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.
For instance, he says, he has a publisher lined up for what he calls "a triple-header," including his books "Islands in the Sky," "Earthlight" and "The Sands of Mars." He has two novels nearing publication, one written with an American and another with a man he calls "the best living British science fiction writer -- present company excluded!" Then there is the film project with Morgan Freeman, and the CD-ROM version of his novel "Rama," in which he is portrayed by a cartoon character carrying a cane.
McAleer tells him about a new television commercial he's seen featuring the monolith from "2001."
"No kidding, but of course, you heard about the HAL commercial during the Super Bowl?" Clarke counters, referring to the eerie computer that sabotaged the astronauts in "2001." "You didn't! My God, I thought everybody saw that!"
In his element
Finally, he grows restless.
"I've got nothing to do around here!" he groans. "Let's go! I haven't been to a big bookstore in years. I very seldom leave home, you know. I don't even leave the office except to play my regular round of table tennis every day -- a vicious game!"
Minutes later, he's rolling down Pratt Street, weaving in and out of the post-Ravens game crowds.
Pushing him through the front doors of Barnes & Noble, McAleer turns to a display that looks familiar.
"Carl!" Clarke cries.
The visage of Carl Sagan grins down at him.
After staring thoughtfully across the store, Clarke sits among the periodicals, scanning magazines -- Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, Air & Space -- before choosing the latest issue of Scuba Diving.
Soon, McAleer appears with a book in hand, "Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!" -- Clarke's latest.
"They have two copies," he reports.
"Quite a tome, is it not?" Clarke says, delightedly.
Up the elevator to the second floor. Clarke rolls out.
A surprised young brown-haired man in baggy clothes steps aside. "Arthur C. Clarke?" he whispers to himself.
In corner after corner, shelf after shelf, the writer hunts for familiar names. McAleer helps him to a section marked "Calendars 2000."
"Where's Calendar 2001?" he sniffs, then, laughing at his own joke, sticks out his tongue in delight.
Finally, his assistant motions that he has found the shelf.
"You've got a heck of a shelf going there for you, Arthur," McAleer notes, pointing to two shelves, in fact, ripe with Clarke paperbacks.
"Let's see if there are any editions I haven't seen yet," he says, flipping pages to inspect publication dates.
The young man from the elevator suddenly appears with a friend, each holding fresh copies of the new "2001" hardcover.
Clarke smiles, takes the man's pen and admires the lustrous book jacket. "What's the name?" he asks, and carefully writes, "To Kirk ..." "To Adriane ..."
Another fellow shows up holding copies of his books.
"I've been found out!" Clarke declares, then, turning to McAleer, says in an aside, "You've probably heard me say this before, but you know there's an auction coming up at Sotheby's -- a sale of the rare unsigned Arthur Clarke books."
Finally free from admirers, McAleer starts to move Clarke toward the elevator when suddenly Clarke spots another display.
"Tolkien! Look, Tolkien! I could spend a lifetime on this floor!"
So much to see, so little time.
Back to the first floor -- and by now Clarke has shifted to the many authors he knew, the ones who have died, the great photographs of the moon, new projects, and 2001, the year when he will really travel again.
McAleer, at last, seems to grow weary, and tries to redirect the conversation to ice cream and tea.
"Good Lord, I haven't seen this one," Clarke is saying.
They have stopped, quite by accident, in front of two great bookshelves in a lonely, unpopulated corner of the store.
"My God," Clarke says.
He looks up at the books, rows and rows of them. "Sagan ... Shoemaker ... "
Astronomy: galaxies, black holes, active galactic nuclei, Hubble photographs, the moon, satellite images, the heavens and the Earth.
Here the old man finally comes to a rest. McAleer leaves him gaping at the weight and beauty and profundity of all that stands before him.
"My God," the old man mutters.
It's as if he is totally alone for once, sitting in awe with things so familiar and almost too marvelous for words.
"My God," he mutters again.
The desultory Sunday afternoon with Sir Arthur settles calmly into silence.