Arthur C. Clarke World Literature Analysis - Essay

Arthur C. Clarke World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his introduction to Time Probe: The Sciences in Science Fiction (1966), an anthology of science-fiction stories he edited, Clarke explains his views on what science fiction should be. In the first place, it must incorporate some principles of science and technology. He strongly emphasizes, however, that “the prime function of a story is to entertain—not to instruct or to preach.” In addition, the story must contain some intellectual substance if it is to have lasting value. All of these qualities are evident in his own fiction.

Clarke was educated as a scientist and writes about the future in a remarkably detailed, believable manner. He became a staunch advocate of space travel; books such as Prelude to Space (1951) are mostly propaganda with many scientific details to show how some technical accomplishment might be possible. Clarke sees space travel as opening new horizons for human civilization, similar to the exploration of the Western Hemisphere several centuries ago.

Other stories show his skill as a storyteller, often including some surprising revelation that changes the readers’ perspective. In Childhood’s End, the extraterrestrial creatures that seem to be acting as humankind’s guardian angels turn out to look like devils. Another example is “The Star.” It tells about a Jesuit priest who, while traveling on a starship, discovers the ruins of an ancient civilization that was destroyed when its sun became a supernova. By calculating the time when the light from this star would have reached Earth, he determines that this civilization was destroyed to create the star of Bethlehem.

Clarke’s writing can be a combination of the mundane with the lyrical and mystical; 2001: A Space Odyssey includes both. On the one hand, readers learn about the details of space travel, including how toilets work in zero gravity. On the other hand, the ending describes astronaut David Bowman traveling through time and space to some other type of existence in what is a truly transcendental experience.

Most of Clarke’s writings deal with two main themes: the belief that human beings are not alone in the universe and the outcome of human evolution. Clarke is convinced that life has evolved on many other planets and that it is merely a matter of time before contact is made. In stories such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the extraterrestrial being plays a key role in the development of the human race; in others, such as Rendezvous with Rama (1973), the aliens are indifferent. In all cases, the first contact with another race shows that humans are members of a galactic community.

The question of what will become of humans has troubled writers since Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Some authors, such as H. G. Wells in The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), have taken a pessimistic position, predicting that the human race will simply expire. Others, such as Olaf Stapledon in Star Maker (1937), suggest that human beings may eventually evolve into new, superior creatures. Clarke belongs to the latter group.

Clarke sees the evolution of humans as something they cannot control, but he also sees the possibility of some type of transcendent mutation, one in which the mind is freed from matter—and therefore from decay and death. That is certainly the case of Vanamonde in Against the Fall of Night (1953), of the children in Childhood’s End, and of David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even if humans cannot be sure of their evolutionary future, Clarke thinks that change and potential progress are preferable to stagnation. In Imperial Earth (1975), Duncan Makenzie is the latest in a long line of clones. Because of an inherited genetic defect, cloning is the only way the family can perpetuate itself. Makenzie has the resources to make one clone and is expected to make a genetic duplicate of himself. Instead, he decides to have his dead friend cloned because the friend had intellectual gifts and because that clone would be able to have children and thus contribute to the genetic pool; thus the potential for change would exist.

Clarke takes a mostly optimistic view of the future. Although humans cannot know what lies ahead and cannot to a large extent control it, they should trust their potential.

Childhood’s End

First published: 1953

Type of work: Novel

While Earth is being supervised by extraterrestrial Overlords, humans suddenly evolve into a new type of creature.

Childhood’s End begins with this unusual statement: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Although Clarke’s books usually promote space exploration, this one shows that humans are not ready to travel to the stars.

Many writers have speculated about the first encounter between the human race and extraterrestrial beings and what the relationship between those two races will be. Childhood’s End begins with a description of just such an encounter. Some thirty years after the end of World War II, just as the Americans and the Russians are both about to launch their first rockets to the Moon, spaceships appear over every major city on Earth. The Overlords, as the extraterrestrials come to be called, are intellectually and technologically superior to humans and quickly assert their authority.

The directives of the Overlords result in an improved standard of living for all the creatures on Earth. Some object to their domination, mostly because the Overlords are secretive and have never explained why they have come to Earth. No one has ever seen one, and only Rikki Stormgren, the secretary general of the United Nations, ever speaks to them. Karellen, the head Overlord, explains to Stormgren that he is not a dictator but “only a civil servant trying to administer a colonial policy in whose shaping I had no hand.” He does not say who sent him. After fifty-five years, the Overlords finally show themselves to humans. Although their actions make them seem like the guardian angels of humankind, they look exactly like the ancient legends of devils with horns, barbed tails, and leathery wings.

The Overlords have prohibited space travel, and people such as Jan Rodricks resent this because they want to learn what is out there. Rodricks is a stowaway inside a whale model that is being shipped to the Overlords’ home planet and becomes the first and last of his species to travel in space. He learns, however, just how vast and unknowable the universe is and how paltry humans are in comparison. He understands why the Overlords have said, “The stars are not for Man.”

The Overlords represent science and reason and spend much time learning about humans. One of them, Rashaverak, attends a...

(The entire section is 2844 words.)