Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review of Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke

The mission statement of this blog is an Olaf Stapledon quote, pre-WWII.  The writing on the wall as far as he was concerned, Stapledon challenged writers and artists regarding the purposes and intent of their creations. Europe facing another major conflict, he felt authors should use the power of their voices to speak out against warfare, and injustice in general.  The war came and went, leaving in its wake a great deal of doubt whether the civilization humanity had supposedly created was just an illusion, or indeed a shattered vase.  A Stapledonian shot in the arm needed to refocus humanity’s collective spirit in the aftermath, Arthur C. Clarke provided one in 1953 with his first novel, Childhood’s End.

Humanity on certain path to nuclear self-destruction, Childhood’s End opens with an alien group, dubbed the Overlords by Earthlings, arriving in space ships and parking themselves above the world’s major cities.  Never revealing themselves, they rule passively via technology and other means from their massive, floating ships, and in the process prevent mankind from further damaging itself.  The eventual result a utopia on Earth, humanity’s journey toward self-actualization in the universe is, however, only just beginning.

A spectacularly architected novel, Childhood’s End is built like a tree.  Rooted at a single point, branches sprouting from the bole as the story moves onward, the conclusion forms a whole that reaches outward to the sky.  Though individual viewpoints are windows through which story is told, the novel remains conceptual rather than character driven.  The reader will not be bothered to empathize with Stromgren or Jan and their encounters with the Overlords, but will enjoy sitting on their shoulders, sharing their alien experiences and gaining the wisdom—and imagery—of the universe.  The novel covering approximately a century of time, it surveys a transition that sees humanity realizing its own potential in spectacular fashion.  This transition handled with perfection structurally, for a first novel Clarke’s shows ownership of some of the basic skills of writing. 

Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human is one of modernism’s greatest statements regarding hope for humanity’s evolution to a higher plane of existence.  Psi powers the key Sturgeon uses to unlock this potential, the novel is dependent on the emergence of telekinesis, telekinetics, hyper-intelligence, and other forms of uber-sentience to achieve the next plane.  Employing ouija boards and superminds, Childhood’s End likewise uses paranormal brain powers as a means to an end.  But there is a notable difference in utility.  Psi powers the cutting edge of Sturgeon’s conception, Clarke applies them in more abstract, symbolic terms.  Though written in exquisite prose, More Than Human is dipping toward anachronism while Childhood’s End retains its aim and intent for its more conceptual than practical dependence on psi powers.

In the end, Childhood’s End is H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds flipped on it head and made to dance to the beautifully philosophical waltz of Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men.  The usage of psi powers partially dating the novel, its symbolism sustains optimism, however, allowing the novel to retain a strong degree of thematic impact.  Introducing the term ‘overlord’ to everyday English, the novel has been influential in other ways, including films like Independence Day and District 9, as well as books like Ian Watson’s The Embedding and Liu Cixin’s Three-Body series.  Human affairs yet to transcend wars and rumors of wars, it likewise remains relevant.  The utopia Clarke presents lacks believable subtlety, but the ultimate motivation and the fate of the benign alien overlords is stirring.  Clarke picking up Stapledon’s gauntlet, Childhood’s End uses the power of science fiction to create a powerful vision of hope for mankind and is one of the main reasons why Clarke was the best of the Big Three.

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