Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is some old-ass science fiction. It’s interesting that on my recent trip I ended up reading 3 SF stories from my to-read list that were all from the 1950s. It’s definitely got a lot of that Zeerust where we’re incredibly far into the future, but it’s still analog interfaces to computers and they still take up entire buildings. At one point someone who’s essentially the human representative from the world gets faxes from all over the world in order to know what’s going on. Of course, some of the female representation is dated – although not as badly as the PKD short stories I read on the same trip I read this book. And there was a great intro to the version I read which was written in 2000 in which Clarke acknowledges how the world passed him by as well as including a revised chapter one written in the 80s.
But what marks this the most as old SF in the tradition of Asimov and other greats, is the narrative. Compared to those old SF stories we are a lot more character-driven nowadays. A lot of the old SF, and this book is no exception, seem to have characters simply as a way to experience the far-out world they’ve created. Really, what they should have done (and a year or so ago I came across a SF short story this way) is written an encyclopedia entry for their fake world and told the story that way. The other thing that makes this story stand out as old is that it has the feeling (maybe true as it happened a lot back then) that it was made up of 3 or 4 stories that had been serialized in a magazine because each part (part 1, part 2, etc) takes place in the same world, but with different characters who have no relation to the previous characters.
The book is essentially the story of what would happen to humanity if aliens arrived here and we were comparatively as advanced as the native americans/first nations had been when the Europeans arrived as told through a few vignettes. The first one, as Clarke mentions in his intro, is essentially the source of the first half of the Will Smith movie Independence Day. The second involves the leader of the world (head of UN) as he deals with the challenge of leading a world in which humans have learned that they are so far beneath the aliens as to have resistance be useless. The third is what happens to the human psyche when they can have a Utopia, but it is not in their ability to control its parameters. The fourth is where things fell apart for me with this method of storytelling. The purpose of the arrival of the aliens is revealed and it’s as mysterious and unfulfilling for me as 2001: A Space Odessy’s ending was. It’s what kept the story from getting a high score from me. I think, having grown up when I have – the story would have had more impact if we’d followed one character or one family or one branch of government throughout the entire story to have a stronger sense of how the aliens’ presence was affecting things.
Why did I read it? Because it’s mother-loving Arthur C. Clarke; the same reason I’ve got some Vonnegut and Louisa May Alcott on my To-Read list for this year; the same reason I watched West Side Story and Gone with the Wind. You experience the classics to understand something about the past and something about the influences that have guided modern authors. One of the many podcasts I listen to is “Unspooled” and they’re going over the AFI Top 100 list and constantly talking about how this film inspired that director or other connections that trickle down to us today in 2019.
Should you read it? Well, if you haven’t gotten to know me via these reviews or my blog posts – I enjoy philosophy and psychology as an amateur. And these old SF stories are philosophy diatribes in story form – essentially parables of a sort. And so I enjoy them. I also enjoy the time capsule aspect of it that leads to all that Zeerust. If you don’t like exposition dumps and philosophy and characters that could be exchanged with any other white guy (and it is men or male-identified entities who do most of plot actions) then you’ll probably end up DNF-ing this.
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