Wednesday Book Club: Childhood’s End

Wednesday, 21 January 2009 — 11:56pm | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke.

In brief: Clarke’s compact story of a benevolent alien takeover of the Earth asks hard questions about whether the human species would ever lay down its natural curiosity for the promise of utopia. Its brisk pace and multigenerational scope make it difficult to get a sustained picture of any of the human characters, and the absence of causal explanation for the rapid transformation of human society into a stock Golden Age directs our attention toward the consequences and away from the how-and-why, but none of this obstructs the philosophical ambition of the piece. I, for one, welcome our new species-civilizing Overlords.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Childhood’s End, keep reading below.)

My edition of Childhood’s End is 218 pages long, although it leaves one with the impression of having read not a novel, but an epic short story. This is hardly a surprise if one stops to consider the dominance of the short-story form in early-twentieth-century science fiction, and it is not too far a stretch to read Clarke’s novel as a triptych of recapitulation, apotheosis, and where-do-we-go-next for the genre and format as well as humanity as a whole.

The story begins with the arrival of an alien fleet that descends on all of Earth’s major cities. Like the better-remembered parody of the same in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the alien leader introduces himself with a booming declaration from the sky, remains hidden from the perturbed Earthlings below, and insists that his fleet is only here at all not as conquerors, but as the planet-pushing middle-managers of the universe.

As this is not a Douglas Adams novel, the aliens—or the Overlords, as humanity comes to know them—neither blow up the planet nor read us their poetry. Instead, they use their awe-inspiring mastery over nature to bully us all into eradicating poverty, war, and national boundaries. (Perhaps “bully” is the wrong word: it’s more of a hands-off coercion, like a mother towering over her guilty-looking child with her hands on her hips.) Their leader, Karellen, holds periodic meetings with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, though he remains hidden from view for the typical reason that we aren’t yet ready to see his true form.

In the second part, we flash forward by fifty years and see that in almost no time at all, humanity has rolled over at the behest of the Overlords and transformed itself into a Golden Age cliché of global secular harmony, complete with ubiquitous flying cars. Never mind how it happens: yes, it’s all very convenient and not very plausible, but humanity’s global transformation is the premise and not the conclusion.

This is also the point at which the Overlords finally reveal themselves, a secret I’ll not spoil here. Suffice to say, it is a wholly satisfying revelation, both original and just expected enough to make perfect sense.

For some reason, the lifestyle of humanity at its utopian zenith reminds me of the squeaky-clean façade of 1950s America, when the everyday convenience of having in-home refrigerators and television sets was a sure sign of the progress to come. Clarke seizes on this vision of persistent leisure in a populace freed from the shackles of labour and names its price: the loss of human initiative. One of the characters makes an observation that presently rings truer than we’d like:

“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!”

Clarke’s prognosis about the effect of media saturation is similar to what appeared that same year (1953) in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and throughout the decade in the works of Marshall McLuhan; we hear it all the time today, and rightly so. I would not go as far as to call it a fully developed critique of the effect that mass-media entertainment has on the pace of human progress: keep in mind that every effect in Clarke’s bored utopian society has another cause, namely, the awesome gulf between the Overlords’ level of development and our own. The Overlords are so advanced that once humanity’s social ills are out of the way, one begins to wonder if there is any point in further progress.

In this sense, Childhood’s End takes a question familiar to all literature of colonization and gives it a hypothetical spin. Even if an external administration leads us into prosperity and saves us from destroying ourselves with our savage ways—even if they, quite frankly, civilize us—is there an inherent value to self-rule? Should we lament the autonomy we’ve lost, when we were clearly incompetent in exercising it? Should we pursue a provincial way of life because we can call it our own, even if it has no future?

Clarke asks these questions more deftly than he answers them, and in the final third of the book we are looking at a very different text than the one we started with. As it turns out, the autonomy of man is an offshoot of a deeper value in play: the curiosity of man, a facet of human nature that Clarke depicts as so fundamental to our essence that the tragedy of our species is how far our thirst for truth exceeds our capacity to satiate it. To satisfy the desires of the human mind would require a transcendent evolution past our human state of being.

The ascent to transcendence is a common notion in sci-fi, and from the mechanistic perspective of how it happens, Clarke’s account is too abrupt to be anything special. What makes Childhood’s End stand out is its portrayal of two competing visions of our posthuman future. On one hand we have the Overlords, complete in their mastery of nature and the rational universe; on the other, there is the promise of humanity’s irrational creative spark, a property of ours that the Overlords somehow nurture through careful suppression.

The stereotype of science fiction prior to the New Wave, especially in the short-story form, is that it tends to be high on concept and thin on character development. Intentionally or not, Clarke turns the same ironic trick as Isaac Asimov, in that the best-developed characters are always the non-humans. (If you are familiar with Clarke by way of the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will remember how coldly the humans were played next to the tragic figure of the HAL-9000 computer.)

In Childhood’s End, this is a consequence of the book’s time-hopping structure: we never do get to know any of the humans as much more than abstract aspects of humanity (of which curiosity is the most prominent one on display). But we do get a very complete picture of Karellen and the Overlords, and how they grapple with their complicated position as stewards to a far inferior species with a potential for development that far exceeds their own. If you read the book and discover the Overlords’ physical form, you’ll see just how complicated their relationship with us gets. To them, the rapid fifty-year transformation of the human species from savagery to transcendence is but a speck in time, but behind it we receive a grand holistic impression of their own history of triumphs and failures.

What this all amounts to is a book that is, in many ways, a product of its time: an evolutionary development in the twilight of Golden Age science fiction, a critique of the genre conventions of the day that neither satirizes nor outright rejects them. Perhaps this is why Clarke never questions the Golden Age vision of the ideal human future, instead choosing to ask if we would truly be happy with such an outcome, and whether it leaves humanity any room to grow. He implicitly asks the same of sci-fi. And in fiction, as in life, our nature is to follow two divergent lines of inquiry that meet more often than we think: one for the truth about the world around us, and one for the truth about ourselves.

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