30.9.14

"Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke


Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. Random House, 1954 (1990).

The Overlords have come. They have ended war, ended hunger, and unified the world. But who are they? And what are they really after? And will humanity succumb to a growing malaise and lack of creative striving in the face of this newly given peace?

These are the questions which begin this great sci-fi novel. I don’t normally review sci-fi books on here. I read plenty of them, being my genre of choice when it comes to fiction, but they are typically akin to the martial arts movies I enjoy: Briefly enjoyable and suited to my tastes, but nothing to write home about. 

Still, in every genre, no matter how specific, there are hidden gems. Here is one of them. What you will find in this book is, of course, Clarke’s creative vision of a specific future. Yet embedded within are also ideas about humanity, religion, science, purpose, and the meaning of life. And while you may or may not agree with Clarke’s ideas, exploring them with him and thinking about them alongside of his writing is both fun and interesting.

Not only that, but I was pleased to find, on the back of this book, one of the original endorsements: “There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity that its own ‘survival.’” – C.S. Lewis.

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Highly Recommended. You may not like sci-fi, but give this a try as a thought experiment anyway. 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

“Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953.

I first read the book while in grade school decades ago. (No, not in 1953.) I do not remember being very impressed. Prompted by your 5-star review, I read the book again this past week, and I did not see anything to change my opinion of it.

I fault the book on its futurist aspects, a key and important part of any science fiction book. On that metric, “Childhood’s End” falls short of the lofty standard set by Clarke himself in “The Sentinel”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Rendezvous with Rama”.

• The characters in the book assumed that the Overlords have them under surveillance, except when blocked by sufficient mass (underground, underwater). However, with technology as advanced as the Overlords, it is easy to imagine “bugs” (in fact Clarke described “tracers” in the book) being placed on persons of interest, or even on everyone. Even if the Overlords can not interrogate these bugs at all times, it is easy to imagine them recording information for later transmission.

• One can imagine the Overlords being able to exploit neutrinos, for which a few thousand kilometers of earth is but a thin tissue. The existence of neutrinos was postulated in 1930, well before the writing of the book.

• We read that by the early and middle 21st century Man had “giant computing machines that could perform the work of a thousand human calculators in a matter of seconds” (p. 145). I’ll grant that in 1953 computing was in its infancy and Moore’s Law has not yet been identified, but this description still falls short of actual computing capability by many orders of magnitude.

• Pervasive surveillance posits the existence of massive processing power. If even Man had giant computing machines, how much more for the Overlords? Yet there are gaps in the Overlords capability and knowledge inconsistent with having massive processing power. For example, actually having to read a book (even if at 0.5 page/second) to obtain the information (p. 78).

• Similarly, the existence of private aircars (p. 70) without enormous air traffic casualties requires massive computing power, either distributed in individual vehicles or in centralized air traffic control. Certainly more processing power than giant machines that can perform the work of a thousand human calculators in seconds.

• The underestimation and misprediction of digital technology is consistent with Jan Rodricks bringing “thousands of meters of film” on his stowaway journey to the Overlords’ home world (p. 123).

• I do credit Clarke for forecasting (p. 146) that “cartoon film” can be indistinguishable from actual photography. On the same page, he described “total identification” which we know today as virtual reality. All the more puzzling that he did not forecast the computing power necessary for the achievement of these ends.

• I suppose TV was in its early days in 1953, but radio had by then been around for decades. It is therefore jarring to read that in the 21st century, every day (a mere) 500 hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels, and the average viewing time per person was 3 hours per day (p. 139). Equally jarring to read of Stormgren getting a news summary printed out every hour on his personal facsimile machine (p. 26), and that newspapers are printed by a telecaster in every home (p. 107). Finally, at around the year 2075, Supervisor Karellen addressed humanity “from a million radios” (p. 178).

• We read that information in a human spaceship (if there had been one) would be displayed on banks of meters (p. 187). In reality, this kind of display technology and ergonomics has been surpassed decades ago by the “glass cockpits” of military aircraft and airliners.

(continued)

Anonymous said...

(continued)

• We read of a infallible method of paternity testing based on blood testing (p. 70). Too bad Clarke missed out on DNA testing. Although the Crick and Watson breakthrough only happened in 1953, the hereditary role of DNA had been discovered a couple of decades prior.

• We read of a machine that can view the past (p. 71). I would have like to see more working out the implication of such a revolutionary device.

• In this age of the internet, Wikileaks, Snowden, etc., it seems naive to assume (p. 100) that any information, for example NGS 549672, whatever the provenance, will not be widely disseminated. Anonymously if necessary.

• It is quaint and faintly musty to read of “your own Universe” (p. 133) and of “the known universe” (p. 168) in the sense of “this galaxy”.

Considering that Clarke is the inventor of the Comsat, it is disappointing that he did not work harder on the futurist aspects of the book.

Moreover, “Childhood’s End” suffers from Anglo-centricism and assumption of the universality of the Judeo-Christian depiction of the Devil. Regarding the former, it seems unrealistic that the Overlords speak only English, and amusing to find (p. 69) that in the Golden Age “there was no one on earth who could not speak English”, presumably with a perfect BBC pronunciation. Regarding the latter, the terror that the Devil holds in human minds plays a key role in the narrative. However, this characterization is unknown in Oriental cultures, in fact the very idea of the Devil or evil personified is unknown in Oriental cultures.

Roger Hui

Andrew Demoline said...

Given his apparent ability to succeed in writing sci-fi which focuses on the futuristic aspects, I choose to believe that he was aiming at a different end in this book. If your main goal in reading sci-fi is the futuristic stuff, then this is not a good book for you, as you have amply pointed out. There are, however, other reasons to read :)

Anonymous said...

The Anglo-centrism and the universality of the Devil described in my last paragraph, neither of which are futurist aspects, are sufficient to disqualify it as a good book. In my opinion, of course.

Roger Hui

Andrew Demoline said...

I suppose I find that some anachronisms are forgivable. Perhaps I am wrong in this, but given how common such western-centric views were, I am willing to look past them. It is strange that Clarke seems able to write books without such artifacts present but didn't here. One can criticize him for failing to do so in this case, but this fact does not move the book out of the 'good' category for me.