Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book Review: Childhood's End

© 1953 by Arthur C. Clarke

… spoilers of various magnitude … don’t read if you plan on reading the book and want to be surprised …

Dunno what it is with me and Arthur C. Clarke.  I want to like him.  I really, really do.  He’s, like, one of the “Big Three” in the Golden Age of Science Fiction * , and I, being a science fiction dude, feel obligated to like him.  And I do.  I really do.  Well, some of his stuff.  Some parts of some of his stuff.

Let’s see if I can work this out on the page here, and maybe inspire you to check out (or not check out, whatever the case may be) some of his work.

Way back in the 70s, Little Me bought 2001: A Space Odyssey from the Bookmobile and the paperback subsequently became my steady companion for most of fourth grade.  I read it a couple times as a kid, before I even saw the movie it was based on.  I loved it.  I re-read it again sometime in the early 90s, and thought it was okay – not as good as I remembered it as a youngling, but not bad.

Then, I read Rendezvous with Rama and it’s sequel during one very hot month of July.  That story floored me, and in retrospect showed me the basic pattern for an Arthur C. Clarke novel.  This pattern repeated itself – er, hit me over the head with a literary two-by-four – when I read The Fountains of Paradise fifteen years later. 

The basic pattern: Big Idea, Little Story.

What does this mean?

Well, all his novels get to, eventually, the Big Idea.  Usually something to do with mankind’s place in the universe, in relation to the “Other”, be it advanced alien civilizations either long dead or co-existent with us, or something we can’t even grasp yet, like the OverMind in Childhood’s End.  That’s a pretty big idea.  And I like it.  That’s why I will continue to read Clarke’s oeuvre in my own meandering way.

The problem for me is that I can’t get into the story – the vehicle he chooses to develop these big ideas.  His characters don’t come to life for me.  The situations and plot twists and turns don’t grip me.  I find myself turning the pages to see how he’s going to work in a Big Thematic Element instead of desiring to find out if so-and-so survives the current life-or-death predicament.  And that makes for a disconnect I have a hard time reconciling.

Childhood’s End conforms completely to the preceding paragraph’s paradigm, as did 2001Rama and Fountains.  In this classic novel, flying saucers descend upon the major cities of Earth in a somewhat peaceful invasion and the “Overlords” usher in years of prosperity, law, order, and progressive reforms at the cost of mankind’s freedom for self-rule.  They only deal with the Secretary General of the United Nations, and he only really deals with one Overlord, Karellen.  (Trivia: there are four Overlords named in the novel, the other three being Rashaverak, Thanthalteresco, and Vindarten.)  The Overlords themselves resemble the medieval image of the devil – horns, wings, a tail, etc.  So Clarke uses a premise of a possible human-Overlord encounter in the distant past to explain away religion. **  Much is made of the attempt for the Secretary General to take a picture of Karellen, after which it is revealed that the omnipotent Overlords will reveal themselves in fifty years time. 

There is a kidnapping, a rescue, a cocktail party of intelligentsia, a stowaway, a tsunami, a … yawn. 

Then, something interesting happens.  All the children of the world become … autistic, I guess, without exception.  They are all placed in Australia and observed and began acting as one entity with one mind.  Thus, the Big Idea: the next step in human evolution is to join the mysteries OverMind, a step which will involve the death of humanity as we know it.  That sounds to me more demonic than any description of an Overlord.  Which are, by the way, merely servants of the OneMind.

I found myself rushing the last forty pages to see where this vision would take me, or us, or mankind, the Universe, whatever, and was only mildly interested in the fate of Jan Rodricks, the Last Man on Earth.

So I’m kinda schizophrenic regarding Arthur C. Clarke.  With this in mind, I have to provide two grades for the novel based on the basic pattern (Big Idea, Small Story):

A- / C-

* = the other two being Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.  Asimov I grew up on and is eminently readable.  As for Heinlein, I love his dozen or so “juvenile” SF books (which grown-ups can read just as enjoyably as padawans) but never got into his more mature adult-oriented works.

** = which is quite silly, as is his belittling of religious thought by calling it “superstition” and his somewhat arrogant viewpoint that “reason” sola “reason” is the only intelligent position one should have, sans faith.

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