Childhood’s End – a book review

Sorry for the lack of blog posts, but health issues have kept my brain on hold 😉

Here’s my latest review, this time on “Childhood’s End,” the Book of the Month for my SciFi reading group, in honor of Arthur Clarke’s passing.

Childhood's End

I found, after reading it, that I am more fond of his short stories than his novels for the most part. The exceptions being “Rendezvous With Rama,” which remains the penultimate First Encounter book, IMO, and “Ghost From the Grand Banks,” written later in life, about the Titanic. This one was written early in his writing career, and to me it shows.

I came to the book, though as if it were newly written, in order to accurately review the book, without sentimentality or excuses. I wrote this review in the form of “notes” which I jotted down as they came to me. The book on the whole is written in a choppy style, skipping from fifty years to fifty years, to other places, even within a single chapter.

So here goes:

One word of warning to those of you who have older editions. I have both. The editions printed before 1990 have a different first chapter. He has a foreward explaining it all, and some nice background stuff. Because of the way things progressed in real time, he decided to change it up a bit. But only the first short chapter.

The upshot is the same, just the details were changed completely.

Wiki cites this about “Childhood’s End”: “In Clarke’s authorized biography, Neil McAleer writes that: “many readers and critics still consider [Childhood’s End] Arthur C. Clarke’s best novel.” What do YOU think? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_C._Clarke

Earlier I posted on the “new” opening chapter (editions after 1990) and the foreward he wrote, explaining about the changes in it. How he changed it from an incipient Moon flight to a Mars one, since we had already conquered the moon. He also made disclaimers in the foreward about his new attitudes debunked psi phenomena, which he had earlier been quite interested in – supposedly the book deals a lot with that
subject, but at about 1/2 through, so far, there’s been little mention of psi stuff.

It’s tone is slightly dated to me, anachronistic in terms (ice-box, or is that British?), and the use of the “N” word as something that was now accepted. Sort of un-PC from how we tend to view things. “The convenient word “n*&” was no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone. It had no more emotional, content than such labels as republican or Methodist, conservative or liberal.”

Somehow I can’t see a civilization, however changed, making he “n” word acceptable in 50 years, if ever. Some words, with racial slurs behind them, will never, IMO, make it into mainstream acceptance. Methodist is a far cry from “N”. Perhaps “Negro” which he uses, but not the other.

So far, it jumps from character to character – and they are just dropped. Of course 50 years have passed, but it was a very quick, glossed over 50 years. I would have liked to see more emphasis on the changes that happened, rather than just 2 pages explaining all the changes in science, arts, humanity, society, etc. That’s a lot of eggs to swallow in 2 pages.

On pg. 75 in my version he talks about the loss of religion, due to a device that allowed people to see into the past. “Beneath the fierce and passionless light of truth, faiths that had sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning dew. All the good and all the evil they had wrought were suddenly swept into the past, and could touch the minds of man no more.”

He seems to have a duality about religion – he seems to almost condemn it in those sentences, yet his two most famous short stories, “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God” are both about religion, and
“The Star”, while questioning faith, is powerful enough to touch both believers and non-believers, IMO. And for his funeral he stated: “Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral.” Which indicates a man who abhorred religion. So, looking at “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God” does that reflect some early duality back then, or just a couple of great stories, FICTION?

One of my favorite things he did was: “Clarke attempted to write a six-word story as part of a Wired Magazine article but wrote ten words instead. (“God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to
exist.”) He refused to lower the word count.” So how does that reflect his attitude towards religion? That small 10-word story seems to infer that God does exist, and has the power to make the world go away, as does “Nine Billion…” in some ways. FICTION again? To me “The Star” shows his questioning of faith and the basis of Christianity.

If anyone knows more about eh evolution back in the ’40s and ’50s of his religious views, I’m be curious to get the links, hear it, etc. Most deal with his later views, which were atheist. But it would be hard, IMHO, to write “The Star” without something behind it, although it is said that: “Near the very end of that same episode [a three-day interview described as “a dialogue on man and his world” with Alan Watts], the last segment of which covered the Star of Bethlehem, he stated that his favourite theory was that it might be a pulsar. Given that pulsars were discovered in the interval between his writing the short story, The Star (1955), and making Mysterious World (1980), and given the more recent discovery of pulsar PSR B1913+16, he said, ‘How romantic, if even now, we can hear the dying voice of a star, which heralded the Christian era.'” So was that all “The Star” was, or was it the dying breath of a crisis of faith for him? Anyone know?

Moving on:

On pg. 79, he has a great line from a wife, upon seeing her husband looking at another, very beautiful woman: “It was such a nuisance that men were fundamentally polygamous. On the other hand, if they weren’t … Yes, perhaps it was better this way, after all.”

I love how he subtly puts down marriage and it’s attendant obligations and martial framework. Nice touch of humor.

Despite his reworking of the first chapter to reflect a Mars mission, rather than the moon, he never changed the rest of it, deliberately he said, so that subtle inconsistencies arise. One in particular I like his old-style turn of phrase, although it’s moon thing sort of detracts from it, because you recall the Mars change, but was a nice piece: “A century before [yes, we seem to have jumped ahead again another 50 years, despite two chapters before starting out with …50 years is ample time…], Man had set foot upon the ladder that could lead him to the stars. At that very moment – could it be coincidence? – the door to the planets had been slammed in his face.” A nice turn of phrase, but he refers to Moon trips, when we’ve already been there, done that, which is why he rewrote the first chapter. Why do that, and not make smaller changes in the rest? pg.92

He has an older, more colorful turn of phrase – more flowery, more full of imagery. Current SF doesn’t read like this. And that is what dates it, to me. I’ve seen it before, in some of my favorite novelists from that time, and it hasn’t bothered me before. Maybe because it’s sciend fiction this time, which is dupposed to be tomorrow’s technology, etc.? It’s the style of writing – the more descriptive, allusitory way, that seems to date, more than technology, etc.

At one point, he talks about the Overlords’ Stardrive. They know nothing about it, and one character is sitting watching a ship leave, and knows that the generally accepted theory of the light he was seeing was merely a gravitational distortion of space caused by the “immense acceleration of the Stardrive.” “What Jan was seeing, he knew, was nothing less than the light of distant stars, collected and focused into his eye whenever conditions were favorable along the track of the ship. It was a visible proof of relativity – the bending of light in the presence of a colossal gravitational field.” pg. 94

One thing that struck me was the, to me, curiously passive attitude of the people. Yes, the Overlords proved their power, etc., and yes, there were splinter groups against them, but all in all, the people just sat back and let it all fall around them – losing their drive, their science, their art, their sense of adventure. Are we so shallow as a species? Do you think this is what would happen in 50 years, in the presence of a vastly, so it seems, superior race? Do we just give up, and enjoy our little Utopia, even though Clarke says that Utopia =
boredom. I know it’s a cautionary tale, but it still seems a flimsy premise. Of course, as Clarke himself would say, it’s a work or FICTION!

And what about what Wiki says about him:
“Clarke’s work is marked by an optimistic view of science empowering mankind’s exploration of the solar system. His early published stories would usually feature the extrapolation of a technological innovation
or scientific breakthrough into the underlying decadence of his own society.” What do you think of that statement? Accurate? or not?

I also like the idea behind his 2nd law, a lesser know one than his 3rd: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” See: http://groups.google.com.au/group/rec.arts.sf.misc/msg/e4185210a85826fc for a nice overview of the history behind the laws.

So, those are just my thoughts so far. Anachronistic in style, tone and certain things, and so far, 1/2 way through, not really “giving” me anything to look forward to – to hang my hat on. Not much in the way of questions, thoughts, etc. for me. For many books, by this time I would have pages of comments, not just these pitiful ones.

Are there others, like me, who have not returned to the classics very much, and when they do, have discovered certain things about them, that perhaps “glare” in the light of today? And I read authors from
the 50s, but for me, it doesn’t fit in SF. Because of my “gap?”

Despite the detractions I listed, I am still enjoying a trip to the past and the Golden Age, one that is 25 years in the past for me, not 50+.

I found my older version of “Childhood’s End” with the orig. publishing date of 1953, 48th printing 1984, before he changed the first chapter and added the foreward. On the cover, with a nice UFO shining over a city, is a review quote from The New York Times:

“A first rate tour de force that is well worth the attention of every thoughtful citizen in this age of anxiety.”

Now, I wonder, given my earlier thoughts, is it really that important a book? I wondered about what we were anxious about (the quote wasn’t dated), so I did some digging and it came from a 1953 review: http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/09/reviews/clarke-childhood.html

So I’m assuming it was the beginning of the Cold War? Or was that later? Before my time, and my 20th century history is very sketchy (a product of 70s liberal/innovative education in Minnesota, the ultra
liberal state). Interestingly, it’s labeled as a “Books of the Times”, and the reviewer stresses it’s relevance to society at that time.

But there is an interesting twist – the reviewer attempts to “pretend” it’s not SF:

“It must be said at the outset that Mr. Clarke’s publishers have offered his novel as science-fiction, a label that too many readers still associate with Captain Video, rocket-ship sagas and invasions of super-gremlins from universes other than our own. It is quite true that “Childhood’s End” contains some of these standard ingredients, but Mr. Clarke has mixed them with a master’s hand.”

And to end this rather self-important, prosy review (an earlier incarnation of me???):

“This review can only hint at the stimulation Mr. Clark’s novel offers. Above all, it must be emphasized that this is not a gloomy book, despite its holocausts. It is true that the invaders from outer space manage to steal the big scenes. But homo sapiens fights back to the end with resourcefulness and wit. What’s more, he rarely allows himself to be upstaged, even when he is faced with his own extinction.”

PART II

I just finished Childhood’s End, before the end of “Clarke Month,” and below are my comments on the last half:

After the seance, when the overloads are discussing Jean’s fainting upon hearing the star notation for their home planet, they make reference to her being a too old to be a prime contact (later explained obliquely), and to “transfer her to Category Purple” which was never explained – what that meant, or the significance of the categories – no other “category” was ever mentioned. pg. 103

He makes his famous statement that “the stars are not for Man,” when the Overlord makes some announcements about why the skies are closed after Jan is discovered as a stowaway. That statement is repeated, but in many ways, as is later shown in the book, the stars ARE for man, just in a new and supposedly improved version. And Clarke’s explanations for this are not satisfactory to me: he talks about how vast the galaxy is (he uses galaxy and universe interchangeably at times, which is annoying to me), but only when he gets to the metaphysical “bridge” thing does he sort of make a case. What is wrong with man colonizing his star system, and growing along the way? I just never got that part. pg. 137.

The island where the Greggson’s move to, New Athens, reminds me in many ways of the concept for Greg Egan’s Distress – it’s almost as if he borrowed the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, except for the
man-made part. pg. 144-45 (see my earlier review of that book).

The way the island was set up reminded me of the TV show “Numb3rs,” in how they used mathematics in so many ways to compute all the various optimal structuring. Pg.140, 146

He did do a nice job of foreshadowing some of society’s and technology’s trends – i.e. he talked about movies/entertainment that would make you feel like you were part of it – and take part – sort of
a VR? Pg. 148.

As I’ve said before, his writing is very prosy, almost poetical at times: “He had no wish to face whatever lurked in the unknown darkness, just beyond the little circle of light cast by the light of Science.” That, more that technology or ideas, to me, dates the book. I don’t recall if all his books were like this, or just the earlier ones – say contrast it with “Ghost from the Grand Banks.” pg. 151

I also don’t really like any of the characters, perhaps except for the first major one – Stormgren, the Secretary-General. The Greggson’s were annoying – he was always talking “plaintively” and she was way
too submissive, and they were flat, one-dimensional – nothing showing their motivations, beyond a brief reference to his artistic side. Nothing to give them flesh and blood, so that later events – the “ascendancy” or mass evolution of their children and others should move them – indeed, they were quite passive, and accepting, and never seemed to really regret or care about anything. And their marriage was described in very dull, unloving terms – he had stopped loving her, etc. Perhaps a reflection on Clarke’s own views on marriage? Anyone know?

The characters shallowness made later events seem anti-climatic and they just stood there and let it flow around them, rather than absorbing their loss, and the loss of the future of man as they knew him. Everyone on the planet seemed to always have this resigned acceptance of whatever happened to them, it was okay, they’d just get along with it – only a few were referenced with mild rebellions, or like New Athens, with such a minor revolt of the arts that it was almost ludicrous that they feared the Overlord’s displeasure. pg. 151

After his son’s “encounter” with the tsunami and his miraculous saving, George went out to the site to investigate, and found fused rock, and “knew” that the Overlords had intervened? How was he so sure? Nothing like that had ever been done for a single human – so why would he think that the Overlords had somehow picked HIS son to save, out of everyone on the planet subject to accidents, etc.? pg. 156

All, in all, I was disappointed – the ending was trite to me – and the notion that man must wait for the stars until he was ‘ready” to join at a much higher level – that he must evolve entirely into a “new” species, goes against the main frames of SF to me – that if we strive hard enough, we’ll make the stars our destiny.

I didn’t like how humanity just bowed down and accepted their fate at the end – that they just let themselves die off, without trying to see if a new generation would also evolve, or if that was the only one, etc. It seems in direct violation of all that mankind holds dear – freewill, independence, stubbornness, etc. They did that throughout the book – just accept it, like sheep.

Of course, I’ve never been a big fan of the super evolution themes – that man will suddenly evolve into a consciousness – it seems boring to me – to just be a mind, without substance, even if you have the
universe at your “mind”, it’s not at your fingertips as you have none!

And the very ending, with Karellen and the Overlords stuck in an evolutionary dead-end, and being “slaves” to the Overmind seemed “off.” What is wrong with what they had accomplished, and what they still might accomplish – why is the Overmind or an evolutionary dead-end the only two forks in the road, as Clarke says on pg. 205? Now it may only be a literary device, but it is unsatisfactory to me.

I wanted SO much more from each and every page – more character dimension, more descriptions, more delving into the whys and wherefores – it seems like it should have been two or three times the length to adequately address the subject. It just seemed way too short. And Clarke’s little disclaimer in the 1990 edition, about how when it was first published, readers were baffled by a statement at the beginning that the opinion expressed in the book were not those of the author, is a little lame, IMO. He states (in the later edition ) that this was put in because he had just published his book “The Exploration of Space” and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. And now he had written a book that “the
stars were not for Man,” and he didn’t want anyone to think he had recanted his just published views.

He then goes on to state that he would change that to cover 99% of the paranormal, so that the books won’t “contribute to the seduction of the gullible, now cynically exploited by the media.” He goes on to say, that although his views on the paranormal have changed, the book still has relevance as “it’s a work of fiction, for goodness sake!”

In his foreward he also talks about how “V” the miniseries is an “impressive variation” of Chapter 2.

So, bottom line – okay reading, but disappointing – 1. flat and featureless – needs fleshing out, IMHO, and 2. trite ending – a quick, descriptionless ascendancy, without any reason how or why. The paranormal pasts, like the seance, and Rupert’s “books” seemed almost an afterthought.

A fellow member had this to say about my “notes”:

” I enjoyed Kristin’s analysis of Clarke’s classic Childhoods End. I’d like to add some points in defense of this book.

First, it was written in 1953. At that time Clarke was 36 years old and had just started publishing. He had a few novels published and some short stories, but was at the beginning of his career. So, we have to give him some slack in character and plot development. If he had written this in 1983 it would have been embarrassing.

Second, I don’t have a problem with the Overlords and their mission to guide humanity to join the Overmind. Assuming that the Overmind is a vast mind that wants to grow, it might recognize that lesser races need guidance to help them join it and designate the Overlords to guide humanity.

In rereading Childhood… I found this sentence in Karellan’s broadcast to the Earth in Chapter 14, “One of my duties has been to protect you from powers and forces that lie among the stars – forces beyond anything you can imagine.”

I don’t know if it was mentioned in the book (perhaps it was in another Clarke novel). but I recall a phrase about how an advanced intelligence could view lesser races, “…and, sometimes, dispassionately weed…” implying advanced races might have to protect the Galaxy against aggressive humans armed with nuclear weapons and a nuclear space drive.”

And my reply was:

Chris is right on all points – I was merely reacting to it as if it were a story newly minted – coming to it with “fresh” eyes. He does touch on the last point of Chris’s in “Childhood’s End”:

On pg. 136-37 (1990 version), he talks about how a stone age man might react to the Victorian age of electricity and steam, and what might happen if a Victorian man tried to tinker with a television set or a
computer. “How long would he have lived if he started to investigate their workings? The gulf between the two technologies can easily become so great that it is – lethal.”

He went on to talk about how our race, in it’s present stage of evolution, cannot face the stupendous challenge of the immensity of space. Then he says “It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets one day you may possess. But the stars are not for Man.” That was after the announcement of the stowaway.

Then while he’s talking to Jan at the end, he discusses, or “pontificates” on the power of psi – that we had begun to investigate it, and while physicists would only have ruined the earth, the paraphysicists could have “spread havoc to the stars.” He says we might have become a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in it’s inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds. So they were sent to interrupt our development, guide us, and be our guardians until we were ready.

So it seems to me that at least in this book, the threat from us was not our bombs and such, nor our war-like mentality, but our inability to comprehend the extraordinary vastness of space and it’s cultures,
and that our untrained psi powers could have done much harm, until we were “ready.”

It’s not a bad book to me, just, as Chris sort of said, an untrained one, from a newbie writer, with grandiose ideas, and not yet the pen ready to commit them all to paper fully. It’s sad, because I think it could have been a great book if he had written it later in his career. But to me he was always a master of the short story, more than the novel, with the exception of “Rama,” which as I recall was fascinating at first, then became boring, so much so that I think I stopped reading it and never finished – only a rereading will tell.

But his short stories, like The Star, and such are phenomenal.

The House AI

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