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Arthur C Clarke: The Authorized Biography
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Arthur C. Clarke:
The Authorized Biography
Contemporary Books, Hardback, 1992.
8vo. xvi+430 pp. Foreword by Ray Bradbury, July 1992 [ix-xii]. Preface by the author [xiii-xiv]. Notes and Index [pp. 391-430].
First published, 1992
1. New Moon Over Somerset
2. Moonward from Ballifants
3. Terrestrial Inspirations
4. Ego in London
5. A Pantheist in RAF
6. The Promise of Space
7. New Shores
8. Writer, With Wife
9. Toward Southern Stars
10. Around the World to Ceylon
11. Space Age Dreams
12. The Space Circuit
13. Down to Earth
14. Silver Linings
16. Return to the Great Basses
17. The Genesis of
2001: A Space Odyssey
18. A Cosmic Classic
19. The Lunar Age
20. Man on the Moon
21. Jetting for the Future
22. Set of Sails
23. From Sri Lanka to Titan
24. Perturbations in Time
25. Transits, Eclipses
27. World Telecommunications Day
28. Nineteen Eighty-Four
29. A Near and Distant Earth
30. Borrowed Time
31. Threescore and Ten
32. New Lease on Life
33. Toward 20 001
I have enjoyed this biography surprisingly much. I say "surprisingly" because my experience with several "full-scale", "scholarly", etc. biographies of Somerset Maugham has consistently ranged from fairly tolerable (seldom) to perfectly repulsive (nearly always). Admittedly this is a rather limited acquaintance, but it has convinced me that this type of book is virtually superfluous. Biographies of men who were
writers themselves - that is another matter. But what can a biographer tell you about a professional writer who spent all his life writing and left a huge oeuvre behind him? Answer: very little of any consequence. I have yet to read a great writer whose style is not intensely personal and highly revealing about his personality and outlook. From this starting point, theoretically at least, biographers can deepen your appreciation by perceptive analysis of the ever-important - but not to be overestimated! - links between the facts of life and the character of the writing.
That said, even in the few cases when a great writer left painfully little (typical example: Oscar Wilde), I'd rather take my chances alone, without the benefit of biographers. I am often annoyed, but also amused, when somebody grandly says that he has read this or that biography of Maugham and has glimpsed "the real man". For my part, this is utter nonsense. The reason is that - I repeat: for me, personally - by far the more important man is the one that emerges from a writer's
books. Even if there is some kind of duality between this man and the one seen from the outside by other people, and this duality is grossly sensationalized in Maugham's case, I don't see why this should be of any importance - except, perhaps, as a dubious source of trivial pleasure.
But I was about to write something of Mr McAleer's "authorized biography" of Arthur Clarke. Having read many, if not most, of his books, I thought I knew quite enough about what kind of man Arthur was as to be immune to any possible nonsense that passes for biography. Well, I am happy to report, once again, that Mr McAleer has done a far better job than I expected. One of the reasons for that, perhaps the major reason indeed, is his frank admission in the Preface that he was not concerned with probing too deep into Clarke's personal life. Some people may regard this as an unforgivable defect of the book, but for me it is one of its greatest strengths. Rather than delving into supremely unimportant matters like scandals and sexuality, Mr McAleer is quite satisfied to report the facts as clearly as possible, in almost all cases without passing any judgments. Most important of all, he never misses the leitmotiv of Arthur's life - which is his writing, of course - and he mentions virtually every one of his numerous books; at least until
How the World Was One
(1992) which apparently was finished just a little before the biography itself. At the time Arthur was in his 75th year and, though he had almost two decades more to live, he had already produced almost everything he was capable of. So the biography, albeit incomplete, covers by far the most important parts of his long, varied and stupendously productive life.
It remains unclear what this "authorized" in the title should mean, for Mr McAleer is rather evasive in his Preface, no doubt deliberately so. This is a sheer speculation, but from his words I gather that one of the conditions for Arthur's approval was exactly this "not too deep probing" into his personal life. If that's so, I cannot but admire both authors for their decision; in a very similar way I admire Somerset Maugham for his adamant refusal to discuss intimate physical matters in his
The Summing Up
(1938; read this one for the real man). Whether Arthur read the manuscript in detail remains elusive, but he probably did and was satisfied with it. Not only did he give Mr McAleer a special interview about the biography, but he must also have provided him with a great deal of personal correspondence which, so far as I know, has never been published elsewhere before or since. There are numerous extracts from Arthur's letters to some of his closest friends - such as the writer Sam Youd or the rocket designer Val Cleaver, for instance - which are highly revealing about his personality, even if they tell very little that can't be inferred from his books.
Mr McAleer's research must have been substantial. In addition to perusing an enormous amount of letters, mostly by Arthur but some also addressed to him, he also conducted (mainly in 1989-90) a number of interviews with everybody of some importance to his subject he could come into contact with. All of these interviewees are listed in the Sources section, together with the date(s) on which they were interviewed (some of them more than once), and they make quite a list. From Arthur's fellow writers, here are Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan, none of them in need of introduction; from his publishers Ian and Betty Ballantine, founders of the publishing house of the same name, who probably did more about Arthur's popularity in the United States than anybody else by bringing out the first edition of
in 1953; from his close friends and relatives, Scott Meredith, his long-term literary agent in the States, and his brother Fred; and last but not least, an impressive number of people who knew Arthur at one time or another or were his guests on Sri Lanka, such as eminent broadcaster Walter Cronkite for instance. Extensive quotes from these interviews add a compelling liveliness to the narrative, although they often make it seem patchy and a little difficult to follow.
Mr McAleer's indication of his sources is a little odd. There is not a single footnote in the whole volume, which is no problem in itself, but his decision to indicate only the printed sources, but not the spoken ones, is a little confusing. In other words, it is not always easy to check what comes from where. All quotes from books and letters are indicated by page numbers and first words, a cumbersome alternative to footnotes indeed, but all quotes from the interviews are not noted at all; we are left to assume that if the words of somebody are not sourced in the end, they were spoken in an interview with Mr McAleer. I am inclined to think that the author also skipped indicating some of Arthur's words which he took straight from his books. Of course it is also possible that Clarke repeated himself during the interview - he often did in his books, always confessed it and never was ashamed of it - but it seems unlikely that he should have done so word for word in a conversation. Nevertheless, and this is a very important point, Mr McAleer has certainly made a fine use of Arthur's books. There is a huge amount of important biographical information scattered in various non-fiction volumes, essays, speeches, addresses, introductions, acknowledgements etc., and it is a tribute to the biographer's industry that he has extracted and incorporated into his narrative most of it.
At few places Mr McAleer even goes as far as indicating when Arthur wrote a new introduction or new prefatory notes to some of his volumes. I wish he had been more detailed in this respect. Casual Clarke readers may consider the matter of no importance, but the genuine admirer of Arthur's writing will know what I mean. Since he has one of the most condensed and concise writing styles I have encountered, Clarke often could, and did, say a great deal in a very limited space (yet another startling similarity with Maugham). Thus short story collections like
Tales from Planet Earth
(1989), though they reprint very little that hasn't been collected time and again before, are priceless for the Clarke buff because they contain many introductory notes about the historical background of the stories. The former volume also boasts one of Arthur's most personal and most affecting essays as an introduction: "Of Sand and Stars". (And the latter volume boasts a hilarious preface by Isaac Asimov but that's another story.) I may mention in passing that Mr McAleer might also have given more information about the contents of each book, especially in the case of volumes like
1984: Spring - A Choice of Futures
The View from Serendip
(1977) in which many speeches and addresses, from which the biographer quotes at length, are reprinted. Since bibliographies are something of a hobby for me, and since I believe they are the best introduction to any writer (the rest is a long self-discovery, in every sense of the word), I have attempted one of Arthur Clarke*. Something similar, but much better done, would have enriched Mr McAleer's book enormously.
As a general rule, especially considering the great amount of quotations, Mr McAleer's book is surprisingly readable, often absorbing. He usually leaves almost everything in the words of Arthur and the people who knew him, or were there at some memorable occasion, and the method works rather well. Nevertheless, I have a number of minor qualms which have the nasty ability to accumulate. One slightly annoying habit is that the author is often non-committal. For the most part he merely repeats the well-known cliches from the exalted circles of the critics and I really don't see why one should agree with them.
is far from being Arthur's finest book, still less is "The Nine Billion Names of God" among his best short stories. On such occasions I wish I could tell the author "Forget the critics! Tell me what
think!" Sometimes, but fortunately not often, Mr McAleer is also a little too enamoured with giving us unnecessary details that have nothing to do with Arthur. One notable example is his discussing Kubrick's shooting of
at a slightly intolerable length, although this impression might be due to my extremely strong aversion to this movie. On the whole, however, his choice of trivia is generally fine, stimulating one's curiosity or making one smile.
Even though Mr McAleer is quite comprehensive as regards Arthur's voluminous output, I wish he had spent more paragraphs on it. Apart from his best-known novels, whose background, reception and significance are discussed in agreeable detail, the short stories and especially the essays are badly neglected. Such important collections like
The Other Side of the Sky
Tales of Ten Worlds
Voices from the Sky
Report on Planet Three
(1972), to name but a few, deserve much more than just being casually mentioned several times. Even when he quotes extensively from Arthur's non-fiction volumes, Mr McAleer, though not insensitive to weightier issues, is rather preoccupied with the most unimportant matters, such as UFOs for instance. Sometimes he takes Arthur's predictions too literally and wastes space to inform us how many months or years he was off. This is not just useless, but it often misses the point, too. Typical example is Clarke's highly conservative estimate of the first Moon landing for 1978, or even 1985 in one case. What Mr McAleer apparently fails to grasp is that Arthur's predictions were generally based, perhaps too optimistically, on humans being rational creatures who wouldn't enjoy anything as stupid as "Space Race". Towards the end of the book, the author also relishes describing Arthur's TV commercials a little too much. There is some amusing stuff here, but the space would have been better used to give a more detailed account of many of Arthur's books.
Despite mishaps such as a shade of tediousness here or bibliographical neglect there, Arthur's personality emerges with spectacular vividness from the pages. It can't be denied that from time to time Mr McAleer is inclined to gushing, but fortunately this happens seldom and then for no more than a single sentence or two; it is certainly better to leave the conclusions to the reader than to repeat at least five times with aplomb how Arthur pioneered the idea of the geostationary satellite as early as 1945. But make no mistake: this is no fan biography full of goofy adulation. Mr McAleer is by no means uncritical, nor are many of the people quoted. The wonderful thing is that nobody makes any bones about, for example, Arthur's substantial ego; not for nothing was one of his early nicknames "Ego" and one of his rare pseudonyms "E. G. O'Brien". As Maugham brilliantly put it: "the egotism of the artist is outrageous; it must be." I agree. The first reason to do something significant is to be sure of your own importance; whether this is backed up by any marked ability or mental capacity is another matter. Surely it says a lot about Mr McAleer's work that Arthur jumps from the pages exactly as I have experienced him in his books: smart, witty, workaholic, humane, generous, prickly, lonely, self-conscious, lovable. There is also one other thing that I am pleased to report, something that I have never sensed in any biography of Maugham. Mr McAleer and I have obviously read very much the same books by Arthur Clarke. What a sharp contrast with all this preposterous searching for real precursors of fictional characters and hidden homosexuality in short stories and novels that mars Maugham's biographies to the point of unreadability!
Despite Mr McAleer's candid claim that Arthur's private life is not the main theme of the book - and indeed, rightly, it isn't - there is a good deal of personal matters included, and usually presented in a commendably balanced way. For example, Clarke's confrontations with Kurbrick during the work on
are not glossed over - nor, for that matter, are some pretty negative opinions about the movie - and the famous quarrel with Heinlein during the 1980s, because of the notorious SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), is discussed with the right dose of detail and impartiality: Arthur made a fool of himself with some careless statements, Bob overreacted in a far from dignified way. Later the two great sci-fi masters reportedly reached a reconciliation, but their friendship was never the same. And there wasn't much time: in 1988 Bob Heinlein died. There are also a few words about the notorious "flat prose and characters", so beloved by the critics and, somewhat amazingly, even acknowledged by Arthur himself. Only his earliest novels have I found to suffer slightly from that. It does show, however, that in later years the author certainly took more trouble with his characterisation, usually to great effect as can be seen in, for example,
The Fountains of Paradise
2010: Odyssey Two
The Songs of Distant Earth
There is even a fascinating, if a little perfunctory, discussion on the superbly unimportant matter on Clarke's sexuality and how it is expressed in his fiction. Those eager to know the dirty details might be disappointed that nothing else is mentioned than Arthur's famous 1986 interview for
in which he answered a question if he'd had bisexual experiences with the memorably ambiguous "Who hasn't?" Mr McAleer also reminds us, and Arthur confirms, that there are certain subtle homosexual elements in
Rendezvous with Rama
(1975), and the latter was indeed banned in some schools in the States, and there is even something of a lesbian relationship in
The Ghost of the Great Banks
(1990). Too bad that the biography was written before the publication of
The Hammer of God
(1993) where one can find some of Arthur's most explicit references on the subject, at least the heterosexual part of it. The bottom line is that these are charming bits of trivia but they are completely irrelevant both to the value of the novels and to Arthur's personality. The fact that Mr McAleer clearly recognises this makes for a very pleasant contrast with the nauseating "biographies" of Maugham.
One personal element which is discussed in detail is Arthur's marriage, certainly one of the least known and one of the most baffling facts of his life. Mr McAleer had an interview with Marylin, once upon a time Clarke's wife, and the writer himself speaks about the disastrous experiment without any bitterness (so does she). They met for the first time on May 28, 1953, in Florida, and they were married on June 15, 1953, in New York. There's no mistake, you've read that right: the courtship lasted for less than three weeks. Not unexpectedly, the marriage was a complete failure. Arthur and Marylin exchanged the rings just to find out that they had nothing in common except an obvious physical attraction. He was a fanatic while writing a book, burning the candle from both ends until he finished it when he experienced, as Mr McAleer wonderfully puts it, a "postdelivery euphoria", and during this time he couldn't care less about anything and anybody else, his wife included. And he was also an atheist, apparently a serious crack in their relationship. In contrast, Marylin was raised in the Presbyterian church, she was not keen on sitting home while her husband was terrorizing his typewriter and, another heavy blow, she couldn't have children (because of complications during her previous pregnancy, for she had been married before and had had a son). The marriage was not legally dissolved until the end of 1964, but
it ceased to exist ten years before - less than six months after the ceremony.
One wonders how so intellectual a fellow like Arthur could have done something so impulsive which, he must have known, had a little chance of success. The truth is that the great writer was not as rigidly intellectual as one might suppose on the surface of his "hard sci-fi"; careful reading of his books clearly shows that his heart is in the right place - and so is his head. Mr McAleer makes the interesting, if a little unsupported, speculation that Arthur wanted to have children and, indeed, one of his greatest desires was to be a father. I somehow doubt that, for I can't quite imagine him in that role. He never married again, for he admitted he was scared enough by the first time, and he never had any children. I am rather glad about that. If he had, some of his books may have remained unwritten. Now that would have been a great loss. An adopted family could have worked better, and indeed it did. The Ekanayake brothers, Hector and Leslie, were Arthur's closest friends for many years after he moved to Sri Lanka. Leslie was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident, aged only 30, and that's why
The Fountains of Paradise
was dedicated to his memory. Hector married a beautiful Australian girl and she, together with their three children, became Arthur's Sri Lankan family. It must also be noted, as made clear by Mr McAleer, that Clarke was constantly in touch with his relatives in England: his brothers Fred and Michael, his sister Mary, his mother Nora and his aunt Ellie. Those who have painted the picture of Arthur Clarke as a recluse and something of a misanthrope have indeed missed point completely. Nor have they read any of his books, of course.
Sometimes Mr McAleer can also be rather insightful about certain periods of Arthur's life, his working methods and even some of his works themselves. None of these nuances, fascinating though they are, can improve significantly my appreciation of Arthur's writings but, then again, as I've said in the beginning, this is not something that a biography of a truly great, and extremely prolific, writer can ever hope to do. In any case, Mr McAleer gives some food for reflection.
There are many passages that give a perceptive description of the hectic life of the professional writer, accompanied with tons of deadlines, advances, and arguments with literary agents and publishers. I, for one, was amazed to learn that in the early 1960s Arthur was in serious financial trouble which, indeed, gave rise to a profound artistic crisis; I would never have guessed that by his stupendous output of fiction and non-fiction at the time. Thus he wrote the novel
A Fall of Moondust
without either commission or secured publisher, an extremely rare event, but when it first appeared in 1961 it became one of his greatest successes. Nor could I believe that such a delightful book as
Indian Ocean Adventure
(1962) was written rather hastily and as a kind of obligation; the volume is short, certainly, but it has perfect completeness and unforgettable atmosphere; here's another powerful proof that writing for money and compromising your artistic integrity for money are very, very different things. In fact, it wasn't until 1968 and
, when Arthur was in the beginning of his fifties, that he became something of a household name and a world-known authority on space travel and global communications. During the 1970s and the 1980s his itinerary was stupendous. 1982 is a fine example: Arthur first went to the States for the premiere of
2010: Odyssey Two
, then to the Hague in order to receive the Marconi Award from His Royal Highness Prince Claus, then to Russia (for the first time) where he met many old friends, and finally to Vienna and Geneva where he gave lectures. Quite a quest!
Another compelling moment is Mr McAleer's well-argued suggestion that many of Arthur's books during the 1980s were stimulated by his new computer. Never again did he touch a typewriter and he was immensely happy that he could type a million words on his 5MB disk, not to mention luxuries like word processor and vastly improved correction of mistakes unheard-of in the ancient typewriting times. By the early 1980s Arthur was definitely famous enough to write only if he wanted to and then exactly what he wanted. It's a fascinating thought that Archie, a pet name for his computer, might have been instrumental in the writing of
The Songs of Distant Earth
2067: Odyssey Three
(1988). It is only fitting that this could have been so. All his life Arthur was in love with technology, be it comsats or rockets or calculators or artificial intelligence, and it seems more than appropriate that some of the most amazing technological advances of the last century should have improved his most important occupation: writing.
Mr McAleer's observations as regards some of Arthur's works are also worth noting as interesting curiosities. For example, he offers a tantalising speculation why the short story "Transience" is among Clarke's greatest favourites; I used to find this a little baffling but I no longer do. The "story" is in fact just a description of a beach and how it changed through the course of a few million years. One of these beaches, Mr McAleer says, is certainly the beach on the west coast of Britain on which Arthur must have spent many hours as a kid. Another similar observation, this time made by Ian Macauley, one of Arthur's oldest friends, is concerned with the skin colour of Jan Roderick, the last man on Earth in
. Shortly before writing the novel Arthur had visited the United States and made friends with Mr Macauley. The latter was at the time a very active opponent to the racial segregation, which apparently was still strong, and he liked to think that this might have influenced Arthur's choice. The writer himself admits that this is quite possible as until then he had never seen black people. The fact that he didn't know for sure is, perhaps, another scrap of proof that great writing, far from being a purely intellectual occupation, happens somewhere on the border between the conscious and the subconscious. I have always found it inspiring, especially in view of the appalling amount of racial discrimination in the past, that the last man on Earth should be black. And a fine classical pianist at that. Jan Roderick playing Bach entirely for himself in the end of
is one of the most vivid impressions I have ever received from literature.
Speaking of vivid impressions and Arthur Clarke, I was flabbergasted to read his own, and harshly dismissive, opinion of
2001: A Space Odyssey
** being "not a very good novel", written exclusively for deriving the screenplay of Kubrick's movie from it. Of course one doesn't have to agree with anybody about a work of art, including the artist himself, but I find it strange that Arthur should be so negative about so fine a work. I guess a plausible reason might be the numerous problems he experienced during the four years of writing and rewriting together with Kubrick. No other book ever took Arthur so much time and generated so much trouble: to the last moment Kubrick wanted revisions and delayed publication. Meanwhile a lucrative deal with Dell fell through and later New American Library agreed to buy the book rather reluctantly. (How Dell must have regretted it and how NAL must have celebrated! The book was a great success, today is not only a classic but the first edition is a pretty expensive collectors' item.) Arthur's general working method was vastly different than such endless vacillating. Once absorbed in the writing of a new book, especially a novel, he would put everything and everybody aside until he could not dispatch the manuscript to Scott Meredith. There are many memorable excerpts from letters that document Arthur's feverish excitement while working on a book and his great exultation on finishing it. These are among the most priceless parts of the book. Once the exaltation was over, however, Arthur would be rather lost what he should do now. He usually did the only possible thing: he started a new book.
Last but not least, one of Mr McAleer's most searing observations about Arthur's oeuvre is his occupation with father-son relationships. Now that's fresh and stimulating. Arthur lost his father, a veteran from the First World War with ruined health, when he was a kid. He once dismissed him as a "shadowy figure" the only memory of whom was how he once gave him several cards with dinosaurs which stimulated Arthur's interest in fossils (soon to be replaced by rockets and stargazing). The examples of father-son relationships, and confrontations, in Clarke's works are indeed numerous. It's interesting that Mr McAleer doesn't mention one of the most affecting ones. This is the short story "The Call of the Stars", the last one from the cycle "The Other Side of the Sky", in which a son seeks his future among the stars against the wishes of his father. But now that the biographer has mentioned it, I think there might be material for a fruitful study there.
The book is wonderfully illustrated too, with two sets of black-and-white photographs of excellent quality. Some of these are famous, such as the one of Arthur in the distinguished company of Ray Bradbury (whose foreword to this biography is a touching tribute), Peter Hyams and Gene Rodenberry. Other photos show Arthur together with such luminaries as Wernher von Brau and Scott Meredith (drinking to
which Scott bullied Arthur into writing). Especially notable are some of the rare photos, however. One of these shows the whole bunch of "crackpots" from the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) during the 1930s. In addition to the great illustrator R. A. Smith, the whacky J. H. Edwards, unforgettably described by Clarke as "the closest approximation to mad scientist I have met out of fiction", there is Arthur himself. He is all but unrecognizable, but the photo serves well to support the claims of his early friends that there were times when he had a lot of hair***. My favourite photograph is one taken in 1983 while part of the crew of
Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom
, since they were in Sri Lanka anyway, stopped by Arthur's home. The photo shows Arthur himself, in sarong, grinning, his hand on the shoulder of the dashing Harrison Ford, beside whom there is the equally charming Steven Spielberg. To make the photo even more compelling, the breathtakingly beautiful Valerie Ekanayake is also present.
All in all, Neil McAleer has done a fine job with the writing of the first (and still the only one?) biography of the great sci-fi master and futuristic visionary. Clarke neophytes, I daresay, would find the book an interesting read and a very useful source of information for a Clarkian to-be-read list. And I am happy to say that, in my opinion, it presents as truthful a picture of the man's personality and outlook as it is possible for a complete outsider to obtain. Of course it is only the tip of the iceberg. But should you like the taste, you can can try a larger bite from the real thing. Mr McAleer's overview of Arthur's oeuvre could in many places have been more in-depth and less slavishly following the ramblings of the critics; but he is commendably comprehensive and he manages to give a good idea of the scope and the essence of what is a dauntingly large and multifarious output. Clarke buffs will naturally find the book rather superfluous but still an entertaining and, occasionally, enlightening read. The numerous excerpts of letters are especially valuable. Even though they mostly paraphrase material from Arthur's books, they also provide several charming glimpses into his private world which are not to be found anywhere else.
* The bibliography is, of course, in a state of constant fluctuation. Yet I hope it may be of some use for both Clarke neophytes and seasoned admirers of Arthur. (It's really nice to be on first name with a great writer, isn't it?) Here is the
** I didn't link
and vivid impressions incidentally. Although Arthur has given me many unforgettably powerful experiences with his works, one particular moment in this novel is among the strongest. This is the episode when Dave Bowman remained alone in the middle of the Solar System. Imagine yourself at his place. You cannot be more alone. All other members of the crew are dead. The board computer had to be shut down so that you may stay alive. It would take more than an hour to send a message to the Earth, almost a
kilometers away now, and it wouldn't make any sense for the antenna is broken. It's a shattering and most suitably titled chapter: "Alone".
*** See this amazing photo
. Arthur is in the far right. The second man from the left is J. H. Edwards; the fifth R. A. Smith.
| Mar 7, 2012 |
An excellent biography of the man who made so much happen!
| Apr 11, 2008 |
A conventional biography of an unconventional man, Arthur C. Clarke, who is a member of my "Big Three" of favorite science fiction writers (the other two being Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury). Well-written, organized, and a useful tool for anybody who has followed Clarke's career and would like to know just "where does he get his ideas?"
| Feb 7, 2007 |
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