Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

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2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in “2001”, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

The End is Nigh…

 

Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 story The Nine Billion Names of God is considered to be a classic. Although it appeared on the scene before either of the big sci-fi awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, it was awarded a retrospective Hugo in 2004. So it seems like a good choice for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

 

Dr. Wagner was scarcely conscious of the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below. He was in a different world, a world of natural, not man-made, mountains. High up in their remote aeries these monks had been patiently at work, generation after generation, compiling their lists of meaningless words. Was there any limit to the follies of mankind? Still, he must give no hint of his inner thoughts. The customer was always right….

A computer company is approached by a Tibetan lama with a strange request. The monks want a computer that will enable them to print out all the possible permutations of God’s names. They have decided on an alphabet of nine characters and expected to spend fifteen thousand years identifying all nine billion possibilities manually, but with the advent of computers they expect that the work can now be done in 100 days. Though the head of the computer company thinks they’re crackpots, he takes their money and agrees.

early computer

As part of the deal, two technicians travel with the machine to Tibet to oversee the project. At first all goes well – the machine churns out lists of names and the monks rush to cut the pages up and paste each name individually in books. But a week before the project is due to be completed, the lama explains the purpose of it all to one of the technicians…

“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.”
“Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?”
“There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!”

The technicians don’t believe this, of course, but they fear that when things don’t go as expected the monks may blame the computer – and them. So they decide to escape from the monastery before the project is over…

the-taktshang-monastery

This is a very neat little take on the science v religion debate, or perhaps more logic v mysticism. It’s well written and amusing, with a nicely quirky ending, and I’m reasonably confident that the spiritual aspects are not meant to be taken too seriously. It’s interesting to see how basic computers were back in the ‘50s – not much more powerful than a pocket calculator really – and yet how they were considered such an amazing invention with the power to radically alter the course of history. If the story has a message, I’d say it’s more about this aspect – a humorous warning that we need to show caution in how we allow technology to be used. While it’s enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to have a bit of substance, I’m not convinced it’s one of the greatest stories I’ve read, and I suspect the retrospective Hugo it won was probably more of a recognition of Clarke’s overall reputation. However it is certainly interesting and fun, and will encourage me to read more of Arthur C Clarke’s work.

The story is available online if you’d like to read it. Click here!

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: