Rizwan Virk

@rizstanford

What I Found On Arthur C Clarke’s Bookshelf in Sri Lanka

So I was in Sri Lanka over the holiday season. It was part vacation and part business trip (one of my MIT classmates, Prasath, had started a company there that I invested in and I have been promising to visit for many years).

Sri Lanka is a pretty well-known destination for residents of the UK and Asia; not so much in the US. I knew little of its long history: In ancient times, the Anaradhapura kingdom sent envoys to Rome in the time of Julius Caesar, the Persians called the island Serendib (which circuitously led to the term serendipity), and during colonial times it was called Ceylon.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, the first time I wondered about Sri Lanka was from the science fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke: I found it odd that the popular British writer lived there.

The opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke’s best known work was the source material for the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since I was born the year after it came out, I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I eagerly gobbled up the novel and its sequels as soon as I was old enough to appreciate “serious” science fiction (2010: Odyssey Two, which came out in 1982 during my junior high school years, and 2061: Odyssey Three, which was published in 1987 when I was in high school, and the final installment 3001: The Final Odyssey which was released in 1997).

ACC (as he’s known) was a prolific writer of both science and science fiction. In fact, many have credited him as the inventor of the communications satellite; he had proposed the idea of bouncing radio signals off of geostationary satellites to reach every part of the earth in the 1940s.

So, as I said, I was in Sri Lanka over the holiday season, and I was re-reading ACC’s books and wondered how much fun it would have been to meet him. Of course that wasn’t possible (he passed away in 2008), but when I asked about him, my friend Prasath told me that ACC was very well known in Colombo; Prasath had actually been to ACC’s house with his old astronomy professor before the writer’s death.

The 2001 Series of Books

Since I was re-reading 3001: The Final Odyssey at the Galle Face Hotel, where ACC had written most of the book, I had an inspiration: Could we go by his former house? I was thinking a drive by and a picture of the house where he had lived might be a nice way tribute.

Sitting at the Galle Face Hotel, reading 3001, where ACC had written most of that book!

Prasath looked up the address and did a little Google research, which led us to an old article in Asia Obscura, where the author of that article bribed (err, tipped) his way into ACC’s office in 2013, which was more or less undisturbed following Clarke’s death in 2008. Five years had passed since that article, and I figured the chances that his office was still preserved seemed very remote, and finding a way in seemed even remoter, but we were inspired to try.

When we found the house, there was a security guard. Prasath chatted him up and, pointing to me, told him that I had come from America and was a big fan of Arthur C Clarke. The guard seemed sympathetic and said he would check to see what he could do. In the meantime, I saw this inscription, Leslie’s House which listed both Arthur C Clarke and Hector as residents. I thought it was odd that this sign was still there after all these years.

Plaque outside “Leslie’s House”

The house was separate from the office area, and there were some dogs that started barking at our approach. The guard said something in Sinhalese that I didn’t understand and went towards the gate. There was an old woman there who told Prasath she was the caretaker, and after seeing how I was such a big fan, decided to let us in to see his office!

As we entered inside the gate, there was a sign saying “Arthur C. Clarke” next to a little phone/speaker, presumably so that he could screen visitors.

Where visitors would call up to ACC inside the gate but just outside the office

When you walked in, there was a little foyer which had two armchairs and a painting behind it making it look like the occupants were on the moon, looking up at the earth. I was too shy to sit down on them at the beginning, marveling at our good fortune to just get in, but by the end of our tour, we built up the courage to ask if we could sit down and take a picture, which we did.

Prasath and I sitting in the “moon” welcome area !

After this entry area, there was an original poster from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

As you go up the steps there was a signpost towards Mars, followed by an open room that had tons of certificates and other awards given to ACC.

One of the items on the wall was ACC’s oroginal paper from the 1940s about how geostationary satellites could be used to send radio signals all over the earth, which became reality in the 1960s with the Intelsat Early Bird satellite.

Copies of the original article ACC wrote about putting a satellite in geostationary orbit to send radio signals

It was only then that the door opened to ACC’s office — and it looked pretty much like it had in 2013, and I was told, pretty much as it had when ACC died in 2008.

There were several bookshelves — the most prominent being the two bookshelves behind his desk. two bookshelves just behind his desk. Rather than a chair, there was a wheelchair where he used to sit in his later years. I couldn’t help take a pic.

Felt like I was a famous sci fi writer for a moment!

So, what was on his bookshelf?

It turns out that the two bookshelves behind him had editions of all of his books. The right bookshelf was dedicated to to the 2001, 2010, 2061, 3001 — including many editions in English and other languages — hardcover and softcover versions. Here are some closeups.

Just behind his desk, on the right were all the various editions of the 2001 series
The left bookshelf had copies of many of his other works

On top of the bookshelf were various awards and momentos, including the 1979 Galaxy award.

Lots of awards and memorabilia sat on top of the shelves

On the walls there were many momentos — including pictures signed to him by many famous people, a virtual who’s who of science and science fiction. Since ACC was consider one of the best (if not the best) science fiction writers of all time, most sci fi adventures were inspired by him. For example, There was a signed message/pic from David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in Star Wars.

A signed picture by Darth Vader actor, Dave Prowse, above an image of a spacewalk above Europa?

and next to that there was a picture of ACC with Patrick Stuart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, next to a photo of one of ACC’s books floating in the space shuttle next to a real life astronaut!

Left: Shuttle astronaut with ACC book, Right: ACC, Patrick Stewart, and?

There was a picture signed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever to walk on the moon. The moon, of course, was the location of the first monolith found in the movie/novel, 2001 (and based on an earlier short story written by ACC called the Sentinel) and played a big role in the photos and his books.

Signed by Buzz Aldrin himself, second man on the moon!

So what books other than his own, did ACC have in his office?

On the right side of room was a small bookshelf that had a combination of fiction and non-fiction books; I recognized many of the books because I had many of the same ones., including Men of Earth (by Buzz Aldrin), Contact (by Carl Sagan) and many others.

One of the shelves was dedicated to Isaac Asimov’s books. Isaac Asimov, considered one of the big 3 science fiction authors, supposedly had a pact with ACC that if asked who the best science author was, they would both answer Asimov; but if asked what he best science fiction author was, they would both answer ACC. One of the shelves had biographies, which included asimovs.

On the right wall were videos — VHS tapes mostly. These seemed to be recordings ranging from the TV show, Arthur C. Clarke’s mysterious world, to the “World of Hal’s 2001” to random TV shows that had been taped. I wonder if this collection will ever be digitized?

A big collection of VHS tapes was there — wonder how many of these have been digitized?

There were many certificates and plaques and magazine articles posted on the walls. One of the books was titled, Arthur C. Clark, Genius

It was a little overwhelming and I clicked as many pics as I could.

Then, just as I was about to leave, I felt drawn to a shelf that had a bunch of random knick-knacks on it. For some reason, I hadn’t been drawn to photograph them yet, and didn’t see anything of note. I was about to leave when I noticed it out of the corner of my eye. I had a funny feeling, as if it there was something alien in the room.

In my mind I heard theme music from 2001 ( ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss) as I saw it.

A replica of the Tycho Monolith

'There it was! Hidden amongst the kinck-kacs was The Monolith — or a replica of it. It reminded me of the original monolith which had been hidden on Tycho a long time ago by some unfathomable intelligence which had moved on, only to be discovered by explorers in the far future after their departure. It felt like this monolith had also been left behind by some form of super-intelligent life that used to inhabit this corner of the moon, this very office in fact, but has long moved on to other dimensions!

I kept that funny feeling about visiting a place inhabited by another as I walked out and saw the moonscape entryway again.

On the way out, we thanked the security guard and the caretaker and gave them a little tip, for making my day!

For a science fiction geek like me, all in all it was an incomparable experience, bringing back the wonder of my childhood as I read ACC’s books about rromps around the solar system and alien life!

More by Rizwan Virk

Topics of interest

More Related Stories