100 sf

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

#9: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

“There had been no warning when the great ships came pouring out of the unknown depths of space. Countless times this day had been described in fiction, but no one had really believed that it would ever come. Now it had dawned at last; the gleaming, silent shapes hanging over every land were the symbol of a science man could not hope to match for centuries.”

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (b. 1917) is one of the big guns of sf. He, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov are often referred to as “the Big Three.” British by birth, Sri Lankan by residency, he’s had a long and illustrious career. I personally think he's one of the most fascinating and brilliant sf writers ever, and there’s no question that he’s unique. Clarke has a background in physics and mathematics, and he served for a time in the RAF. He’s also an accomplished skin diver, and he’s been a featured commentator on science for sources worldwide. It’s no surprise then that his work is often thought of as part of the “hard science” subgenre of sf. But that’s not the whole story. Clarke’s work also shows a fascination with the spiritual and, in the case of Childhood’s End, the occult. (He’s even been a fan of Yuri Geller.) This all adds up to what Peter Nicholls has called “the Arthur C. Clarke Paradox”--a belief in the power of science to make human life better while simultaneously looking to a higher intelligence (but not a god) to help usher human progress along.

As I said before, Childhood’s End features Clarke’s intertwining of hard science and spiritualism, and it’s one of his best novels. The first section of the book takes place during the first years after a worldwide shock. An alien species nicknamed “the Overlords” arrives in gigantic spaceships that they park in the skies above all the major human settlements across the globe. (V and Independence Day copied this powerful image, but ACC was there first.) Despite the menacing image, the Overlords are on a peaceful mission, and they become caretakers of the planet and usher in a scientific and intellectual utopia, while simultaneously refusing to reveal their physical appearance. Then the shocker comes when they finally do--they look just like demons: wings, horns, and all. They even smell like brimstone.

The second section of the book details the utopia the Overlords have created: almost no crime, a leveling of classes and races, complete freedom of movement and access to information, a 20-hour workweek, and the elimination of mechanical and menial tasks. I have one word for it…SWEET! Granted, the rule of the Overlords has the smell of the British Empire (Clarke has lived in Sri Lanka as a rich, white ex-pat Brit since the mid-50s), and there are some serious restrictions in the society they create. Most severely, the Overlords allow no space travel for humans. Now that would piss me off, but otherwise I could get use to the Overlord utopia. Come on short workweek!

The third section features two narratives. One concerns the journey of a human who discovers a way around the sanction on space travel. The other is the basis for the book’s title. Clarke reveals the end of humanity’s “childhood.” And while I won’t tell you what that is, I’ll let you know that it was the inspiration for a certain Led Zeppelin album cover. And if Led Zeppelin put it on an album, don't you think you should sure as hell read it?


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