Arthur C. Clarke Long Fiction Analysis
Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction consistently displays tremendous scientific knowledge combined with a boundless imagination, often touching on the mystical, and flashes of ironic humor. One of Clarke’s specialties was the novel that, with meticulous realism, describes near-future events, such as the first space flight (Prelude to Space), humans living under the sea (The Deep Range), lunar settlements (Earthlight, A Fall of Moondust), colonies on Mars (The Sands of Mars), and efforts to raise the Titanic (The Ghost from the Grand Banks). While these novels are involving, Clarke’s determination to be plausible can make them less than dramatic, and they are rarely celebrated. More noteworthy to most readers are Clarke’s novels that envision incredible engineering accomplishments (Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise), venture far into the future (Against the Fall of Night, The Songs of Distant Earth), or depict encounters with enigmatic aliens (Childhood’s End, 2001 and its sequels, The Last Theorem). Few writers can match Clarke’s ability to take a broad perspective and regard vast expanses of space and time as mere episodes in an even vaster cosmic drama inaccessible to human understanding.
Early critics frequently complained about Clarke’s undistinguished prose style and wooden characters, but he steadily improved in these areas, and if his fiction of the 1980’s and 1990’s brought no spectacular new visions, the writing was generally more impressive than that of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Ghost from the Grand Banks, for example, effectively employs short chapters that jump forward and backward in time and reveal Clarke’s skill in crafting superb opening and closing lines. Many have observed that the previously underdeveloped Heywood Floyd and Frank Poole evolve into realistic characters in the sequels to 2001. Although much critical commentary on Clarke’s work tends to focus on the earlier works, his later novels also merit attention.
Against the Fall of Night
Clarke’s first major novel features Alvin, a restless young man, in Diaspar, a city in Earth’s distant future where machines provide for all needs. Alvin quickly disrupts the placid, unchanging lives of Diaspar’s nearly immortal residents with his remarkable discoveries. An underground vehicle transports him to Lys, a previously unknown civilization where people choose agrarian lifestyles aided by telepathic powers rather than machines. There, an old man’s strange robot reveals the location of a spaceship, which Alvin uses to journey to a faraway planet, where he encounters a disembodied intelligence named Vanamonde. Back on Earth, Alvin and the elders of Lys deduce humanity’s history: After humans worked with aliens to create pure intelligences, their first product, the Mad Mind, went insane and unleashed its destructive energies throughout the galaxy. After creating other, sane intelligences like Vanamonde, humans left the universe entirely, leaving behind a few who preferred to remain on Earth. Dispatching a robot to search for the departed humans, Alvin stays behind to solve other mysteries of human history.
Overflowing with ideas, presented with breathless haste, Against the Fall of Night commands attention for its evocative and imaginative portrayal of decadent future humans haunted by a misunderstood heritage, and the arrogance with which Alvin dominates and upsets their sterile existence may reflect the self-confidence of a young author who felt destined to accomplish great things. However, a dissatisfied Clarke soon took the unusual step of writing an extensive revision of the novel, published as The City and the Stars. While the later version offers fascinating new details about life in Diaspar, many readers preferred the youthful exuberance of the original story, and a consensus developed that the first version is superior. Thus, in continuing Alvin’s story, writer Gregory Benford chose to follow the original version, republished together with Benford’s sequel as Beyond the Fall of Night in 1990.
Considered by many to be Clarke’s masterpiece, Childhood’s End begins when Earth is peacefully taken over by the benevolent alien Overlords. Concealing themselves because they resemble devils, the Overlords govern through human intermediaries such as the secretary-general of the United Nations, whom they effortlessly rescue when he is kidnapped by rebels who oppose the Overlords. When they finally reveal their appearance fifty years later, humanity is enjoying a golden age of peace and prosperity thanks to the Overlords’ wise rule and advanced technology. Streaks of rebelliousness persist, however, and a man named Jan Rodricks stows away on a starship to visit the Overlords’ home world. Later, on Earth, George and Jean Greggson are upset when their son begins dreaming about other worlds and their daughter manifests telekinetic powers. An Overlord now explains the true motives behind their takeover. Certain races, such as humans, have the capacity to achieve a higher level of evolution by merging into a group mind and joining the mysterious Overmind that controls the universe; the Overmind assigns the Overlords, who paradoxically lack this potential, to supervise these races during the transitional stage. Soon, all human children have mentally united and seem like aliens to their distraught parents. While the adults, their dreams shattered, commit suicide in various ways, Rodricks returns to Earth to observe its final moments, as the children employ psychic powers to disintegrate their world and merge with the Overmind.
Perhaps perturbed by his own prophecy, Clarke adds this introductory comment: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Certainly, Childhood’s End stirs strong and conflicting emotions in its final portrait of Earth’s children seemingly reduced to naked savages engaged in senseless activities, even while the reader is assured that they represent a glorious new stage in human evolution. If not wholly satisfactory in style and character development, the novel persuasively presents its unsettling developments and, decades after publication, continues to inspire heated discussion.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey differs from the film based on it both in major details and in its overall tone, which is clear and explanatory, in contrast to Kubrick’s directorial mystification. Clarke develops the character of Moon-Watcher, the ape-man of the distant past who first notices the alien monolith that teaches Moon-Watcher and his companions to use tools. Next, in the near future, Heywood Floyd visits the Moon to examine another monolith, which suddenly emits a powerful radio signal toward Saturn (not Jupiter, as in the film). The spaceship Discovery is sent to investigate, though the crewmen who are not placed in hibernation, David Bowman and Frank Poole, know nothing about the...
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