The great (now late) Arthur C. Clarke had a longstanding relationship with Playboy magazine: they published the first excerpts of 2010: Odyssey Two, as well as a plethora of his short works, musings, and technical papers. It wasn’t until 1986 that the magazine ran a full-length “Playboy Interview” with Clarke (PDF), then living in Sri Lanka in a compound next-door to the country’s prime minister. I recently picked up the July 1986 Playboy at an estate sale. Reading the interview knocked me on the floor a handful of times, so I’ve transcribed some of the many many segments of it here.

“PLAYBOY: You’ve said that the famous opening sequence, in which the bone thrown into the air by the prehistoric man-apes becomes the space vehicle Discovery, came about by accident.

CLARKE: Yes, Stanley and I were trying to figure out that crucial transition. We were walking back to the studio in London and, for some reason, Stanley had a broomstick in his hand. He threw it up into the air, in a playful way, and he kept doing it, and it was at that moment that the idea of making the broomstick into the bone that gets turned into Discovery came about. I was afraid it was going to hit me in the head. [Laughs] So later we filmed it with some sort of bone. That shot was the only one in the movie done on location. It was shot just outside the studio. There was a platform built and, just beneath it, all the London buses were going by.”


“PLAYBOY: In the postscript to your book Ascent to Orbit, you talk about technology quite a bit. You have a lot of technology in your own home—your John Deere computer “Archie,” your satellite dish, your Kaypro-II computer. Yet you write, “This power over time and space still seems a marvel to me, even though I have been preaching its advent for decades. But the next generation will take it completely for granted and wonder how we ever managed to run the world without it … which we never did. May these new tools help them to succeed where we failed so badly.” Do you still think that way?

CLARKE: [Pauses] Absolutely. That’s why I’m so delighted that kids these days are not using their computers strictly to play games but are using them to process information. Knowledge really is power, and computer technology has increased an individual’s potential for power considerably. I still think it’s one’s duty to be optimistic about the possibilities of that power, without being unrealistic. It’s just that if one radiates doom and gloom about the possibilities of technology, one is in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about self-destruction.”


Bone becomes spaceship:

CLARKE: I would like to live until we’ve made contact with some extraterrestrials — at least know if they’re there. I’ve had fantasies about that a lot — a spaceship comes down and the first guy off the ship says, “Take me to Arthur C. Clarke.”
PLAYBOY: Meaning that they’ve read your books, so they’re saying the proverbial “Take me to your leader” line.
CLARKE: Yeah. But then again, of course, he might say, “Take me to Isaac Asimov” — that’s the nightmare, isn’t it?

PLAYBOY: You write about the mind’s transcending, leaving behind, its material organic base, as you put it. Why do you regard the departure for the physical realm — leaving planet Earth — as desirable?
CLARKE: I guess that it’s just hard to imagine another direction in which to go. I hope I’m making sense. I guess it’s just pure laziness on my part — I should think of a new evolutionary outcome. But I’m very much against any form of irrationality and mysticism. I guess I’m a mystic who’s against mysticism.
PLAYBOY: What does that mean?
CLARKE: I’m so very sorry you asked that question.
CLARKE: It’s tough to explain. This universe is so incredible, and we constantly find new things out; but what we know may be such a small part of reality, if, indeed, reality is finite — it may be infinite. But one must always allow for the totally unexpected. So, in a way, talking about things that could be called mystical — well, I guess, I do try to allow for the idea that, as the famous scientist J.B.S. Haldane once said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it’s queerer than we can suppose.” I’ve changed the word queer to strange, because, of course, the word queer has taken on a different context. And that calls to mind what I call Clarke’s Third Law, which is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — by which I mean things we take for granted now, such as transistor radios, that would be totally baffling, totally magical to even a man like Thomas Edison. I mean, if he saw a pocket computer, Edison would go totally crazy. He’d spend his whole life trying to figure out, “How does this work?”

PLAYBOY: Let’s go to the moon.
CLARKE: Fine with me.
PLAYBOY: You made a bet with the chairman of the Interplanetary Society, of which you were a member in the thirties, about when the first landing on the moon would occur.
CLARKE: Yes, I wasn’t very clever. I never really thought a moon landing would occur in my lifetime. But, you know, even the space enthusiasts of my youth didn’t believe it would be in this century. When I wrote my book Prelude to Space in 1948, I put the landing 30 years in the future, in 1978. I remember thinking when I wrote it, “This is hopelessly optimistic.”
PLAYBOY: As it turned out, during the moon landing in 1969, you were a commentator for U.S. television, along with your friend Walter Cronkite. You cried then, didn’t you?
CLARKE: When you go to a launch, it is an emotional experience. Television doesn’t give you any idea of it, really. Walter wiped away a tear or two, as well — as did Eric Sevareid. The last time I’d cried was when my grandmother died, 20 years before.
PLAYBOY: The crew of Apollo Eight circled the moon on Christmas eve, 1968 — the first men ever to see the dark side of the moon. Didn’t the commander of the mission later tell you they’d been tempted to radio back to earth that they’d discovered a large black monolith, as in 2001?
CLARKE: Alas, discretion prevailed.
PLAYBOY: How do you think 2001, which you began envisioning with director Stanley Kubrick in 1964, inspired actual space exploration?
CLARKE: Although most people thought space travel was inevitable by then — President Kennedy had called for a moon landing before the end of the Sixties — I think the movie did stir people’s imaginations about the future. I’m especially proud of how well the film stands up — even the moons-of-Jupiter stuff. The only thing we were wrong about scientifically — everybody was wrong, because the information was incomplete — was the surface of the moon as we depicted it in the film.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
CLARKE: We never dreamed it would be so smoothed.


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E. Thompson

I make movies. Sometimes people see them. I have been a martial artist for a very long time. I'm in a personal war with the Oxford comma.

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