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, then living in Sri Lanka in a compound next-door to the country’s prime minister. Perhaps because of the nature of the magazine, Clarke was at his most liberal, going to far as to openly admit — perhaps for the first time in the press — his “relaxed, sympathetic” attitude about bisexualism.
I recently picked up the July 1986 Playboy at an estate sale, and have transcribed the better segments of the interview here.
ON EXTRATERRESTRIAL CONTACT:
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?”
ON THE MOON LANDING:
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.