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All Best - Art by Allen Steele
SFRevu *Essay  
Date: 28 March 2008 / Show Official Info /

There's little that can be said about Sir Arthur C. Clarke that hasn't been said before. Along with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert A. Heinlein, he was one of the foremost science fiction writers of the 20th century. He was the father of the communications satellite and the godfather of space exploration. He was a visionary whose influence upon both imaginative literature and real-life scientific development is immeasurable. He was a citizen of the world, and a great figure of our time.

He was also a wonderful person to have as a pen-pal. Let me tell you about that …

In December 1990, I published my second novel, Clarke County, Space, which concerns a revolution in an orbital space colony. As the title suggests, the novel was influenced by Sir Arthur's work, which is one of the reasons why I named my Lagrange colony after him. When the book came out, I decided to send him a copy; after all, perhaps he should know that I'd taken his name in vain. His address in Sri Lanka was in the SFWA membership directory, so it was easy enough to mail the book to him from St. Louis, where I was living at the time. Even so, I wasn't really expecting a response. No doubt he was busy, and he probably received stuff like this quite frequently.

So it came as a surprise when, a few weeks later, I received a letter from Sir Arthur dated December 28, 1990. Most of it consisted of one of the "egogram" form letters that he'd occasionally send out to let everyone know what he was doing, but at the bottom was a handwritten note:

Thanks – look forward to reading it. I'd already noticed the title & good reviews of Orbital Decay [my first novel]. The cover blurb ("Piece of the sky") reminds me of the joke that the U.N.'s [illegible] on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space should be replaced by one on Useful Pieces …

Couple of items for amusement/annoyance.

All best for `91 (my God – only ten years to go!)
--Art

Within the envelope, I found a copy of a letter he'd sent to the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, congratulating him on the "first discovery of life beyond the earth!" This was in reference to an enclosed photocopy of radar image taken by NASA's Magellan probe to Venus: a series of volcanoes on the planet's surface, so close to one another that Arthur imagined them to faintly resemble enormous cells conjugating.

Of course, it was terrific that I'd received a letter from one of my literary heroes, yet it never occurred to me to follow up on it. So I saved the letter as a piece of memorabilia, but didn't really think about it until a couple of years later, when I had dinner with Gregory Benford while he was in town for a speaking engagement. I happened to mention Arthur's letter, and Greg encouraged me to write him again. "Arthur's like a spider sitting in the center of a web," Greg said. "He keeps regular correspondence with a vast number of people, which is how he stays connected with the world. He'd probably like to hear from you again."

It so happened that I'd recently published my first collection, Rude Astronauts. Taking this an opportunity, I sent him a copy, and not long afterward, I received another letter from Arthur, dated January 3, 1994 -- handwritten again, but this time a bit longer:

Would you believe you had me looking up `Hapgood' in the Enc. Of S.F.? [a reference to both my story "Hapgood's Hoax" and Clute and Nichol's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]. Nice work …

Anyway, many thanks for Rude Astros – I'm enjoying it between computer sessions

– I'm terraforming Mars with VISTAPRO – almost finished, I hope, after two years … now have 90 x 2Mb images.

Isn't it a shame that S/L [the Shoemaker/Levy comet] will hit the after side of Jupiter? Can't NASA do anything right these days …

All best for `96*
Art

*I just can't believe it's now `84 + 10 … and any minute it will be 2001 …

As with the earlier letter, he included something else: a couple of print-outs of the surface of Mars, as terraformed on his computer. As it turned out, these were first-draft versions of the images he'd later include in his non-fiction book The Snows of Olympus. Arthur – or "Art"; you have to love the unpretentiousness of that signature – wasn't content with merely imagining a transformed planet: He actually wanted to see it, with his own eyes.

This was the beginning of a long round of correspondence, lasting between early 1994 to late 1997, during which we exchanged letters on a frequent if irregular basis. In hindsight, it's striking that we communicated in such an old-fashioned way: not by email or by phone, but instead by letters that would have to make their way from St. Louis to Sri Lanka and back again. It was a practical decision, of course; snail-mail allowed us to include stuff that couldn't be relayed via satellite: newspaper clippings, editorial cartoons, memos, and – my case – books I'd recently published that I thought he might like to read. But being pen-pals was also a leisurely way of maintaining a friendship; letters that won't be read until weeks after they're sent gives you a chance to catch up with the rest of your life before you write a response. The bonus, of course, is a collection of correspondence that wouldn't be erased the next time your hard-drive crashes (an occasional problem for me until I bought a better computer).

There was nothing deeply philosophical about our correspondence. We didn't discuss the great issues of our times, or plot how to save the world and conquer the universe. Although Arthur often had very kind things to say about my books, I never hit him up for cover blurb, not wanting to impose upon him (Mike Walsh at Old Earth Books did request a blurb for my next collection, All-American Alien Boy, which Arthur gave him). Our letters were, in fact, notes from one friend to another.

But there were surprises nonetheless. One of his letters included a fake editorial memo to his literary agent, listing titles of books that he vowed never to write. One of those was "Jonathan Livingstone Seaslug," which tickled me enough to spark an idea for a story. I asked for his permission to use it, which he graciously gave me, adding:

Actually, the title comes from a series of spoof reviews I did about 10 years ago. I'm not sure of the details, but I think Jonathan was born, or rather fissioned, in a sewer off Flushing, and ended up being devoured by an even more revolting entity, the Abominable Slime Worm (Scatophagous Horribilis).
After the story was published in Science Fiction Age, I sent him a copy of the magazine. Since I was then pursuing Hollywood, I added that I'd considered rewriting it as a script treatment for the TV series Seaquest DSV – if only for the pleasure of seeing its star, Roy Scheider, repeat his most famous line from Jaws – but that it looked as if the show was about to be canceled. To which Arthur responded:
You can still sell it to Seaquest! Incidentally, Roy had completely forgotten that line: "We're going to need a bigger boat," when I reminded him of it.
I'd forgotten that Roy Scheider had also starred in 2010. Yet it figured that Arthur would be keeping up with him; his letters often mentioned letters, visits, and phone calls from people such as Patrick Stewart, Tom Hanks, Nicholas Negroponte, and Buzz Aldrin. In the same letter, he wrote:
I seem to be busier than ever – see enclosed, and spend much of my time now apologizing to conferences e.g. Ted Turner at Atlanta, Hiroshi Hayakawa in Tokyo …
And indeed, he'd often include a long schedule of projects he'd undertaken: novels, collections, non-fiction books, and introductions to other people's books, not mention satellite appearances at various conferences, participation in TV documentaries, and film-rights that had been optioned for his novels. I commented that, for a man more than twice my age, he was also twice as active, to which he responded:
Life is getting even more hectic – I'm getting an average of one request a day for interviews, especially as a result of the Liverpool University's satellite Degree … here's my latest update, to boost your inferiority complex.
Through most of 1995, I was working on a screenplay of Orbital Decay for an independent film director who wanted to turn the novel into a movie. The project eventually crashed, but before that happened I was reading the screenplays of every decent SF movie I could lay my hands on as a way of learning how to write in this unfamiliar form. So I asked Arthur if it was possible for him to send me a copy of the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, mentioning that it hadn't been published in its entirety and offering to pay the copying and shipping expenses. To which Arthur responded:
Good luck with your screen play! Judging from extracts I've seen on local TV, you might get some useful hints from Ed Wood (sorry about that …) I don't think I ever saw a screenplay of 2001, and am not even sure if there was one! All I recall is a blizzard of multicolored typescripts. … But I do agree it's an excellent idea, and am passing your letter on to Stanley.
I don't think I have to say who "Stanley" was. Yet I often wondered what he made of my letter.

Our correspondence became sporadic during 1996. Both of us were busy, Arthur even more so than I. At the same time, newspapers were reporting the escalation of the guerrilla war between the Sri Lanka military and the Tamil Tigers. I expressed concern about this, along with inquiring about his health, to which Arthur responded:

I am happy to say that I am feeling fine, though I can no longer walk without assistance. We have no problems here and Colombo is, I guess about as safe as London these days (or Oklahoma City).

Don't worry about me being out of touch – I have constant flood of visitors, faxes, email, etc. etc., I gather I am on the Web in several places, but have been far too busy to look it up.

We only exchanged one letter in 1997. By then, Arthur was writing 3001: Final Odyssey, and he'd sent out a general form-letter to his friends, politely asking them to refrain from distracting him with letters while he concentrated on that novel. For my part, I was knee-deep in projects of my own – short fiction, a novel, essays and reviews, a screenplay for another movie that would never be produced – while preparing to relocate from Missouri to Massachusetts. As a result, our correspondence sputtered to an end, and I didn't resume it again except to send him a postcard with my new address.

In early 2000, though, I published my novel Oceanspace. As with Clarke County, Space, it owed much to Arthur's work, specifically The Deep Range. Knowing this, I dedicated the novel to him, and sent him the very first copy I signed. To which I received not a letter, but – appropriately enough – a Christmas card from his Underwater Safaris Ltd. scuba-diving company in Sri Lanka, with a photo of tropical fish on its cover. It read:

Dear Allen – Terrific! Appreciate dedication! (loved agents "Williamson and Pohl").

Tried to find errors – failed! Found it continuously exciting – sabotaged a busy week-end.

You were right to keep the beast off-stage – but talk about a coincidence at the end!!

This is probably the finest compliment I've ever received from anyone.

I never got around to continuing our pen-pal relationship, but perhaps it's just as well. From what I could tell, it appears the last years of Arthur's life were as busy as ever, maybe even more so; answering letters from me would have been just another distraction. But he was there when I needed him; indeed, the fact that an old master would take the time to correspond with a young writer says as much about the man as any list of his public achievements.

He was a friend. And I'll miss him very much.

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