Arthur C. Clarke Clarke, Arthur C(harles) (Vol. 18) - Essay

David N. Samuelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is one of the classics of modern SF, and perhaps justifiably so. It incorporates into some 75,000 words a large measure of the virtues and vices distinctive to SF as a literary art form…. Unfortunately, and this is symptomatic of Clarke's work and of much SF, its vision is far from perfectly realized. The literate reader, especially, may be put off by an imbalance between abstract theme and concrete illustration, by a persistent banality of style, in short, by what may seem a curious inattention to the means by which the author communicates his vision. The experience of the whole may be saved by its general unity of tone, of imagery, and of theme, but not without some strain being put on the contract implicit between author and reader to collaborate in the "willing suspension of disbelief." (p. 196)

From the moon-bound rockets of the "Prologue" to the last stage of the racial metamorphosis of mankind, familiar science fictions guide us gradually if jerkily through Childhood's End. Besides futuristic technological hardware, we are shown three rational utopian societies and mysterious glimpses of extrasensory powers. Reducing all of these, however, practically to the status of leitmotifs, the theme of alien contact is expanded to include something close enough to the infinite, eternal, and unknowable that it could be called God; yet even this being, called the Overmind, is rationalized, and assumed to be subject to natural laws.

Two stages of advanced technology are shown us, one human, one alien [that of the Overlords]. (p. 197)

Technology accounts in part for the utopian social organizations projected in this book, and also for their failings. Technologically enforced law and order, technology-conferred freedom of movement and sexuality, help to establish a worldwide "Golden Age," but the elimination of real suffering and anguish, combined with the humans' sense of inferiority, results in mild anxiety, resentment, and lethargy. To make utopia really utopian, an artists' colony is established, on the traditionally utopian locale of an island…. Besides being unimportant, however, utopia is unreachable; just as technology can not make everyone happy on Earth, so is it insufficient for the supremely rational and scientific Overlords. Their placid orderliness, their long lives, may excite our envy, but they in turn envy those species which can become part of the Overmind.

Thus Childhood's End is not really utopian … so much as it is a critique of utopian goals. Whatever the social machinery, and Clarke is extremely sketchy about how this society is run, peace and prosperity are inadequate; the people of New Athens need something more to strive for. This particular "utopia" is only a temporary stage in man's development. Theoretically, he could go in the direction of enlarging his storehouse of empirical knowledge; this is the way of the Overlords, without whom man could not have defused his own self-destructive tendencies. Yet, paradoxically, the Overlords are present in order to cut man off from entering their "evolutionary cul de sac," to insure that he takes the other road, paralleling the mystical return of the soul to God [what Clarke calls, the Overmind]. (pp. 197-98)

On the surface, [the] inability to understand the Overmind is merely a sign of its strangeness and vastness, which may some day become comprehensible to reason and science—after all, how would a human writer describe something totally alien?—but underneath we feel the tug of the irrational, in familiar terms. The Overmind clearly parallels the Oversoul, the Great Spirit, and various formulations of God, while the children's metamorphosis neatly ties in with mystical beliefs in Nirvana, "cosmic consciousness," and "becoming as little children to enter the Kingdom of God."… [The] interplay between the Overlords and the Overmind may be seen as a reworking of the old morality-play situation of the Devil trying to steal away from God the souls of men. These Devils appear to be devoted servants carrying out God's orders, but the...

(The entire section is 1701 words.)

John Huntington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I would suggest that it is its elegant solution to the problem of progress that has rightly earned Childhood's End that "classic" status it now enjoys. (p. 211)

Clarke's myth of progress consists of two stages: that of rational, technological progress, and that of transcendent evolution. Many of his novels remain on the first stage and render technological speculations in painstaking detail…. But in his most far-reaching novels technological progress fails to satisfy, and mankind advances, not by inventing more competent machinery, but by mutating into a higher form of being. This transcendental vision offers, not the detailed ingenuity of mechanical invention, but powerful hints of modes of understanding and perception and of mental powers and controls that so completely surpass those which we ourselves experience that they are incomprehensible to us. Such a realm of being can only be hinted at; it needs a language of symbol and suggestion in place of the technological vision's concrete detail. Whereas the latter offers the excitement of comprehension, the former offers the excitement of obscurity.

In Clarke's myth the transcendent state is not simply the highest stage of technological progress. Though there exists a sequential relation between the two worlds—the transcendent always follows the technological—there is no structural similarity which would allow for communication between them. The transcendent world represents a completely different order of being and perception, an order which, instead of subsuming the technology that has preceded it, obliterates it. The model for the relation of the two visions is that of the Pauline promise that forms the basis for Childhood's End…. Just as the mature man "put away childish things," transcendent consciousness completely dispenses with the attainments of rational science and the inventions of technology. The children, having entered the Overmind at the end of Childhood's End, destroy the Earth. (pp. 211-12)

The gratuitous nature of transcendence and the fact that it always follows the technological state leave man no choice but to pursue the technological vision, but with the important awareness that technological progress is not true progress, merely a test of man's moral and intellectual energies. As we shall see, technological progress alone leads to a dead end. True progress comes only as a kind of reward infused by the Overmind into man's history….

2001: A Space Odyssey eloquently renders Clarke's basic myth of progress, but it does not make it clear why, if technological progress itself delights him as much as it seems to, Clarke should find the transcendent state necessary. In that novel we experience the myth without any sense of what its absence might entail. (p. 213)

Childhood's End [with its] two-stage myth of progress … escapes the disabling structure of 2001 by introducing a middle term which joins the two stages of vision. The Overlords in Childhood's End, the huge, Satanic-looking creatures who arrive to dominate Earth and protect man from himself until his metamorphosis into the Overmind can take place, function as both a prospect of the possibilities of technology and as figures of tragic limitation. They mediate between the two stages of progress. (p. 216)

The basic structure of Childhood's End can be represented by an equation:

Humans/Overlords = Overlords/Overmind

Whereas the first two sections of the novel develop the Human/Overlord relation, the last section develops the Overlord/Overmind relation. When the Russian rocket scientist, Schneider, first sees the ships of the Overlords, "for the first time in his life he knew despair."… We discover that this same despair in the face of the unattainable is what the Overlords themselves have to fight. But the novel as a whole does not...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)

L. David Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the highest ranking writers of science fiction, and that position is deserved. Certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey is his major claim to fame with the general public. Rendezvous with Rama won, in 1975, the three highest awards given to writers of science fiction: the Hugo (from science-fiction fans), the Nebula (from science-fiction writers), and the Jupiter (from teachers of science fiction). The rest of his novels are good, solid science fiction.

Imperial Earth, his latest effort, belongs in this latter class: it is good, solid science fiction that has much interest and reads well but does not quite have the consistency and sweep of vision to overcome its flaws, to push those flaws far enough into the background so that they are virtually unnoticeable. The action occurs in 2276, during the fifth centennial celebration of the birth of the United States. Thus, one of the central threads in the novel is a projection of changes that might take place over the next three centuries. For the most part, these changes are seen through background mention rather than direct focus. This emphasis is appropriate, since this thread is secondary to that of political relationships and change, which, in turn, is closely bound to the development of Duncan Makenzie, who begins with one vision of his role and direction and ends with another. (p. 270)

This is a rich book, filled with stimulating possibilities for the future. However, this richness may be one of the flaws of the novel: because there are so many aspects worth exploring, very little depth is possible for any of them. In addition, the central storyline which holds them all together has a life of its own and at times pushes all else to the side; coherence sometimes suffers. Imperial Earth is not Arthur C. Clarke's best science fiction novel, as some have claimed. Nevertheless, Clarke has managed to do a good job of presenting a multifaceted future that feels possible and of keeping the reader reading; Imperial Earth is still better than at least ninety percent of the science fiction being published. (p. 271)

L. David Allen, "The Future," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 270-71.

Thomas M. Disch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are no criteria by which [the eighteen stories in The Best of Arthur Clarke] can be considered their author's best work. The first four are the rawest juvenilia…. No stories have been included from Tales from the White Hart and only a single vignette from Reach for Tomorrow, collections that represent Clarke's maturity. Further, too many of the stories chosen have not worn well and can only be read as period pieces.

On the whole, however, Clarke suffers less than most equally prolific writers would by having such a random sample served up as his best. Aside from the few undeniable classics, such as "The Star" and "A Meeting with Medusa" (both included), his work is more notable for its reliable evenness than for peaks of excellence and troughs of failed ambition. He writes to a formula—but he does it well. The pleasure of reading his shorter fictions is like that afforded by watching good billiards players. Clarke is an expert at inventing scenarios that illustrate Newton's laws of motion, at deploying vector quantities with human names in the ideal frictionless environment, not of green baize, but of outer space.

Thomas M. Disch, "The Earthbound Exegete," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3976, June 16, 1978, p. 662.

Tim Myers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke attempts to forecast a future where technology has again become man's hope for salvation. The hero of the novel, a scientist-cum-Siddhartha by the name of Vannever Morgan, has a vision that he can link the earth with the rest of the solar system by means of a towering "sky elevator."…

If Morgan's ambition seems Promethean, Clarke cheats himself and his readers by not giving the scientist the complexity of character—a fatal flaw, at least—that would make him a tragic figure heading for a fall…. Morgan's petty narcissism wouldn't be so bad if Clarke didn't want us to admire the poor fellow, who really is nothing more than a machine minus the shiny covering. Without a trace of irony, the author has created a world where the rage for order has robbed even its heroes of personality.

Writing in a genre whose strength is supposed to lie in its imagination, Clarke has given us cant instead, and succeeds only in encouraging disbelief.

Tom Myers, "Brief Review: 'The Fountains of Paradise'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 180, No. 12, March 24, 1979, p. 40.

Steve Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Fountains of Paradise is the story of the genesis, construction, and ultimate fate of what Clarke rather prosaicly terms either the Orbital Tower, or the Space Elevator. The novel is a conceptual cornucopia containing scene after scene of real beauty….

Clarke's prose hasn't been this good in years, effortless, stripped to the bone, and clear as mylar. Gone is the monotonous tedium of Imperial Earth, gone is the "gosh-Joe-look-at-that!" comic-book marvelling of Rendezvous with Rama. In its place is a mature appreciation of a wonder that relegates Rama to the status of a toy. The Tower is much more impressive than Rama,… because it seems so real, something that could, and should, actually be done. Clarke grows his concepts in the most austere of technically speculative soil, and strikes directly to the awestricken teenager that lies just beneath the surface of us all. His total control of his material illuminates every corner of the landscape, in deft little brushstrokes….

[The] book ends in a short burst of far-future extrapolation that will suck the breath from your lungs….

But, as good as The Fountains of Paradise is, the immense and panoramic potential novel that lies between the lines of this slim volume remains stillborn….

Steve Brown, "'The Fountains of Paradise'," in Science Fiction Review (copyright © 1979 by Richard Geis; reprinted by permission of Richard Geis and Steve Brown), No. 30, March-April, 1979, p. 58.