Arthur C. Clarke
Del Rey, Paperback, 1990.
12mo. viii, 212 pp. Foreword by Arthur Clarke, 1989 [iv-viii].
First published, 1953.
First published with new foreword and new first chapter, 1990.
Part 1: Earth and the Overlords
Part 2: The Golden Age
Part 3: The Last Generation
I have to say that I am a little baffled by the many claims made for Childhood's End to be Clarke's "best novel". To me it seems a little dwarfed in comparison with Rendezvous with Rama and especially with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then again, these novels were first published 15 and 20 years later, respectively, and books are to be read and appreciated, in the context of their time certainly, but not really in relation to one another (though within the author's oeuvre this approach might on occasion be enlightening).
Even without the dubious benefit of comparisons, Childhood's End has at least one notable drawback. Basically, though it is not very easy to put it into words, this is the perfunctory treatment of some episodes. This is most notable in the first part of the book which is by far the weakest one - fortunately, it is the shortest one as well. The coming of the Overlords is a bit too sudden, and rather lamely described in the "new" first chapter (written some quarter of a century after the rest of the novel), and mankind's only too eager submission is hardly credible. Certain episodes in this first part are distinctly superficial, even puerile, and if the rest of the book had turned out to be similarly sketchy and insubstantial, the final rating would have been quite a bit lower. Fortunately, in the last two parts Arthur finally finishes the warming up and reminds me that he is a great story-teller and a brilliant writer. Occasionally, however, these parts may also suffer from the same rough-and-ready treatment, or there may be some slightly childish passages.
Nevertheless, this is a great book. For one thing, it has a really terrific story. I certainly disagree with the oft-repeated accusation that Clarke's novels are loosely structured and fragmentary. This is true neither in general nor in this particular case. As a matter of fact, Clarke is extremely skillful novelist who knows how to pace a story, when to introduce more dramatic and when more contemplative episodes, and how to create an enormous suspense and prepare stupendous dramatic climax. Even the title here has certain dramatic value. Somewhere in the middle of the book one may be led to think that it is a metaphor for the mankind's transition from their self-destructive history to the ultimate Utopia created with the indispensable help, and control, of the Overlords. This is surely not the case though. Clarke's endless imagination and incisive pen have quite a surprise in store. Nothing more should be said on the subject here, for otherwise the pleasure of those who have yet to read the book will be considerably spoiled.
I should like to mention two other well-known accusations which are demolished in this novel. One of these refers to Clarke in general and the other to this book in particular: his poor characterisation and the use of paranormal forces, respectively. To start with the latter, I don't see any particular problem with it. One of Clarke's most famous aphorisms is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is certainly true and so is the opposite case. Besides, it must be stressed, that the paranormal stuff in the novel, though very important for the plot, is by no means of major importance for its philosophical significance. As for the characters, well, the accusation is somewhat legitimate in this case. Certainly character development is not Clarke's forte and he is always more interested in the ideas behind the people. But this is such by design and should be expected in a genre such as science fiction. That said, for my part I have always found Clarke's characters compelling, perhaps because they are so sparsely drawn and leave a great deal to the imagination of the reader. What they lack in complexity though, they more than compensate for in vividness. What's more, none of the characters here - Stormgren, Karellen, Jan, George, Jean, Sullivan - is entirely one-sided and Clarke's powerful ability to describe them, and their inner words, with a sentence or two should not be underestimated. In fact, controversial as this may sound, I think Clarke's characters contribute only slightly less than his ideas to the enduring value of his books.
In addition to pretty great story, with quite a few twists and simply staggering finale, the greatness of Childhood's End rests on its immense philosophical depth - yet another area, like his characters, for which Clarke is seldom given the credit he deserves. There are so many threads intertwined here that it is difficult to single out the most important ones - which are difficult enough to put into words anyway. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the book is that it stimulates - in me at least - a great, though by no means unqualified, admiration for the human race. On the other hand, it is horrifying to contemplate the curious desire for self-destruction inherent in our nature and it is sad, to say the least, to realise that "stars are not for man". These are Karellen's words and, though Clarke would have disagreed any time, more than half a century later they still hold true.
Only slightly less disconcerting is another main premise of the book, namely that the human race is perhaps incapable of living in Utopia, let alone creating such a world with massive help from the outer space. This is never made explicit in the novel, as the mind-blowing finale comes too swiftly for that, but I think Clarke gives more than a few hints that human nature and utopia are incompatible. One of my favourite examples is Rupert's party where, with but few sentences, Clarke conveys spiritual emptiness more powerfully than anything Fitzgerald might offer you in The Great Gatsby. It is perhaps significant, too, that the Colony, which desperately tries to break with the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the rest of the planet, should display such pathetic achievements in pretty much all arts, from music to sculpture. The only art which the Colony may be said to have enriched is - cartoon movies.
Yet, on the other hand, it may well be that Utopia is not really worth achieving and the essence of human life lies in the struggle: everything is more valuable when it is hard to get and short-lived. Trite but true. Moreover, too much satisfaction and too much hedonism would probably put an end to the two most important creations of mankind: science and art. Something in our psychological make-up, I believe, prevents us from attaining the ultimate happiness, but it might be this very "defect" that makes life worth living. Considering the economy of his writing style, Arthur Clarke shows a considerable insight into human nature. This is what I call originality; not florid vocabulary or stylistic acrobatics, nor prose as dense and impenetrable as solid rock, but quite to the contrary: using ordinary words to say extraordinary things. Just one among many examples is Clarke's perceptive evaluation of idleness, strangely closely mirroring Somerset Maugham's notion that few of us are so constituted as to be able to indulge in constant idleness. The difficult thing is to find the most suitable work for everybody and fit this into the most practical global picture:
...but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stock-brokers, and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.
Last but not least, the extreme altruism and benignity of the Overlords, though difficult to believe, is not without some inspiring value. Al Capone may well have been right that you can achieve more with a kind word and a gun than only with a kind word, but if one is able to substitute the weapon with a smile and a good deal of intelligence, one may exceed even the boldest dreams of the legendary underworld boss. The conversation between Karellen and Stormgren about the use of power is one of the most memorable in the book. The essence is indeed "correct application" - and the operative word here is "correct". People in general have always been attracted to the maxim "Might is Right". Well, the lesson to learn from the Overlords is that cunning is often way mightier than might. As luck would have it, we might even ascend few steps on the stairway of goodness in the process. Meanwhile Karellen's words are as chilling as they are true for our race:
You have never possessed real power, or the knowledge necessary to apply it.
Just one interesting example in the novel about a subtle application of power on psychological level is Karellen's reaction to a state that had broken the rules. He simply did nothing. The poor fellows thus experienced terrors no punishment with force would have achieved. And the results were far more efficient, too.
Quite apart from all that, Clarke touches briefly, but hardly superficially, on problems only slightly less thorny today than they must have been in the 1950s, or ever indeed. For example, the clash between religion and science, including the uselessness of the former and the dangers of limiting the latter, is mentioned several times and not quite in passing. Some people, I daresay, would find Clarke's remarks trite and superficial. For my part I find them humorous and stirring:
You will find men like him in all the world's religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.
The value of art, too, is also discussed at few places, and a good case is made that it is incompatible with utopia. The essence of artistic creation may mostly lie in the struggles of the artist with the society around him. Thus the eternal satisfaction of Utopia may well bring art to a halt; or worse indeed: cause its slow but sure degeneration. Is the latter not happening already, far as we are from any utopia? On the other hand, this may well be too simplistic and, if not talent, at least artistic genius might be largely independent from such mundane considerations. After all, most truly great and universally recognised artists - say, figures of the caliber of Michelangelo or Beethoven - didn't bother too much with the rules of the world. Quite to the contrary: they made their own rules and then adapted the world to them. Readers of Childhood's End are well-advised to read carefully in order not to miss Clarke's pithy observations on the subject in the maelstrom of the action.
And sometimes Clarke shows his uncanny trademark ability to predict the future. If anything, the following words are far more relevant today than they were in the early 1950s:
Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won't be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!
Frightfully modern! Substitute "Internet" for "radio and TV" and multiply the amount of entertainment by one hundred (at least) and you will get the picture exactly as it is today.
Considering that Arthur Clarke was 36 at the time of writing, Childhood's End is an impressive achievement in every aspect: story, ideas, characters and, above all, food for thought. The confused foreword and the incoherent first chapter written much later you may skip without fear of missing anything important. The whole of the first part is a bit dull and certain passages from the other two parts may sound superficial or preachy, but these quibbles, though worth mentioning, are not worth elaborating upon. The story is breath-taking, very well-told, awe-inspiring and decidedly optimistic - despite the devastating and haunting end. Descriptions and metaphors, certain wholes scenes even, may somewhat lack the confidence of the mature Clarke, but his staggering imagination and his well-nigh unmatched ability to vividly recreate the most amazing visions imaginable are here all right. As with all great books, reading Childhood's End is a shattering yet comforting experience. It will bear a re-reading for sure.
P. S. A note on the musical references in Childhood's End. Apart from mentioning briefly, but poignantly, Bach towards the end, there is a vastly amusing, if brief, account of a symphonic concert in the Colony. It is rather hilarious to see Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms described as "the only concession to popular taste", as the rest of program was "aggressively modernistic". I shudder to think what a hideous noise that must be!