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Sci-Fi Writer Optimist About Techno-Future

Fri., March 28, 1997

You can breathe easy. We’ll be OK.

Planet Earth will still be here in 1,000 years. The human race will survive another millennium, too, and we might even learn a thing or two.

Arthur C. Clarke says so.

And when the universe’s foremost living science-fiction writer makes a prediction about the future, you just might want to listen.

Although Clarke’s just-published “3001: The Final Odyssey” paints mind-melting sci-fi images (anti-gravity machines around every corner, computers that stick to your head like skin, a city suspended in space around the Earth’s equator), the fantastic worlds of Arthur C. Clarke aren’t so fantastic.

After all, this is the man who predicted satellites years before they orbited the planet. This is the man behind HAL 9000, the superintelligent computer from the 1968 movie and novel “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which many of today’s programmers consider the new standard for defining “artificial intelligence.”

This is the man who, through hundreds of books and stories since the 1940s, has brought science to the fiction.

“I sometimes feel embarrassed and annoyed by the nonsense that’s put out in the media about UFOs, and I fear we science-fiction writers must bear some of the blame,” he admits during an e-mail interview. “In my own work, of course, I always distinguish between fact and possible or plausible extrapolations.”

So, the ideas in “3001,” the third sequel to “2001,” do more than explain longtime mysteries of the epic’s black monoliths and vanishing astronaut Dave Bowman. (Don’t worry; if you missed “2010” and “2061,” Clarke also provides a nicely guided tour through the history of the future.)

He details a sharply focused, if slightly idealistic, blueprint for the next millennium, and each chapter is footnoted with actual research on such things as gravity-defying machines and computers that can store the contents of a human mind.

The 80-year-old sci-fi godfather emerged this month (electronically, through Internet interviews and “appearances”) from his home in the Asian island nation of Sri Lanka to promote his book but found popular attention centered on his past vision, the HAL 9000 computer.

During an online academic conference last week at the University of Illinois, Clarke sent an over-the-Internet birthday greeting to his fictional mainframe HAL, which, according to the story, became operational in 1997.

And next month the author will deliver another sermon on the subject (this time via videotape) to an artificial intelligence symposium at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“I am not sure why HAL’s birthday has gotten so much attention,” he says. “It’s obvious there’s a big ‘2001’ constituency out there.”

But Clarke and “2001” collaborator and director Stanley Kubrick have vowed not to let HAL-mania get out of control.

“There’s no truth in the nonsensical report that (Kubrick) is going to redo ‘2001’ a la ‘Star Wars,”’ he insists, rebuffing rumors of a retooled version of the ‘60s space epic.

Instead of tinkering with past success as the year 2001 approaches, he sends his story far, far into the future, a full 10 centuries.

In the world of 3001, the citizens of Earth communicate through intricate computers worn on their skulls. They eat synthetic meat and consider the word “God” both offensive and outdated. The people live on the scorching surface of Venus and the strange moons of Jupiter.

They also look back in horror at the barbaric and naive children of the 20th century, a theme familiar throughout Clarke’s work.

“Although some terrible things are happening politically,” Clarke says, “I’ve seen far more progress in space than I ever imagined possible in my own lifetime.”

Moon landings and Voyager probes haven’t ended war and misunderstanding, he says. But that’s not to say that Earthlings won’t grow out of it, that we won’t start paying attention to our own long-term fate.

“I am very disappointed every time I turn on the TV news these days. Who isn’t? Yet I’m still an optimist,” he says.

“I think we have a 51 percent chance of survival.”

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