Friday, March 26, 2010

From Recession to the Stars: Childhood's End

It's hard to be optimistic about humanity these days, isn't it? People aren't working, banks are going out of business, governments are mired in intractable ideologies. We've discovered that human space travel is all but impossible thanks to cosmic radiation, exorbitant fuel requirements, and the impenetrable barrier of light speed. We've seen no evidence of intelligent life in the cosmos, and God knows there's little enough evidence of intelligence life here on Earth, either. The signs are mounting that our environment is changing in ways we cannot predict: deforestation, species loss, mutating diseases...the list goes on and on.

Of course, there's always the long view. After all, just a few thousand years ago, we were living in caves and eating carrion, weren't we? We've come much farther than you might expect (some more than others).

Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End is all about the long view of humanity--the VERY long view from our present difficult days to an almost miraculous ascension to our higher destiny in the distant future. It's a book full of wonder and possibility, a veritable mission statement for science fiction as the literature of amazement and hope.

The story describes one of the gentlest alien invasions in all of science fiction literature: the Overlords, a mysterious and powerful race, arrive on Earth and take control of our political, scientific, and financial affairs to prevent our impending extinction. In this environment of forced peace and prosperity, certain characteristics of humanity seem to fade (aggression, ambition, technological innovation) and others develop (scholarship, psychology, interpersonal affairs). No one is entirely sure about the motivation of the Overlords in their "protection" of our species, but as the years and generations progress, suspicion of the aliens wanes and humanity enjoys its utopia.

Throughout the book, a few resourceful humans edge closer to learning the secret of the Overlords and just how they're tied closely to our own destiny. By the end of the novel, we find that we've got much more ahead of us than merely the galaxy.

This novel is wondrous and tragic, moving and sublime. It is all about our latent potential and how our present institutions fail to develop it. It is full of troubling and topical questions about free will and passivity, ambition and surrender, individual action and cultural cooperation. It lives at the intersection between many fascinating ideas, some of them disquieting and others comforting.

My esteem for this book as a quintessential example of science fiction isn't coincidental. After spending my childhood in love with science fiction, I abandoned the genre for a few snobby years in college while I studied "real literature" as an English major. I didn't understand why my love for reading had dwindled to an ember until I happened to take a class in science fiction. There, after reading Childhood's End, I remembered what it was like to feel a surge of amazement and wonder from words on a page again. I remembered that these were the books that mattered to me, and I've never given them up again.

This is a little book about big things. It reminds us that we spend too much of our lives worried about keeping a roof over our heads when we'd rather see the stars.


Arevanye said...

Glad to see someone else reading this one and recommending it.

You might be interested to know that C.S. Lewis thought it was an "absolute corker" of a story:

Cheers, love your blog.

Will Ludwigsen said...

I need to put the words "absolute corker" into more of my reviews, and--indeed--my every day conversation!

It seems logical for Lewis to like Childhood's End; it's just the sort of philosophically-charged sf he wrote (and which we're not getting much of these days).