Clarke, Childhood’s End, part 2 – themes

Last week I started my discussion of re-reading several classic Arthur C. Clarke novels, and summarized the plot of Childhood’s End, in this post.


Now some comments on themes. My purpose in these rereadings is not to explore the history of science fiction necessarily, in the sense of identifying influences (in Clarke’s case, of course, Olaf Stapledon was a huge influence), or of following the development of ideas in these books through the history of the genre. Rather, I’m taking these texts at face value, as examples of science-fictional thinking, and relating such thinking to current issues of how humanity understands or thinks of the universe, especially, to put it crudely, the divide between science and faith – the theme of this blog. And between the speculation of these 50 and 60 year old novels, and how reality turned out.

So as I reread Clarke’s Childhood’s End last month, I took extensive notes, and will here summarize them into some broad themes.

First — the book’s central premise is that humanity’s current state is but a prelude to a higher order of being — an ethereal, non-physical realm of pure intellect. Given this idea’s prominence in the later 2001 (1968), I suspect this is an idea that Clarke held dear [perhaps inspired by Stapledon], rather than extrapolated. Because while in this book, he tries to justify this premise with the history of mankind’s ‘paranormal’ experiences, there’s no allusion to that in the later book.

So here’s the first big issue: A central theme of this book is that the history of humanity’s parapsycholical events presages this ‘uplift’. That is, incidents of precognition, telepathy, and so on, are taken as evidence by the visiting Overlords that humanity is on the verge of transitioning to this higher state of being. The idea that there was something supernatural about mankind’s mental state was a theme taken very seriously in the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, to the extent that even the hard-headed editor of the pre-eminent ‘hard SF’ magazine of the era, John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction (renamed Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact in the early ’60s), promoted this theme well into the 1960s.

Without claiming to be a scholar on this subject, my impression is that this theme has been abandoned by serious SF writers. After all these decades, the actual scientific evidence for precognition, telepathy, and so on, has not materialized. On the other hand, these themes are taken as assumed premises for the currently very popular genres of paranormal romance, in which young female protagonists have various paranormal powers. (This is just one reason I have no interest in these books.)

A secondary theme is how science fiction imagines aliens — that is, other intelligent races who have evolved independently on other planets. There’s always the recognition that it’s impossible to imagine truly alien aliens. As human beings, anything we can imagine about other intelligences, independently evolved, is necessarily filtered through our own understanding of what such an intelligence might be. In the history of SF, a number of writers have done impressive jobs about such imaginings — but as readers, we always understand this fundamental understanding is likely impossible. If we truly meet other intelligences, it is just likely that they will be completely incompressible to us.

(On the other hand, there are arguments that suggest that intelligence necessarily drifts to certain correspondence with reality; Voltaire-like, perhaps — only certain kinds of intelligence are possible.)

Still, it’s a common meta-theme in science fiction to see portrayals of alien beings as idealized imaginings of how human beings might be better. In this book, examples include an Overlord order to stop killing animals for sport, and a mention that they read very fast, a page every 2 seconds.

A third theme is how Clarke himself imagines an idealized future. In a crucial sense, science fiction isn’t about prediction — not about what SF writers *predict* will happen — but about what they might like to imagine will happen. It reveals their own idea of what they would like to come to pass. In this novel, there is a revealing chapter about the effect on human culture of the Overlords’ appearance. This is in the first chapter of the novel’s Part II, after the Overlords have revealed themselves as devil-like:

War and poverty are gone; production is automated; life has slowed. Education continues through life. Contraceptives and certain identification of fathers change sexual mores. Aircars take anyone anywhere. The world becomes secular. A device from the Overlords that images any event from the past 5000 years — revealing the true origins of all the messiahs — undermines religion.

And in this world, creative art diminishes.

The idea the religion would diminish as humanity matures is a central Clarke theme through all his books — and it is one that impressed me, at an impressionable age. (I’ve since had back and forth opinions about the plausibility of this premise. I would like this to be so as well, but I suspect a fundamental premise of the human genome, given lack of education, is a susceptibility to superstition and thus religion.)

Other thoughts about this book:

  • Technology — however far-ranging some SF writers are about the vast future, they tend to under-imagine technological advances. In this book [though remember, this was relatively near-future, from 1953], we have references to fax machines (page 29.6 in my Ballantine edition), and a whole roomful of them (37b, i.e. bottom of page 37), though on page 38.6 we see that words typed appear on a screen.
  • A very interesting and rather progressive social premise appears several times: on p79b it is mentioned the men are fundamentally polygamous. Later it is mentioned that one of the main characters, George, while he is committed to his wife Jean, has “no intention” of abandoning his other girlfriends (p105m). There is a repeated understanding about what we would now call open relationships.
  • [On the other hand, while we know now that Clarke was openly gay, as far was possible in his time, there are no hints about that in this book, as there were in his later novels, beginning at least with Rendezvous with Rama (1973), in which one character is described as having a very close male friend, without any further explicit details; an idea that reappeared, not much more explicitly than that, in his later novels.]
  • There are other social speculations, some of which did, or did not, play out. While in stories by Asimov and Heinlein of that era and before, men were always smoking cigars (!), Clarke barely mentions this, only once, i.e. that people still smoke, on p89t (top of page 89 in my edition).
  • And on p90.7, he indicates that the word ‘nigger’ is no longer taboo — a big fail, as it’s turned out.
  • This book indicates that terminology about the universe was not so precise as what we use today, e.g. p136m: “You are looking at your own Universe, the island galaxy of which your sun is a member…” indicating that “universe” was a synonym for what we today call “galaxy”.

As I reread this book, I hit upon one passage that I have remembered all my life, without necessarily remembering from what book it was from. There is a passage at the end in which a human stowaway takes passage to the Overlords’ home planet. He discovers that they have a museum devoted to mankind, and he is taken in and asked for advice.

Jan spent several hours there, talking into a recording device while the Overlords presented various terrestrial objects to him. Many of these, he discovered to his shame, he could not identify, His ignorance of his own race and its achievements was enormous: he wondered if the Overlords, for all their superb mental gifts, could really grasp the complete pattern of human culture.

We fantasize about alien beings and cultures, without appreciating the diversity of human culture here on Earth. I am certain that I could not pass Jan’s test, and I doubt than anyone else on Earth could, either. (Though in the microculture of the SF field, I gather that the diversity of SF writers and stories has been expanding, much for the better, in the past couple decades.)

Finally, let me summarize. Despite its easily antiquated aspects, Childhood’s End is still effective after all these years. Its dramatic arc plays on two emotional themes — the tragedy of the “uplift” involve the death/disappearance of children, and the tragedy of the Overlords, who however advanced, are intrinsically unable to participate in the transcendence they can only witness.

For all their achievements, thought Karellen, for all their mastery of the physical universe, his people were no better than a tribe that had passed its whole existence upon some flat and dusty plain. Far off were the mountains, where power and beauty dwelt, where the thunder sported above the glaciers and the air was clear and keen. There the sun still walked, transfiguring the peaks with glory, when all the land below was wrapped in darkness. And they could only watch and wonder; they could never scale those heights.

(As always with substantial posts like this one, this is a first draft, which I might well revise in the day or two.)

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