An Engineer and a Dreamer

acclarke-small.jpgSad news: Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and inventor/scientist, died recently – at the age of 90, he had a full life, but it’s still a great loss. To mark his passing, I picked up my favourite of his books, Childhood’s End, and gave it a re-read. Some of his other accomplishments, like his work on 2001: a space odyssey, might be more famous, but Childhood’s End has always hit me hardest.

Childhood’s End is about alien invasion, but like most of Clarke’s work, this is not a standard-issue of the stereotype, and it’s not an invasion at all. The aliens basically show up and fix everything about human society, but they refuse to show us what they look like for fifty years. Altruistic… and sneaky? What are they waiting for? Could they have ulterior motives of some kind? The title of the book certainly seems ominous.

I was struck this time around by how weird this book is. For one thing, it’s got a massively broken narrative structure. The first third of the book is a mish-mash; the ostensible protagonist – the UN Secretary General – disappears after this point, and the identity of the next leading character is not immediately obvious when the new segment starts. 2001 also has a famously broken-up timeline, and I think it’s for the same reason. Clarke is trying to operate on a more-than-human time scale – the first third of Childhood’s End covers that fifty-year period where the aliens conceal themselves – and regular humans tend to get lost in the shuffle. Likewise, 2001 jumped ahead, in that case by millennia. The ideas behind the story in Childhood’s End tend to militate against human-scale narrative as well, as I’ll explain in a minute.

The first time I read Childhood’s End (about twenty years ago now!), my tiny little teenager’s mind was blown by the big reveal at that one-third mark: the aliens who come to visit look like demons! That was about as much as I could handle, and that’s about all I remembered about the book. But that was enough to burn it into the very foundations of how I read books and judge pop culture in general. The explanation later on in the book, that the acclarke-big.jpgmedieval imagery of devils was actually a premonition of the role of these particular aliens in the termination of childhood referred to in the title, was the fireworks on the cake, so to speak. Clarke found an image, an idea with a great amount of punch, and deployed it skilfully into a science-fiction work. That’s shocking stuff when you’re a youngster just figuring this kind of thing out. If Clarke could wrap up so much potent material in a “low-brow” paperback, maybe other writers could too.

The second time I read Childhood’s End, about ten years ago, I was in a
Kubrick phase, so the earlier book (Childhood’s End came out in 1953, 2001 in 1968) seemed like a pale shadow of the
themes that were reworked in the movie. Interestingly, the two seem to operate entirely on different methods. In 2001, Clarke and Kubrick created the images and ideas that subsequently had such punch because they inserted themselves so firmly into the stream of cultural consciousness. The monolith, the murderous computer HAL, the psychedelic trip through space, etc. Childhood’s End manipulated existing material.

In my latest trip through the book, I noticed most keenly the nature of the end of childhood. Our current form of humanity is, apparently, very childish; at the very least, it’s incredibly small and powerless in comparison to the gigantic nature of the galaxy (a point made explicitly in the book). What might the next step in human evolution look like? What ‘s our adult form once we grow out of childhood? Childhood’s End presents this step as both eerie and beautiful, at once dangerous, frightening, and completely necessary. There’s bound to be growing pains. And when you’re talking about the entire human race going through some kind of mental puberty, your storyline might have no choice but to take the wide view. The storytelling apparatus here is clunky but it still works (as a side note, I would suggest Spin by Robert Charles Wilson as the book that comes closest to integrating human-scale and astronomical-scale events in a readable way; in Clarke’s defense, Spin came out fifty years after Childhood’s End).

Clarke wrote two other books that are worth reading: Rendezvous with Rama, one of the best big-dumb-object stories (a subgenre where humans explore an enormous alien artifact that’s generally beyond our understanding), and The Fountains of Paradise, which was an odd little number that helped popularize the idea of a space elevator. I would recommend avoiding the sequels to 2001, since the quality falls off sharply; any books “co-written” by Clarke are also reliably bad, since, as usual for such items, the quality depends on the name of the co-writer who did most of the work.

I don’t think of Clarke’s books as visceral favourites, but he’s still a big name for me personally – Childhood’s End and Dune were the two books that turned me on to science fiction all those years ago. Clarke had an engineer’s mind for detail, but used that knack in the service of a dreamer’s story; the resulting wild mix sometimes tended to the cold, cerebral side, but that mix was always memorable. He’ll be missed.

6 replies »

  1. Hi James,
    This is a nice send off.
    Just my random thoughts: Clarke’s idea that the resemblance of helpful aliens to medieval concepts of demons is misinterpreted prescience fits with the popular twist that demons are actually nice (like Hellboy) or even Romantic Satanism (the Lucifer-as-Prometeus thing) and contrasts with another trend, that demons represent archaic (evolutionary?) memories of some other Evil, from which they are distanced and abstracted (like that imprisoned devil in the second season of the new Dr. Who or even The First in Buffy). Then there’s also the we-fear-our-wellwishers business, like the new religious movements that insist that stories about angels and fairies actually represent humanity’s early attempts to explain encounters with aliens (following Erich von Daenikan, among others). Do you see Clarke as part of these trajectories, or do you think he was doing something different?
    Thanks for the provocation!


  2. nice piece, james. i’m so ambivalent about the serious science fiction pulp writers like clarke with their interesting ideas and their often disturbing ways that it’s neat to see one book’s affect on you over your life.


  3. Hey Weed,
    I think Clarke’s use of the demon imagery is pretty straightforward: he had no use for religion, and the book provides a rational explanation for why people through the ages might have been afraid of “devils”. In a certain sense, he doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp of religious impulse, since in the book every religion worldwide fades away without much of a fuss. I don’t think he’s interested in the variations you’ve mentioned – it’s more the triumph of sheer reason and science.


  4. A friend, upon hearing of Clarke’s death, said something that really resonated with me: “He was more than just science fiction”.
    So true.


  5. Like you, Childhood’s End had a huge impact on me. My first exposure to it was a collection of short stories. Did you know that the first 1/3 of the book originally was published as a short story, and then he wrote more to finish the idea? The novel essentially starts with the short story, from what I can tell it’s unaltered, then picks it up and goes on. In many ways, I prefer the short story version simply because the emphasis is that the aliens had come to earth in the past, and were mistaken for monsters/demons and thus formed the basis of humanity’s demon myth. I also think it’s my favorite story of his, although I really like Rama. Mostly because the massive alien artifact passes us by, and to all appearances is totally uninterested in us. Talk about humbling!


  6. I recently read some A.E. Van Vogt (Empire of the Atom) and was looking up what other books he wrote. It turns out that many of his books were contructed that same way – by taking short stories and bridging them together or expanding on them to make novels.
    I’m guessing that was a pretty common practice for science fiction writers back in the 1940’s and 1950’s because there was pretty good money to be made in selling short stories to SF magazines, and it also helped establish your reputation. Once you’d succeeded in the magazine market, you could use that as leverage to publish a novel. Some authors seem to have just kept working that way even after they became established in the industry – publishing short stories in magazines then working those stories up into book-length to re-publish as novels.
    Actually, now that I think about it, this strategy goes right back to Charles Dickens, who originally wrote serials (and was paid by the word, which helps explain his verbosity) then collected the serials together and sold them as novels – thereby selling the same story twice.


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