I first met Arthur C. Clarke in the 1950s, on the occasion of his first cross-Atlantic visit to New York City By then Arthur had established himself as a first-rate science-fiction writer and he did what sf writers do in a strange city: He looked for other sf writers to talk to.
He found them in the rather amorphously shaped group that called itself the Hydra Club, where I was one of the nine heads that had been its founders. We became friends. We stayed that way for all of the half century that remained of Arthur’s life. We met when chance arranged it — at a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, at an occasional scientific meeting, at assorted “cons” — sf-speak for science-fiction gatherings — in many places at many times.
In the early days Arthur spent a lot of time visiting New York, usually staying at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23d Street, and when possible I would join him for dinner or a drink — that was all expense-account money and happily paid for by my publisher, because I was an editor in those days and eager to publish as much Clarke as I could get my hands on. But by the turn of the millennium our friendship had reduced itself to a desultory correspondence and the odd phone conversation. I had given up editing to concentrate on my own writing. What Arthur had given up was ever leaving his island home in Sri Lanka, where I had never been. (Although I visited a number of other countries, Sri Lanka wasn’t one of them.)
Then, in one of his letters in the early part of 2006, Arthur rather offhandedly mentioned that, a couple of years earlier, in a fit of exuberance, he had signed publishing contracts for several books that, he was now convinced, he would never be able to write himself. Most of them he had arranged for some other writer to finish, but there was one, called The Last Theorem, for which he needed a collaborator.
That sounded like a hint, and I took it. I wrote back, “If you really need a collaborator for that unfinished novel, Barkis is probably willin’. I like collaborating and sadly seem to be running out of collaborators.”
I am sorry to say that this was no more than the truth. Of my several score published books nearly a third had been written with collaborators, usually a long-term friend — Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey, Cyril Kornbluth and Jack Williamson among them, and all four of them have since passed away. It occurred to me that urging him to join a group with such a high mortality rate might not be the best inducement to offer a proposed partner, and indeed as weeks passed and I heard no response from Arthur I began to wonder if I had frightened him out of the notion. But then a letter arrived, not from Arthur himself but from his New York agent, which said that Arthur had passed my offer on to him, and added:
Since receiving that from Arthur, I’ve been discussing it with his editor, Chris Schluep, and he has been discussing it with his colleagues and bosses at Ballantine/Del Rey. I’m happy to say that they have called me today to say that they would love to proceed. . . . We sold the material to Ballantine on the basis of some bits and pieces supplied by Arthur, and a brief outline. I assume you would like to see these before you commit to this project.
There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do the book, but I looked forward to Arthur’s notes. When they arrived, they amounted to around a hundred pages of notes and drafts, some sketchy, some quite completely fleshed out.
The novel was to be called “The Last Theorem” as a reference to a celebrated scribble by the 18th-century French mathematician Pierre Fermat. Fermat had been thinking about a well known mathematical problem. If you square the sides of a right triangle and add them together, their sum equals the square of the triangle’s hypotenuse. The smallest triangle that this works for in whole numbers has sides of three and four units and a hypotenuse of five. Three squared, or nine, plus four squared, or 16, equals 25, which is the square of the five units that the hypotenuse measured.
That of course is not really much of a problem so far. Everybody who cares at all knows that.
Everybody always has, at least since the times of the ancient Greeks. The question that was troubling Fermat had to do with equations with larger exponents. Could there ever be a triangle such that a-cubed plus b-cubed equaled c-cubed?
There could not, Fermat declared, and added that he himself had recently discovered an elegant proof of that statement — “which,” he wrote, “this margin is too small to contain.” And for all the years since then other mathematicians have been trying to discover that elegant proof which Fermat claimed to have. None have succeeded, and the smart money now places its bets on the assumption that Fermat was simply mistaken and never did have that proof.
As I read all this in Arthur’s sketchy notes, a small sense of foreboding began to knock at my mind. I had gone through my own period of infatuation with the arcane art of number theory and so all this was both familiar and interesting to me. But what about your average book-buyer? It is axiomatic in the publishing biz that American book buyers hate, fear and despise math in any form. Were they going to buy a book whose very title was an obscure kind of mathematical statement?
Well, I told myself, sure they were. The book isn’t really about the theorem. It is about a boy who is determined to rediscover that lost proof and about what happens to him, to his world and even to his galaxy after he does. Besides, there was a lot of great stuff there including a wonderful war-winning weapon that triumphed in battles without ever killing anyone; a moving scene between Ranjit Subramanian, the story’s central figure, and his father, the head priest at a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka; a couple of exciting races in space; the death of a major character; thumbnail sketches — no, not that big, make-that pinky-nail sketches — of the major characters. Plus much more, including, I was sure, that one other great resource that would fill in all the missing bits and pieces, Arthur himself.
So I got off a quick note to Arthur to say that I accepted the quite generous terms of his offer and began doing some research, sublimely confident that this would be a relatively easy book to write. As it happened, I had a novel of my own half written at the time but it was no problem to set it aside to do Arthur’s; I had long since informed Jim Frenkel, my Tor editor, that he would definitely get the book but that I wasn’t going to sign a contract with him until I had it nearly finished since I didn’t want any contractual deadlines nagging at me. And I began to write The Last Theorem.
Every writer has his own idiosyncratic way of getting the words in his head onto paper. Mine is a little unusual in two ways.
First, I write a little bit every day — meaning by the expression “every day” all the days there are, including Christmas, my birthday and the days when I have a root canal.
Second, I do that no matter where I am. I’ve done some of my best writing in hotel rooms, in air terminals, on aircraft at 30,000 feet on the way to, say, Nairobi or Beijing., and in a fair number of places odder still. Including, in the old days of WWII, the pro station at Chanute field where I was learning to be an Air Force weatherman, because it was the only place on the base that kept its lights on after Taps.
But of all the places where I might be earning my daily bread, my personal favorite is a good-sized cruise ship taking me to some part of the world I’ve never seen before.
This time our scheduled cruise wasn’t on any of the great salt-water seas. We were doing a river cruise on the Danube, starting in Bucharest, Romania, then overland to the river, downstream to the Black Sea and back upstream via Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia to Budapest, Hungary. It happened I had been to most of those places in the 1960s, when I did a certain amount of lecturing abroad for the U.S. State Department, but that didn’t matter. My wife got off the boat to visit local points of interest. I didn’t. I stayed on board with my lined yellow pads and my ballpoint pens, setting words down at a great rate.
For all the time between leaving Chicago and our actual boarding of the riverboat I hadn’t tried to keep in touch with Arthur. But our boat was well provided with email, and one of the first things I emailed to ask him concerned some interesting alien characters in his notes. These were called the Grand Galactics. They pretty much ran things, and I could see how useful they might be in the finished story, so I invited him to tell me every thought he had ever had concerning these wondrous super-beings. His response, though, was a lot less helpful than I had hoped. Everything he knew about the Grand Galactics, he told me, was in those pages of notes his agent had passed along to me. At one time, he said, no doubt he had possessed any number of additional ideas about them. He didn’t have them anymore. They were gone without a trace.
Marveling, worried, I asked Arthur for details. He could give me very few. Apparently a funny thing had happened to Arthur on a day in 2003. After signing all those contracts he had waked up one morning and discovered that he couldn’t remember how to write any of them..
Don’t ask me to explain how this was possible. Arthur himself wasn’t very good at explaining it to me, but there it was. Every word of how to write any of those books had vanished from his mind. He said that since then he had had reasonable luck in writing 300-word greetings to various groups around the world who wanted to honor him. But nothing more ambitious than that. It was as far as his writing skills now went.
So I went up to the top deck and watched the river banks go by for a while as I pondered this new development. It was going to mean more work for me — or, more accurately, no more work but a good deal more responsibility.
Still, that was not a wholly bad thing. Arthur promised to go over every page as I wrote it and to make comments as useful as he could generate. This was a new ballgame, true. But not necessarily one that I could not enjoy. So I went below for lunch, and as I was finishing my second cup of coffee the ship’s second mate handed me a new email. It was from my own New York agent, and what it said was, “If you’re actually writing The Last Theorem, you should stop. Clarke’s agent has canceled the deal.”
When at last the book was finished, and revised to suit Arthur, and re-revised to suit me, and re-re-revised to suit Chris Schluep, our Del Rey editor, I sent Arthur an email announcing the good news and saying, “In all my books I have never encountered one with as many problems as this one. I’m pleased that it has turned out well, but I wouldn’t do it again for anything less than War and Peace.” For that cancellation by Arthur’s New York agent was only the first of a series of unparalleled travails.
I did not take that first travail very seriously. The incident amounted to little more than a hissy-fit Arthur’s and my own New York agents had got into over the sharing of commissions and I knew that in the long run it wouldn’t stand. All the same, it took a good many weeks of back-and-forth negotiating to clear it up and things kept getting worse.
For instance, a bit later the electronic provider for Sri Lanka went out of business, apparently without telling anyone, and so emails no longer worked and communications with Arthur were cut off for more than a week. (It is quite disheartening to try sending an email to an address you have been routinely using and have the Yahoo demigod inform you that there is no such address and never has been.) Later the same cutoff occurred for another week but this time due not to any human agency but to a violent tropical storm. And in between all the other problems there was the repetitious and overriding one of Arthur’s health.
In the early stages, Arthur read what I had written as soon as I sent it to him and, as promised, commented and suggested in detail. This was not always pleasurable. Early in the book, for plot reasons, I wanted our Ranjit Subramanian to spend a period in solitary confinement. The easy way to do this was to have him caught up in the on-and-off bloody and brutal conflict the Sri Lankan government was waging with a fraction of its Tamil population, but this, as Arthur quickly informed me, was a really regrettable idea. Although successive Sri Lankan governments had all been cordial to their distinguished house guest (and Arthur, too, had been quite generous to Sri Lanka), he had never forgotten that he was in fact a guest and his tenure there was subject to termination if ever he seriously offended the country’s rulers. Which he feared my description of the ongoing war might easily do.
The fault here was mine. I did know what Arthur’s concerns on that subject were, and I knew, too, how worrisome the incursions of these so-called Tamil Tigers were to him. As far back as the early ’70s, when Arthur and I were on a busy lecture tour of Japan, he had been as brilliant and rewarding as ever while he was before an audience, but as soon as he was off-stage he went hunting for some English-language news broadcasts to check up on how close the Tigers were getting to his beachfront diving school. (Not close enough to do much damage, it turned out. The school survived all the battles of the war but was finally done in, decades later, by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2006 which killed hundreds of thousands of people in that area.)
So I bit the bullet, discarded a sheaf of quite good pages and wrote a completely different passage of imprisonment for poor Ranjit. (Which I now think is actually quite a bit better than the material it replaced, proving that the easiest way is not necessarily the best way for a writer to go.)
That was, in fact, the only story element that Arthur ever vetoed outright. Mostly his comments were both helpful and supportive. But as the weeks passed they became slower to arrive and increasingly less detailed. The culprit was his body, which was wearing out.
As far back as half a century earlier I had noticed, one evening, that Arthur had a little trouble getting up from the overstuffed couch he had been sprawled out on at whatever gathering was going on that night. When I asked him about it he shrugged it off. “I had a little bit of a diving accident,” he said. “It will pass.” But it wasn’t from a diving accident and it didn’t pass. The best medical opinion, which was pretty much the best opinion the medical world had to offer because Arthur visited every major research facility available in his quest for assistance, was that it was what they called “post-polio syndrome.” That diagnosis did not lead to a cure, however, because there was no cure. Ultimately, Arthur wound up in a wheelchair, and, in the last decades of his life, never got anywhere without it.
But in those days of the ’60s and ’70s “ultimately” was a long way off. Arthur kept as busy as ever and we did spend time together at one kind of event or another.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, when it was clear that he was fading fast, a bunch of his friends were rounded up to send him birthday greetings. I chose to try to cheer him up by reminding him of some of the great times we had had together, in particular at one NASA symposium around 1970 on what they called “Speculative Technology.” It was by invitation only, but even NASA recognized that in order to speculate effectively you need to have a science-fiction writer or two on the guest list to show the others how it’s done. So they elected to invite two of our breed, Arthur Clarke and myself.
I don’t know whether NASA got what it was looking for from the conference. What I do know is that for me, and I am pretty sure for Arthur as well, it was a grand weekend. It was, by design, held on an island off the coast of Georgia with no way of getting back and forth to the mainland but a single little propeller plane. This meant that the stars of the event, the ones who would normally fly in just long enough to deliver their remarks and then immediately fly off to their next date, were forced to stick around and talk to the rest of us for the whole weekend — far the best way of organizing any such event.
There were fifty or sixty invited guests, each one a headliner in some technological or scientific area, including some dear old friends like Marvin Minsky, MIT’s head man in robotics and artificial intelligence, and great new ones like the Apollo astronaut Ed Mitchell, the one who had tried to send telepathic messages from the surface of the Moon to associates back on Earth. All of them had interesting things to say. It wasn’t just the formal program that was great, either. Early on Arthur and I discovered some bicycles no one was using so we got some of the others to join us in bicycle-jousting, me pedaling while Arthur was on the handlebars fighting off the foes. (In my birthday message I asked him, “Remember when we were spry?”)
And then, for me, there was the matter of Wernher von Braun.
For years mutual friends, mainly Willy Ley and a few other transplanted German scientists, had been trying to persuade me to make friends with von Braun. I was reluctant. I could not readily forgive him for having been an officer in the Nazi SS who used slave labor to build his rockets. True, as the title of his book said, he had always aimed at the stars, but what he had hit had been London.
So von Braun and I maintained a relationship of distant acquaintance. He invited me to some major launches at the Cape, but I had never had a one-on-one conversation with him until that NASA conference. There, at the close of business one day, a bunch of us had been invited to a cookout on the far side of the island. There was a transportation problem, though. The island had a limited number of cars. Only three were available to us, with a nominal seating capacity of maybe 15, but there were already twenty-odd of us lined up and hungry. There was only one possible solution. We doubled up. So for the next half-hour or so, as we crossed the island, I had von Braun sitting in my lap and conversation was inevitable.
This did not result in a close friendship. I only ran into von Braun once or twice over the next few years, and then he died. But I’m glad it happened. The Nazis were a great evil … but if some of my grandparents had made somewhat different choices about where they wanted to spend their lives, back around the end of the 19th century, I might easily have been born in Germany instead of in Brooklyn. How I would have dealt with the monstrosity that was Hitler’s Third Reich I cannot say. I hope I would have resisted temptation, but then so did von Braun, up to a point.
In the long run, The Last Theorem turned out well, I think. Arthur’s health did not. He suffered more and more from old men’s disease, that recurring cycle of ailments and infections that tell us our bodies are getting tired if healing up all the injuries we inflict on them. (I am an authority on these matters because I was after all only a couple of years younger than Arthur.) In Arthur’s case, some of them were mysterious. One morning he awoke and couldn’t get out of bed. When the doctors arrived all they could tell him was that somehow in his sleep he had managed to crack a couple of his vertebrae, no one could say how. Now (he wrote me) what he was yearning for most in his world was the day when he might get back to the mobility of his custom-built wheelchair.
After that there was a lot of silence, in stretches which went on for weeks or even a month or two. Now and then. I was told, this was because Arthur had been taken to the hospital, sometimes not allowed to communicate with the outside world. When he was really sick his Sri Lankan house and office staff did their best to close ranks to prevent his being worried about anything but the task of getting well. It was after a month and more of such silence that I sent him the email mentioned above to tell him that my work was complete and that I wished he would summon up the effort to tell me what he had thought of the final ms., long since in his hands. I think I must have been feeling a bit petulant, because I ended the email with “Please let me hear from you. I know you are old and unwell, but so am I.”
And then a day or so later I got a longish email from him, saying all the things I wanted to hear. He approved all I had done; he thought the book was fine; he forgave me for not making one or two quite minor changes because (I had told him) I had fallen in love with those bits and hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed that I hadn’t changed them. And it was not only that he said all the things I had hoped for, he said them in the unmistakable prose of good old Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, the style as lively and as concise as ever.
It is hard for me to convey how pleasing that email was for me to receive. I dashed off a reply to tell him that though his bones might be crumbling and his interior organs falling apart it was obvious that his mind was still sharp. And then, a day or so later, I snapped on the TV news to keep me company while I dealt with some letters, and what the newscaster was saying was that Sir Arthur Clarke had died in his sleep the night before.
So we have lost him.
Arthur was a valuable citizen of our planet and he will be — he already is — greatly missed. Still, there is another and almost comical aspect of this event that I wish he could have shared.
Because I was privileged to read the detailed and good-humored instructions Arthur dictated and left for the arrangements of his own funeral I know he would have been amused by the small joke that lies within this sorrow. The lethality of collaborating on a book with Fred Pohl may have no basis in common sense, but there is the record. And I don’t think I want to collaborate with any other writer again.
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