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Author of 2001 watches fiction evolve into reality

In 1945, Arthur Clarke predicted that satellites would revolutionize global communications.

Leaning forward in his wheelchair, the 83-year-old man deadpans into the tape recorder: "Testing one, two, three. Testing. This is not Arthur Clarke, this is his clone."

As is so often the case with the grand old man of science fiction, it's a fantasy that might well be a reality in the years to come. A Houston-based company called Encounter 2001 has six strands from his thin gray hair and wants to launch Clarke DNA into space.

"One day, some super civilization may encounter this relic from the vanished species and I may exist in another time," he muses. "Move over, Stephen King."

Clarke is the novelist whose vision underlay Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey and made it synonymous with our deepest fears and hopes for the future.

Thirty-three years later, as humanity lumbers into the new millennium, he believes his visions of aliens, asteroids, paranoid computers and men on Mars may lie just this side of the moon.

Although he uses a wheelchair because of complications from polio he contracted in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, Clarke looks more regal than feeble at his home in Colombo a few days before 2001 dawns. Barefoot in a blue Hawaiian shirt and coffee-colored sarong, he has blended into the casual couture of his adopted South Asian homeland.

With his beloved one-eyed chihuahua, Pepsi, at his heels, Arthur Charles Clarke is ever the eccentric soothsayer-scientist-philosopher, besieged by journalists seeking his reflections on 2001 and happy to oblige. 2001 belongs to him and the late Kubrick the way 1984 belongs to George Orwell, and he knows it.

Clarke's stories, essays and more than 50 novels have adeptly combined futuristic fantasy with hard-nosed science, weaving implausible yarns in outer space that often turned out prescient.

In an article in Wireless World in 1945, he imagined satellites one day revolutionizing global communications by relaying messages worldwide.

Clarke's writings also foretold cellular phones, space stations, men on the moon and the Internet. Appearing at the height of the Cold War and America's involvement in Vietnam, 2001 envisaged something equally improbable: Russian and American astronauts on friendly terms.

The farm boy from England, whose accent still carries a Somerset burr, is Sir Arthur now, knighted in 2000 for his contributions to literature.

He became addicted to science fiction after buying his first copies of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. He devoured English writers H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon and began writing for his school magazine in his teens.

Clarke then went to work as a clerk in Her Majesty's Exchequer and Audit Department in London, where he joined the British Interplanetary Society and wrote his first short stories and scientific articles on space travel.

With the Royal Air Force during World War II, Clarke taught himself mathematics and electronics and conceived his earliest theories on geostationary satellites.

After the war, he got a degree in physics and mathematics at King's College, London. With the publication of the nonfiction The Exploration of Space in 1951, and the now-classic novel Childhood's End in 1953, his career rocketed.

Kubrick was interested in The Sentinel, a short story Clarke had written in 1948, about discovering an alien object on the moon _ "a kind of burglar alarm, waiting to be set off by mankind's arrival."

Their jointly written screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey emerged. Clarke simultaneously wrote the novel, fleshing out the story about a tribe of apes, a mysterious black monolith, a moon colony, a mission to the outer solar system and a devilishly soft-spoken computer named Hal 9000.

Though 2001 dealt with artificial intelligence running amok, Clarke never joined the Y2K doomsday chorus. And where millennia are concerned, Clarke is a purist who insists the new one doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2001. "It's a simple matter of fact," he says. "If you went to the grocer and you ordered 10 kilograms of sugar and then he set the scale at 1, wouldn't you feel that you'd been cheated?"

After 2001, he wrote 2010: Odyssey Two and 2061: Odyssey Three. At age 80 came 3001: The Final Odyssey. Will there be a 4001: The Absolute Final Odyssey?

"I don't have the energy or the attention span now to contemplate anything of that length," Clarke insists. "I've got far too many projects on my plate anyhow."

Over the next six months, TV documentaries, awards, lectures, dedications and dozens of interviews are lined up. And he still finds the energy to play table tennis most evenings.

Clarke says his final ambition is to know whether there is intelligent life out there. "It seems truly incredible if there's not. Nobody knows, but I would guess (the discovery) will happen this century as our technology develops. As our instruments become more and more sensitive, we may detect planets with oxygen."

Walter Cronkite of CBS asked Clarke during their joint narration of the Apollo 11 moon landing 31 years ago whether he would like to travel into space one day.

"I have every intention of going to the moon before I die," he replied then. Does he regret never having made it?

"Yes, but I feel I've gone into space so many times now," Clarke shrugs and grins. "You know _ been there, done that."