This week I decided to get back to my Sci-Fi roots and read Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, Childhood’s End. Somewhat coincidentally, the premise of this novel has been adapted for a SyFy mini-series that is coming out this year.
Arthur C. Clarke [2001: A Space Odyssey] is a highly respected forefather of science fiction, so it is with great disappointment that I report to you today how much I disliked this novel.
Reason 1 – it was boring. (And I’m not easily bored.)
Reason 2 – it was not science fiction. One could accurately describe the book as anthropological fiction, or social science fiction, but there was no physical science and only one point of cosmological note – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is employed to explain aging during space travel. (And to be perfectly honest, I think he got it wrong.)…(Clarke, not Einstein.)
Keep in mind as you read my review that this first novel of Clarke’s was published in 1953 and originated as a short story that was later expanded upon to become a novel. The short story, “Guardian Angel” was written in 1946.
So let’s dive in.
The prologue is set in the late 20th century. The superpowers of US of A and USSR are playing their space race game. On either side of the Bering Straits are two German scientist/engineers who are key to sending the human race to the stars. The one-time friends are locked into an impersonal and remote competition to get their rocket launched first for their adopted governments. Who will win?
No one. Before either side is able to finish building and testing in order to launch, the skies of Earth are filled with ships of an alien origin.
The stars came to man and man stopped striving to return the gesture.
The aliens, named the Overlords by humans, spend six days just hanging out in the sky, resisting all efforts of contact and ignoring a flat-out atomic assault made by one of the two superpowers who had such weapons. (The author is too polite to say which.) On the seventh day, the voice of an Overlord is projected through every radio signal translating device on the planet. The alien tells humanity, in perfect English (which really pisses most of the world off), that the Overlords are there to stay and there will be a few changes imposed on the Earthlings.
Allow me to interject here for a moment. Arthur C. Clarke does not permit the Overlord to deliver his speech to the reader. For most of the book, he employs an omniscient third-person narrator who tells about the events mankind experiences in broad brush strokes, focusing more on how people feel about the changes imposed by the Overlords and how these feelings (mostly of resentment) trickle down to future generations.
When people in literary circles use the term ‘speculative fiction’ what I hear is – speculation on our future development based on our history of action. Not a future in which science and technology have improved our lives and opened new doorways to wonder and discovery, but a bleak future resulting from our flawed nature and fundamental tribal mentality to rival and destroy all that is not “Us” or “We”. This first novel of Arthur C. Clarke’s is a textbook example of what I would refer to as speculative fiction. There is no science, no wonder, no joy of meeting our neighbors in the stars. There is no hope, in the author’s opinion, for the human race.
I do not fault Clarke for his lack of faith in humanity. He wrote this story after two world wars, two atomic bombs, and at the beginning of a cold war held in check by mutually assured destruction. From his perspective in the early ’50s we surely seemed doomed.
Back to the book.
Do the Overlords improve humanity’s quality of life? Yes. They create a Utopian state in which all persons are free, fed, and unmolested. People are also free from menial or laborious responsibilities, military service, and financial restraints. The aliens manage to accomplish this without violence and without ever setting foot on the planet. In fact, after the first address via radio, they don’t talk to the human race as a group again for many years. Instead, they hand pick a human ambassador for regular direct address and deliver all other instructions via teletype machines. The Overlords control all media devices, and show the events around the world to anyone who’ll watch, without prejudice.
The biggest beef mankind initially has with the Overlords is that they’ve never seen them. Though their ships fill Earth’s skies, they have never allowed a human to see their face or form.
Towards the beginning of Overlord rule a clergyman, who is head of a protest movement, meets with the human ambassador to the Overlords (Stormgren). He insists that humans want to be left to do as they please — under God’s direction. To live their own lives without the meddling aliens. He goes on to say that the people of Earth have do not trust the Overlords, for though their ships are everywhere, no one has ever seen the actual man/creature with their own eyes. I found this ironic, but I’m not sure the author intended it to be. Stormgren has faith in the Overlords, but even he longs to see what they look like.
Following a clever and non-violent abduction of Stormgren, the Supervisor – mankind’s ruling Overlord named Karellen – reports back (at length) that humans of the present age could not handle the visage of the Overlords were they to see it. But, in fifty years the generations that grow up with the Overlords in place will be better prepared. Therefore, in fifty years they would reveal themselves to Earth.
Then there is a lengthy textbook narrative that pushes us fifty years on.
Clarke imagines the Overlords as mythical beings we would all recognize and the superstitious back on his 20th century Earth might have feared. That is to say, he imagines them without any originality.
In the next generation we are introduced to five humans and a new Overlord named Rashaverak. Something like a real story begins to emerge here, but it is peppered with long third-person narratives on economy, character back story, and more philosophical observations. The gist is this:
Rupert marries Maya. Maya has a brother named Jan who, among other scholarly pursuits, is an astronomer who wishes to travel into space. Rupert has a party at his elaborate estate. The three humans listed are joined by George Greggson and one of his many girlfriends Jean. Rashaverak is a guest of Rupert and can be found in the library reading up on paranormal accounts, parapsychology, and the super-normal. As a party game, Rupert pulls out a high tech Ouija board and all listed except the alien partake in the game. In the end – Jean faints, which leads George to realize she’s the one he wants to be married to (for five years at least). Jan has his faith in science rocked as the Ouija board answers his question about the location of the Overlord home world in the terms of a star chart ident number. Rupert is completely unimportant, and Rashaverak reports back to Karellen that Jean might be the human they’ve been waiting for. They move her to name to the purple something or other.
A few years go by, George and Jean Greggson and their two children move to an arts community on an island in the Pacific so George can CTFD about how all of the television sets are transmitting his specially cultivated green background (to a ballet performance) as blue on screen. In New Athens they still appreciate live entertainment…because the Overlords have ruined art by not promoting or condemning it and by making technology so affordable that no one leaves their house…. Honestly, George is unimportant. It’s their four year-old son Jeffery who is key. At first, we just see him behaving spooky smart, but around the age of seven our so he survives a tsunami in a baffling way.
Sort of simultaneously, Jan the would-be astronaut brainstorms an insane plan to stowaway in the body of a whale that is being transported to the Overlord home world.
He does it. They tsk-tsk at him and send him home. In between trips Karellen makes a laborious speech to the people of Earth telling them about Jan’s misadventure and chiding them that if they can’t take care of themselves – ‘Cause hey, never forget you guys nearly caused your own extinction before we showed up and taught you how to adult – they are not ready to be responsible for their own solar system. He tells them, this planet may be yours, but the stars are not for men.
The stars are not for men.
Jan, traveling 80 light years round trip at 99% the speed of light (this time not in a whale), returns to an Earth that is 80 years older though he’s only aged four months or so. He has decided that the Overlords are right. Men have no business traveling through space and he is ready to stay home and pursue his music career. Except – What Ho? – where did all the people go? Turns out, the Overlords are working for a bigger boss and it is their job to protect burgeoning races from their own stupidity until they can evolve in a particular way and then go join the hive mind of the universal Overmind. Jeffrey Greggson was the first in the next step of human evolution. Homosapien homosapiens were extinct. Jan was the last.
How utterly depressing. He dies in a total annihilation of the planet caused by the new race as they leave.
Talk to me. Have you read it? What do you think of this kind of bleak outlook. Have you read any of Clarke’s work that doesn’t end in tragedy? Recommend a happy book now, please.
Only three more days until we wake up in space together. Get writing people! (Me included, I’m so behind now.)