14th December 1997


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Many Many Happy Returns


Many Many Happy Returns

Dr. Arthur C. Clarke, C.B.E. celebrates his 80th birthday on
December 16. This tribute by Richard Boyle explores
a series of selective events that typify
Arthur C. Clarke’s interaction with Sri Lanka,
his adopted home for the past 41 years–the
‘Sri Lanka factor’ in the life of this famous author.

Exactly twenty years ago today I set out from Colombo with Swami Siva Kalki (Mike Wilson) on a journey to Kandy where we hoped to write a significant science fiction screenplay in the seclusion of Udawattakelle. I was driving an antiquated, almost brakeless, Volkswagen Beetle, which had been loaned to us by the instigator of the project. As we proceeded down Kynsey Road, Swami Siva Kalki suddenly shouted at me over the din of the sick engine, ‘Quick! Turn down Barnes Place!’ Simultaneously I yanked at the slack wheel and pumped at the nonexistent brakes. We careened into Barnes Place, narrowly missing an assortment of humanity.

‘It’s Arthur’s sixtieth birthday in a couple of days! We must wish him all the best before we go to Kandy!’ Swami Siva Kalki said to me by way of explanation as I recovered control of the car- and my composure. ‘Besides,’ he continued oblivious to my protestations about split-second decisions, ‘we should get his blessings for our project.’ As I parked the car outside the house of Arthur C. Clarke arguably one of the most influential science fiction authors of all time I wondered whether he would have sufficient mental space to show any interest in our project. But then I consoled myself with the thought that Swami Siva Kalki had known Arthur Clarke for a quarter of a century and that for a fair portion of those years he had been Clarke’s close friend and occasional creative collaborator.

Arthur as I shall henceforth informally yet respectfully refer to him (believing that ‘Clarke’ or ‘Dr. Clarke’ sounds too removed) greeted us in his study with a meaningful grin. It was that type of grin, a mixture of relief, ecstasy, triumph and sheer satisfaction - which tells you when it adorns that face of a writer, that he or she has finished a major work and is now experiencing post-delivery euphoria. ‘Your arrival couldn’t be better timed’ he informed us, ‘because today I have finished the first draft of my new novel “Fountains of Paradise”.’

Before Swami Siva Kalki or I could react to the good news of the completion of ‘Fountains of Paradise,’ Arthur’s euphoria seemed to ebb, and he announced in a more sombre tone, ‘I have to tell you that it’s going to be my last book - positively the last!’ I remember sitting there feeling stunned, unable to comprehend a world without any new works of science fiction by one of the great masters of the genre. Twenty years later, in the glow of the recent success of 3001, the world can take comfort from the fact that was one of Arthur’s prophecies which did not come true.

Yet in 1978, Arthur had declared: ‘There’s nothing more I want to write, fiction or nonfiction. And I don’t have to if I don’t want to’

Many years later I was reminded of our meeting when I read in Neil Mc Aleer’s Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C. Clarke (1992): ‘Arthur always felt a sense of elation when he finished a work, and the feeling had a decided influence on how he perceived any recently completed book. He was especially pleased with Fountains of Paradise because his beloved tropical island played such an important part in it.’

Indeed it did. Transparently disguised as ‘Taprobane’ (‘about 90 per cent congruent with Ceylon,’ says Arthur), the island is the setting for this dramatic story of the construction in 2142 A.D. of a Space Elevator to facilitate the transportation of astronauts and materials to a point outside the earth’s atmosphere. In order for this awe-inspiring conception to become reality, a major obstacle has to be tackled. There is only one location on earth suitable as the site for the project - the peak of a sacred mountain, inhabited since time immemorial by Buddhist monks. How their resistance is overcome, and what happens when the Elevator begins to tower into the sky, forms the basis of this absorbing tale.

For those with a knowledge of Sri Lanka the novel holds the prospect of much more than just an excellent science fiction story. Such readers find themselves in familiar terrain, able to appreciate fully the historical, cultural and spiritual nuances of the story. Indeed the background is most convincingly sketched in with vivid life and colour, unlike, for instance, another novel (albeit non-science fiction) by an Englishman with a Sri Lankan setting - Dennis Wheatley’s Dangerous Inheritance (1965).

At the time of the publication of Fountains of Paradise, Arthur was quoted in London’s Guardian as saying that, ‘It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. Everything is in it: Buddhist philosophy, ancient history, the ultimate space transport system - the two main locales are awe-inspiring places.’ For the uninitiated, the ‘two main locales’ are Sri Pada and Sigiriya - with slight modifications.

As Arthur admits in the Afterword: ‘I have made three trifling changes to the geography of Sri Lanka’. One of these changes reflected the early geological history of Sri Lanka when it became disconnected from Gondwanaland and was drifting northwards to its present position: ‘I have moved the island eight hundred kilometers south, so that it straddles the equator - as indeed it did twenty million years ago, and may some day do again.’

The second and third changes concerned the height and location of the Sacred Mountain, renamed ‘Sri Kanda’ by Arthur. This fictional version of Sri Pada is double the height and it has been moved closer to ‘Yakkagala’ - Arthur’s Sigiriya. He states that the reality of Sigiriya is ‘so astonishing that I have had no need to change it in any way’. Nevertheless, Arthur did take ‘a liberty’, as he put it, over the chronology of Sigiriya’s construction and occupation by King Kasyapa claiming that it seems incredible that so vast an undertaking could have been carried out in a mere eighteen years by a usurper expecting to be challenged at any moment’.

It is a matter of regret that Arthur has set no other science fiction novel in Sri Lanka - but then Fountains of Paradise would be a hard act to follow. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere, Fountains of Paradise is the only science fiction novel to feature Sri Lanka. And the only other work of science fiction to make reference to the island in any way (and that, admittedly, is only to its undersea pearl banks) is Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869).

Excerpts of Fountains of Paradise were published in the January 1979 twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Playboy magazine. One photo of the summit Temple of Sri Pada carried a caption stating that it was Arthur’s home. This bizarre mistake was picked up by a local newspaper in a report headed ‘Playboy’s Biggest Boob’. ‘I remember commenting they usually came in pairs!’ Clarke told me recently.

One question regarding Fountains of Paradise remains. Will it ever be turned into a Hollywood movie, especially as nearly two decades have slipped by since it was first published? For the sake of authenticity, any cinematic rendition of the novel would have to be filmed on location in Sri Lanka even though much studio and special effects work would have to be undertaken elsewhere.

Amazingly from the time of Elephant Walk way back in the early 1950s, no Hollywood movie has used Sri Lanka as an actual location rather than as an anonymous tropical backdrop. As a former location consultant I always endeavoured to promote film projects featuring stories set in Sri Lanka, so I for one would be very pleased if Fountains of Paradise made the transition to the big screen.

The film rights of Fountains of Paradise have been optioned several times. This is nothing unusual. In fact another of Arthur’s novels, Childhood’s End, has been the subject of Hollywood interest for the past thirty years. (The director John Frankenheimer, for instance, was one who was very keen to turn the complex book into a movie.) Let me demonstrate the fickle nature of the industry. In 1982 a local newspaper announced that the American producer Robert Schinela had optioned the rights and was to begin production soon. ‘This film is sure to give Sri Lanka the best possible exposure in the world’, Arthur was reported as saying. Indeed it would. If it were ever made....

But to begin at the beginning, Arthur’s ‘Lanka Saga’ really commenced in November 1954, when the Himalaya set sail from London to Australia with the 36-year-old writer on board. The objective was to join up with Mike Wilson (his friend of several years who had introduced him to diving) on an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef. In December, the ship docked for half a day at Colombo. This gave Arthur the chance to see a little of the city in the company of two people whose mutual friends had suggested he look up them.

One was Major R. Raven-Hart O.B.E, who was resident in Ceylon during the 1950s and 1960s. Arthur rates him as one of the most unforgettable characters he has ever met, a fusion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Summerlee and the traveller, Sir Richard Burton. Raven-Hart fascinates me as I heard intriguing stories about him from Mike and I admire his books, especially Where The Buddha Trod (1956) and Ceylon History in Stone (1964).

The second person Clarke made contact with during his brief visit ashore was Rodney Jonklaas - another remarkable character in his own right. Jonklaas, who was at the time Assistant Director of the Dehiwala Zoo, suggested that Arthur should come back to explore the seas of Ceylon once he had finished with the Great Barrier Reef. Making no promises, Arthur sailed away from his fateful first encounter with the island.

Arthur arrived in Melbourne and teamed up with Mike Wilson, who had already spent some months in Australia diving for pearls and working as a film extra. After various adventures above and underwater, a number of articles with Mike, and at least one book, (The Coast of Coral), ‘The Isle of Ceylon Beckoned,’ as McAleer puts it. ‘The beautiful memory of a single afternoon in December 1954 enticed Aruthur to return. He and Mike decided that their next underwater adventure would be in the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean off Ceylon’s coast.’

After ten months in Australia, they travelled to New York and London to meet with literary agents and to equip themselves for the expedition. Finally they arrived at Colombo aboard the Orcades in January 1956. Rodney Jonklaas was there to meet them and help them settle in. They stayed initially at the Grand Oriental Hotel but then moved to a flat at Indra Lane, Bambalapitiya. Arthur’s first months in Ceylon were, as McAleer states, ‘fascinating and intellectually exciting. Because he loves to learn and explore, all the cultural differences, as well as the island’s history, stimulated his mind and imagination.’

Soon after their arrival, Arthur and Mike headed down south with Rodney Jonklaas to commence diving operations. First stop was Akurala Reef where they investigated the wrecks of the Conch and the Earl of Shaftesbury. They then moved on to Weligama and Tangalle. It was the start of a pioneering period in the short history of underwater exploration around the island. In the space of a few years, the three of them researched, located and explored dozens of wrecks, many of historical significance. In contrast, they also dived on the Aeonos - just five days after it sank in March 1956.

These early explorations culminated in 1961 with Mike’s discovery of a wreck of unknown origin on the Great Basses Reef containing several cannon and thousands of silver Moghul rupees, all dated 1702. Following discussions with David Attenborough at the B.B.C, Mike was contracted by the Corporation to make a documentary on a fresh exploration of the wreck mounted in 1963. The film was called Treasure of the Great Reef and was included in the ‘Adventure’ series. The narration was by Arthur, who also wrote a book of the same name, published in 1964 and with a revised edition ten years later

The book, Treasure of the Great Reef, is Arthur’s only work of nonfiction concerned exclusively with Sri Lanka. Apart from being an account of the expedition, the book has a host of excellent photographs by Arthur, Mike and Rodney. Another nonfiction work The View From Serendip (1978), which mainly consists of speculations on space, science and the sea, also contains fragments of what the publishers call an Equatorial Autobiography. In chapters such as “Concerning Serendipity” “Servant Problems Oriental Style “ and “The Scent of Treasure”, Arthur describes his early years in the island .

Shortly after Arthur’s arrival in Ceylon he began what was to be the first of many novels written in the imagination-enhancing atmosphere of the island. Recent years had seen the publication of the impressive Earthlight and Expedition to Earth. Appropriately enough his new novel, Deep Range, was an undersea story of ocean farming and whale ranching, which was dedicated to Mike, ‘who led me to the sea and pulled me out of it’. This novel demonstrated that Buddhism was beginning to attract his attention. ‘With the failure or weakening of its three great rivals,’ he wrote of the future, ‘Buddhism was now the only religion that still possessed any real power over the minds of men.’

Ceylon soon began to weave its inimitable magic spell on Arthur, a spell that has bewitched so many visitors ( including myself ), enticing them to throw up former existences. In May 1956 he announced to a friend, ‘I have made up my mind - I’m settling in Ceylon and commuting once a year to the U.S . The contrast between here and England is fantastic, and it’s strange to feel free after all these years. Maybe a couple of months in Ceylon will be all I can take - will need the remaining ten to recover.’

Many Happy Returns, Arthur of Serendip!

Congratulations on completing 80 orbits around the sun!

Part II next week

Those who are fortunate enough to be able to receive satellite transmission may be interested to know that the Discovery Channel will be showing an Arthur C. Clarke Birthday Special today, December 14.

What They Say

‘Arthur Clarke is one of the true geniuses of our time. I envy him, his brain’.

-Ray Bradbury.

‘The career of Arthur Clarke is one of the most dazzling success stories of the 20th Century’.

-Colin Wilson.

‘Nobody has done more in the way of enlightened prediction than Arthur Clarke’.

- Isaac Asimov.

‘Arthur Clarke made himself comfortable in the 21st century before most people let go of the l9th’.

- F.M. Esfandiary.

‘In a world filled with despair and fear, Arthur Clarke has always come down on the side of human possibility against the forces of impossibility’.

-Alvin Toffler

‘He has done an enormous global service in preparing the climate for serious human presence beyond the earth’.

- Carl Sagan.

‘Arthur Clarke was the first to think realistically about the mathematics of gravitational law in respect to the potential space program’.

R. Buckminster Fuller.

‘Arthur Clarke says ideas often have three stages of reaction - first, “It’s crazy and don’t waste my time”. Second, “It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing”. And finally, “I’ve always said it was a good idea”.

– Ronald Reagan

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