I found some notes about Sir Arthur C. Clarke that I had filed somewhere and didn’t have handy at the time of his unexpected death, so they got left out of the things I wrote about him at the time. So here they are:
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Arthur wasn’t a religious man in any usual sense — in the instructions he left for his own funeral, he was emphatic that there be no religious aspects to the services. He thought — as is described in The Last Theorem — that the most valuable function of a church was to provide a Sunday school for you to send your children to, on the principle that exposing them to religion in childhood, like inoculating them against polio, would prevent serious religiosity later on.
He wasn’t much of a believer in psionics or any of the other New Age fads of the 20th century, either; he was a hard-headed skeptic who didn’t believe in anything that didn’t provide good evidence of its reality. But bear in mind his famous declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The obvious corollary to that is that some kinds of magic could perhaps represent a previously unknown technology.
You can see traces of that thought in some of the best Clarkes, like Childhood’s End or the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And he did confess to me once, over a meal at the restaurant next to the old Hotel Chelsea, that he was kind of wondering if it was possible that Uri Geller, the notorious psychic spoon-bender of the 1960s, might really have some new kind of power.
I’m proud to say that I was the one who rescued Arthur C. Clarke from that particular flimflam. Then and there, in the restaurant that evening, I did the Geller spoon-bending trick before his very eyes.
I hadn’t been smart enough to figure it out for myself, but I was lucky in my choice of neighbors. One of them was my good friend, the former stage magician The Amazing Randi, who had taught me how to do it.
Unfortunately, I can’t teach it to any of you, because I am bound by the stage magician’s creed not to reveal any other magician’s secret tricks. Ah, but you say, how can that be, Fred, since you aren’t a stage magician yourself? Simple, I say. Randi gave me honorary magician status. He couldn’t really avoid that, since one of his best effects was levitating a beautiful girl. The beautiful girl was usually one of my beautiful daughters, Randi not having any of his own, and the muscle-supplying levitator was my muscular son, so I was going to find out his secrets anyway.
Also, Johnny Carson had just had a magician on his show who was able to order his trained dog to go to any specific person in the audience and take from his or her lap any one specific item — pair of gloves, scarf, handbag, whatever — and bring it up to him on stage. Randi couldn’t figure that one out, but I could: I had read an animal psychologist’s piece in, I think, Nature about how to train animals or pre-verbal children to do something like it, and I had clipped the article. I explained it to Randi, so he owed me.
By the way, if any of you happen to pass near the Hotel Chelsea — West 23rd Street near Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, NYC — take a look at the plaques around the entrance. As I remember they have several, including one for Brendan Behan, the Irish author of Borstal Boy, who stayed there when in New York and wrote some of his works there. Well. Arthur did much the same thing and, I believe, rather expected much the same treatment. What I don’t know is whether he got it.