]
TM: Was 2001 an interesting experience? You’re planning what would happen if —
ACC: Well, it was, you know, a fascinating experience, for many reasons. I was moonlighting at Time Life where I was doing a book called Man in Space. This was in 1964 when the Apollo Program had been announced. But, no one really believed we would go to the moon and still sort of had a skepticism. And also, Stanley and I had to outguess what would happen, I believe — this may not be true, maybe Stanley’s publicity department — he’s supposed to have gone to Lloyd’s, taken an insurance against Martians being discovered before the film was released. [laughs] Well, I don’t think — I don’t know how Lloyd’s would have carried the odds on that one. [laughs] So, anyway, we were writing the film, before we had any close-ups of the moon’s surface. We had to guess what it might be like, and there are all sorts of problems. I — we — I think we did pretty well. One or two mistakes. For instance, we show the moon as more rugged then in fact it turned out to be. It turned out to be sort of smooth and sort of sandblasted.
TM: The film had an enormous impact. I mean —
ACC: Eventually, eventually, but when it came out first there was a lot of negative criticism. I can remember one MGM executive saying well, that’s the end of Stanley Kubrick. And so [laughs] —
TM: Describe the impact you think it had eventually.
ACC: Well, it turned on a whole generation, I believe in some cases with certain chemical assistance. [laughs] But, um, and it still has its impact. In fact, I’m always coming across references to it, sometimes indirect. A lot of TV commercials now. I’m sure you’re — there’s one on the local TV. It shows somebody throwing a paintbrush up into the air, some paint commercial, and the paintbrush goes up to the sounds of 2001 — And, oh, I caught an episode of the The Simpsons the other day and there’s a marvelous parody of apes all around the the slab. [laughs] Very funny.
TM: Even today.
ACC: Very much today.
TM: Who came up with the title?
ACC: That was Stanley’s. I think, we had a — the private working title was, um, Journey Beyond the Stars and my — [laughs] one of my private titles, which gave the idea of what we were working on at one time, was How the Solar System Was Won. [laughs] That might be a good title one day.
TM: With the exploratory nature of it all.
ACC: Very much so.
TM: In 2001 there’s the Pan Am shuttle that goes off, and there’s all the corporate references —
ACC: That shows how hard it is to forecast the future. Pan Am is gone, so is the Bell System — you see.
TM: What’s your favorite scene?
ACC: My favorite scene from 2001? I’m not sure I have a favorite. Certainly one, I think, with the greatest impact is when he picks up that bone and [laughs] —because that begins human history and you reminded me that I — we screened this once in the UN Building for the Secretary General and the top branch of the UN and I suddenly realized, ah, when that scene came on that this is what the United Nations is trying to stop, the warfare, and also that the UN building is itself a slab. [laughs]
TM: I wonder if there was something subconscious.
ACC: Could well be. In fact, much of it — as you see, I did a lot of brainstorming only a few blocks from the UN.
TM: The slab has now become a cultural icon.
ACC: True, yes.
TM: Why did you choose this place, Colombo? It seems exotic.
ACC: I didn’t choose it. It chose me. I came here, touched base here in December, ’54, on my way to the Great Barrier Reef to do my first underwater book, having gotten interested in diving, entirely because I felt there I could reproduce weightlessness, which is of course the phenomenon you experience in space. So, I took up underwater exploring, went to the Great Barrier Reef to do a book on that, touched in Colombo in one afternoon, met one of the local divers, said why don’t you come back if you survive the well known sharks of the Barrier Reef, and I did with my late partner, Mike Wilson, in 1956. We did a book about Sri Lanka’s oceans — or Ceylon, as it was then —and, you know, just fell in love with the country, and he married a local beauty and just settled down here.
TM: It’s a lovely place.
ACC: Yeah and it’s too bad that it’s, you know, these terrible political problems, but every country seems to have them.
TM: Is there a correlation between people who write science fiction and a particular interest in the future?
ACC: Yes, there must be. To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. Although I know that most — that many science fiction writings have been anti-utopias — 1984, as an example. And the reason for that is that it’s much easier and more exciting to write about a really nasty future than a — placid, peaceful one.
TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?
ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. Now, fantasy is also fine, The Lord of the Rings is still one of my favorite books, but there is a distinction, although no one’s ever been able to say just where the dividing lines come. [laughs]
TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?
ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be.
TM: I guess the definition of a real prophet, right?
ACC: Well, I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future.
TM: So the success of science fiction writers is, because they predict everything that might happen, eventually —
ACC: Well, the success of a science fiction writer is if he can write a good read.
TM: You’ve been doing that for a long time. Are there any secrets to that?
ACC: I don’t think there are any secrets to writing in the — everybody has their own techniques. You must be widely read, that’s one thing, because you have to resolve a tremendous amount of background information. Also, you should know what the competition is writing, just so you’re not wasting your time doing the same thing. [laughs] Unless you do it better, of course.
TM: Are there any things that haven’t happened yet in your writings that you feel strongly will happen?
ACC: I don’t think so, because I’ve covered a very wide spectrum of things. I’m disappointed of course that we’ve not gone back to the moon or even onto Mars. Ah, what I consider my best short story, “Transit of Earth,” was actually set in 1984, believe it or not. It was written quite a few years earlier. In 1984, there was a transit of Earth. If you were on Mars then you would have seen the earth go across the face of the sun and that short story is about the only survivor of the first expedition to Mars in 1984 seeing this. It’s hard to believe now, but when the Apollo mission took place, the first landing in 1969, I heard the vice president of the United States say now we must go on to Mars and a lot of people thought we would be doing that. There were plans to go to Mars in the 1980s.
TM: It seemed feasible.
ACC: Yeah, and then Vietnam, Watergate, and a few other things happened.
TM: Do you think that’s what got us off course — terrestrial politics?
ACC: Very largely, yes, very largely.
TM: Will we go there eventually?
ACC: Yes, well, um, I’m sure that, you know, barring accidents in which now seem less likely thanks to the determination of the unlamented Gold — ah, Cold War. I think we should be back on Mars by about the 2020s. And as for terraforming, well, I’m interested in this. I’ve done a book on the subject called Snows of Olympus, mostly generated in my computer when taking the maps of Mars as it radiates, then massaging them and putting in seas and grass and trees and clouds and atmosphere and showing what Mars might be like when we have terraformed it or transformed it. Incidentally, the word terraforming was invented by Jack Williamson, and Jack Williamson, his novel, The Green Girl [laughs] was the first science fiction pop magazine serial I ever read in 1931 or ’32, and Jack is still writing [Williamson died in 2006 — Ed.].
TM: There Must be a correlation —
ACC: I think as long as long as you’re interested in the future, you want to live to see it.
TM: Right. That’s great.
TM: 2001 was an excruciating experience though, wasn’t it?
ACC: No, no, it was, ah, fraught and tense and there were very few unpleasantnesses. The only problem I had was trying to persuade Stanley to reissue the book in time, because I was rather hard up. I had an expensive wife and and various other problems and Stanley just wouldn’t release the manuscript. I mean, I can’t blame him. He was desperately busy doing the film and fighting off all the problems he must have had, you know, with the MGM thing. I mean, this was a lot of nonsense, and [laughs] it all came out okay in the long run and Stanley and I were always on good terms.
TM: What was it like to see that movie the first time?
ACC: You know, it’s a bit of a blur, because I had to go to three successive premieres. Stanley is a very shy person and won’t go anywhere, anything public — so, I had to attend the first premiere in Washington, the next night in New York, the next night in Los Angeles — so, it’s really much of a blur and because I’ve seen it so many times in so many versions. I just can’t focus on that very first experience.
TM: Stanley wouldn’t go to any of those, huh?
ACC: Nope. He left me to carry the can. [laughs]
TM: The book and the screenplay were written simultaneously.
ACC: But, see, back in both directions — sometimes I wrote scenes after I’d seen them on the on the screen, based on the earlier version. I’ve written a book called The Lost Worlds of 2001, about the alternative story lines we might have developed.
TM: I was always a space child. When I saw that movie, it forever transformed the vision of the possible future for me, and I think for lots of people.
ACC: [laughs] Incidentally, I came across a review the other day; it’s the 25th anniversary of the movie, and somebody said, 2001 was so far ahead of its time, and it’s still the same pretentious nonsense now that it was 25 years ago. [laughs]
TM: To you, what was the impact?
ACC: Well, I guess it legitimized it, particularly for people who looked down on science fiction, you know, the intelligentsia — my definition of the intelligentsia: someone who’s educated beyond their intelligence.
TM: There’s always people who say there’s so many problems on earth that we shouldn’t be spending a dime in space — what difference is it going to make?
ACC: Well, it may make all the difference. In fact, one of the arguments for searching for intelligent life in space, elsewhere, is that we have no evidence that intelligence has any survival value. The most successful creatures on this planet are the cockroaches. They’ve been around, what is it, 100 million years or so and I suspect they’ll still be there 100 million years in the future. Maybe intelligence is an evolutionary aberration which dooms its possessors in the way armor may have doomed some of the dinosaurs. [laughs]
TM: If we found intelligent life elsewhere it might give us hope that we can continue to exist as a species.
ACC: Finding intelligent life would encourage us and also of course the opportunity of learning, you know, a tremendous amount, but this again is a danger. We might be so overwhelmed with knowledge and information, that we might be depressed or even become suicidal — because what’s the point if they’re thousands of years ahead of us? Why should we bother? — or become the ultimate couch potatoes. [laughs]
TM: Galactic couch potatoes.
ACC: Absolutely, yeah. “Just please come and take care of us,” is what we’ll say. We’ll pipe into the Galactic Internet and that’s the end. [laughs]
TM: What would you send back?
ACC: Well, this again is something which has been discussed, this protocol, and it would also depend on how far away they were. If we could deduce how far the signal had been traveling, how many years it’d been on its way, if it’s from the immediate neighborhood then the problem is important. Do we send pictures of what we like? Carl Sagan has pioneered this, the disc showing, you know, human beings and the various symbols of atoms and so forth. I think the temptation to send something like that and maybe some of our music would be important.
TM: The huge paradigm shift in Childhood’s End placed Earth in the solar system, in the galaxy, in the universe, and showed me the potential enormity of time scale. Why is that such a powerful idea?
ACC: Well, because I think any intelligent person must wonder where we are in the scheme of things. That’s what the question is. And yet, you know, some apparently quite intelligent people just aren’t interested. The classic example is Sherlock Holmes. He had a discussion of astronomy with Watson, and Sherlock said, what does it matter? There’s no practical concern at all. Well, he was wrong of course. Astronomy’s now of great practical concern with satellites and so forth.
TM: What would you send back? “Help”?
ACC: Help is the obvious one, but of course it would take some time for the help to arrive. No, I think we should send them, you know, pictures showing what the earth is like, and in fact there’s a CD-ROM showing a lot of pictures, which has been sent on the various space probes. Contact with extraterrestrials would be the turning point in history, to discover that we’re no longer alone. I can’t imagine anything more important.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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