COLOMBO, SRI LANKA --
it's not every day you get to play Ping-Pong against someone with a belt named after him.
But that's how it is in Sri Lanka: Every afternoon around 6, Arthur summons his red Mercedes, tucks himself into the back seat and is driven to the Otter Aquatic Club, where he demolishes, through skill and/or sarcasm, another victim.
For the four days I'm in town, that victim is me.
Arthur, of course, is Arthur C. Clarke, and the belt is the Clarke Belt, the region of outer space, 25,000 miles above our heads, where satellites placed in orbit seem to "hang" above a single point of the earth's surface. For, aside from writing some of the century's best science fiction (including "3001: The Final Odyssey," coming next month), Clarke also dreamed up -- in a 1945 article in Wireless World -- the idea of communications satellites. That makes him, in my estimation, one of the heroes of our epoch -- though it's hard to remember that while he's gloating over a cheap point.
I've known Arthur Clarke since I was 14; we first met in New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1968. I'd written him a gushy fan letter after seeing "2001," stuffing it with inane drawings of spaceships and two-way wrist-radios. To my breathless amazement, Clarke responded; and to my continuing astonishment, he has responded ever since.
He's changed over the years, of course. When I first met him he was a lad of 51. Now he's nearly 80, and post-polio syndrome has forced him to measure his pace. But his mind remains agile.
Clarke's "technoasis" in Sri Lanka is a spacious, deliciously cool compound on Barnes Place, a 10-minute walk from the gardenia trees and machine-gun nests surrounding Prime Minister Bandaranaike's residence. It's my third visit to Colombo. I'm here because I want to include Clarke in "Planet Star Trek," my current book-in-progress. The idea for the book came to me, in fact, during my last visit here in 1993. I'd asked the futurist if there had been anything about the present that he could never, ever have predicted, say, 25 years ago.
"The one thing I never imagined," he'd pronounced with melancholy, "is that we would begin traveling to the Moon and into outer space -- and then stop."
The remark struck me with force. Surely, if there is a hidden key to the success of the "Star Trek" mythos, it lies in the fact that the show has become humanity's "surrogate space program" -- a way to pursue in fantasy a path of exploration that many people, including Clarke and me, once considered our destiny.
"I think you're quite right," he says when I kite this thought by him. "But in a way, I'm afraid that it may be counter-productive. Because we're not going to find new civilizations every week in prime time when we do start the exploration of space! In fact," he reflects, "the inner solar system has been a major disappointment. Not a trace of life anywhere, let alone Martian princesses. And the Martian 'bacterium' is very iffy. Exciting if it is true, but it's still very, very iffy. Still, it's interesting that there was so much enthusiasm when the announcement was made. It shows that people are keen."
"Gene Roddenberry once wrote that meeting you, and reading 'Profiles of the Future,' were what made 'Star Trek' possible. Does that sort of quasi-utopian future -- as shown in 'Star Trek' -- seem a real possibility to you?"
"Well, it's certainly possible," Clarke muses. "Whether it will be real, of course, depends on us. And looking at the evening news, it's hard to be very optimistic."
"What would it take to bring that sort of global solidarity about?"
"I don't know," Clarke laughs. "A Martian invasion?"
Clarke has almost completely lost interest in space travel, at least by rocket-powered means. "The rocket is to space travel," he sneers, "as the balloon was to aviation." Instead, he's put his money -- literally -- on the nascent (and also iffy) science of cold fusion.
"Not much, only mid-five-figure amounts," Clarke admits. "And although I don't want to, I may make a lot of money out of this. But my No. 1 concern, frankly, is to get the thing moving."
"What's kind of timeline are we looking at?"
"Acceptance that something is happening? I hope this year. But for practical uses much longer. Ten years for power; maybe less for small units, like houses. Space propulsion? At least 10 years. Twenty years."
"One last 'Star Trek' question," I say. "Do you recognize your own work in the show?"
"No ... But there are of course common elements in almost any science fiction." He sighs with ennui. "I've seen it all, really, in science-fiction movies and videos. And I'm a little bit tired of it. We always meet humans. Whatever they are, they're humans. We know that central casting can't come up with an intelligent blob of something or other; it wouldn't be very exciting. So that's a limitation of any science fiction on movie or TV. It can't be realistic. I'm sure there's lots of life out there, lots of intelligence, though I suspect that all the intelligence will be silicon. Probably carbon is only a brief moment in the evolution of intelligence."
The rest of the afternoon is punctuated by Clarke's signature hospitality: his latest jokes ("What goes clop ... clop ... clop ... clop ... BANG! Clop, clop, clop, clop, clop? Give up? An Amish hit man!!"), a pile of books and faxes he wants me to see, and a barrage of anecdotes, none more than 30 seconds long, about various celebrities he's outwitted over the past few years. He spends a good hour showing me bits of the new "Rendezvous with Rama" CD-ROM game developed with his longtime collaborator, Gentry Lee.
Finally, as 6 o'clock draws near, he begins to power down. "Oh! Hey, listen to this." Clarke swivels in his chair and begins closing down files. "Here's a voice you may recognize." He toggles the desktop's shut-down command, and spins around to grin at me. An all-too-familiar contralto emanates from the machine's speakers:
"My mind is going ... I can feel it."
It's so self-referential as to be completely innocent. Who but Clarke, I wonder -- a teenage septuagenarian who has inspired some of our best, most useful toys -- could continue to take such gleeful pleasure from an icon (HAL from "2001") he helped create more than three decades ago?
We drive to the Otter Club. There, the impossible happens. For the first time in 14 years, I beat Arthur at table tennis. On our way back, though, he has his revenge. Clarke switches on the Mercedes' sound system -- and grins with delight as I'm blown through the roof.
"I've got an 11-record jukebox I can pick from." He punches a hand-held remote, changing our soundtrack instantly. The repertoire is pure Clarke: Jean-Michel Jarre and Gustav Mahler, "Tubular Bells" and "Blade Runner," all at ear-pulverizing volume. Can't tell how it sounds to my half-deaf host, but to me it's like sitting in a phone booth equipped with THX sound.
"This is the other thing I never imagined would happen," Clarke says as we pull into his compound. "That they could take something as sensitive as a laser beam, and build around it a sound system that could be put into a car. Absolutely incredible. Two years, and I've never heard it skip."