David N. Samuelson

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1701

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)

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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 Overlords also never stop trying to bring Him down to their level…. (pp. 200-01)

Clarke seems quite aware of the affinity between alien beings in science fiction and the apocalyptic and demonic imagery of mythological fantasy. By deliberately choosing devil-figures as spokesmen for scientific, or scientistic, thought, he establishes a growing tension between conflicting emotions as the climax of the novel nears, and the reader is almost forced to make a choice between two extreme positions. (p. 202)

In dealing with any theme of larger scope than ironing out the bugs in advanced technological hardware, it may be difficult for an SF writer to avoid mythic structures…. But the critically sensitive reader does have the right to expect the writer of SF to use the myth, rather than be used by it, i.e., to make the whole book work on science-fictional terms. The Universe may or may not be comprehensible to reason, but the mythico-religious presentation of the Overmind and the children's metamorphosis does not seem to me consonant with serious exobiological speculation. It may be probable, as Clarke writes elsewhere, that alien beings superior to us exist, but it seems highly improbable that they are so analogous to the gods and devils of our imagination. (pp. 202-03)

Why does Clarke even attempt this explanation of mythology? Why, in an SF novel, does he fill several pages with a spiritualistic seance? Neither was necessary to the theme it would appear, or to the book as a whole. The Overlords' parallel with the Christian Devil could have been left unexplained, without impairing them as alien beings or as literary symbols: the explanation given is worse than none at all…. The problem which seems to exist on an SF level is essentially a literary one: not fully in control of his materials, Clarke has attempted more than he can fulfill. (pp. 204-05)

[Childhood's End also suffers from] a disproportionate emphasis on the large, "significant" effects, at the expense of the parts of which they are composed. (p. 205)

Either a unified plot or a more carefully developed poetic structure might have been preferable to the awkward misfit of this particular essay in counterpoint. But Clarke is apparently unable to imagine a plot adequate to the scope of his framework; his "predictive" novels are equally plotless and even his tale of the far future is made up of a series of accidental occurrences, set into motion almost haphazardly by the adolescent hero's desire for change and adventure. So the counterpoint structure was attempted for Childhood's End, and the result is a hodgepodge of pretentious chronicle, apologetic melodrama, and superficial sketches of static unrelated, individual scenes. Even if we regard the book as an elegy for mankind, for the end of personal and racial "childhood," the elegiac tone is inconsistent, and insufficient to maintain unity over 75,000 words without a more carefully wrought "poetic structure," and the lame, pedestrian style of the novel seems particularly incongruous for a poem.

As it is practically plotless, the novel is also almost characterless. Against the ambitious theme and tremendous scope, individuals and their merely personal problems are bound to look somewhat insignificant. (p. 206)

Stormgren, George, Jan, and Karellen are the only major characters; one of them is involved in every episode we are shown, not merely told about. All males, actively questing for knowledge, they all appear confident and rational, unless belief in rationality in the face of the incomprehensible is itself irrational. Even their mental processes are shown to us in formal, grammatical sentences, with no trace of irrational stream of consciousness. Given little to do, however, they seem no more than marionettes in this cosmic puppet show. (p. 207)

A resigned acceptance, common to all four characters, is largely responsible for the elegiac tone pervading the book. Stormgren knows he will never see the Overlords, George knows man has lost his future as man, Jan knows he can not survive cut off from human kind, and Karellen knows he will never find the kind of answers that he seeks. It is the reader's knowledge of impending doom that makes the characters' inconsequential behavior and sunny dispositions seem ironic; juxtaposition, a "cinematic" technique, accomplishes what style does not. Although Clarke sometimes stumbles over awkward circumlocutions, trite sententiae, pedantic speechmaking, and labored humor, the pedestrian lucidity and uncomplicated vocabulary of his style seldom draw the reader's attention away from the events being described. I feel the author's presence only toward the end, where his style does manage to impart a sense of melancholic majesty to the spectacle. His attempt at generating a "sense of wonder," which ranges from "gee-whiz" impressions of the Overlords to awed contemplation of man's fate, is most successful as the children grow more confident in the testing of their powers, and it culminates in the cataclysmic shock…. (pp. 207-08)

If Childhood's End is not a fully satisfying literary experience, it does illustrate certain characteristics of SF at its best, and it does exhibit literary virtues. Respect for rational thought, construction of a cosmic perspective, relentless pursuit of extrapolative hypotheses, and a genuine evocation of the sense of wonder are each positive achievements, on their own terms. (p. 209)

If Childhood's End is a classic, it is partly because it is a hybrid, a respectable representative of that period during which SF magazine writers were first trying to reach out to a literary audience, as well as to their more habitual readers. An ambitious effort, better than people outside the pulp field thought it capable of achieving, it is also an abortive effort, an impressive failure, the flaws of which are indicative of the problems frequently attendant upon the literary domestication of SF. It has a high seriousness that sets it apart from the ordinary pulp science fiction novel of any generation, but it barely lives up to its name. An attempt at maturity, Childhood's End is no more than a median stage of adolescence. (p. 210)

David N. Samuelson, "'Childhood's End': A Median Stage of Adolescence?" (originally published in a slightly different form in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. I, Spring, 1973), in Arthur C. Clarke, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1974, pp. 196-210.

John Huntington

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637

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 preach despair because, while it repeats the initial situation on a higher plane, it also performs the miraculous transformation of human into Overmind so that the first and last terms of the proportion are seen as spiritually the same. The Overmind is both a mysterious transcendence and an expression of qualities potential in mankind.

The important point is that logically Clarke is having it two ways here. If human and Overlord are not equal, then human and Overmind cannot be equal; and yet they are. The Overmind, thus, represents both progress and stasis. While on the one hand we are moving higher and higher, from man through Overlord to Overmind, on the other we are also returning to the same level. The Overmind here represents a kind of magical solution to the problem…. (pp. 217-18)

What in the basic structure of the novel constitutes a logical inconsistency generates an artistic whole, and this unity is mirrored and supported by the smaller details of imagery and character…. [The] novel resolves logical inconsistency on many levels, not merely on the level of the large structure with which we have been concerned. Throughout the novel, for example, images of destruction are associated with progress…. It is thus thematically important that man's potential for self-destruction should be the mark of his potential for transcendence…. The question whether chaotic self-destruction and creative progress are so related in actual fact does not really apply here; we are concerned at this point, not with thematic truth, but with thematic pattern. The images of the novel engage contradictory ideas and repeatedly unify them. (pp. 218-19)

Before the existence of the Overmind has been revealed and before the midwife function of the Overlords is apparent, Clarke makes us puzzle through some of the conventional solutions to the problems of technological progress. In essence, he offers us two possible, but unsatisfactory, solutions to the challenge of the boredom of perfection. One, the New Athens Community, attempts to reinvigorate the creative activities that have constituted man's glories in the past by retreating from the smooth-functioning and technologically sophisticated world run by the Overlords and setting up a consciously primitive society. The other possible solution is embodied in Jan Rodricks, an Alvin-like character who, frustrated with a world without adventure, sets out to explore despite the prohibitions of the Overlords. (pp. 219-20)

The New Athens attempt to get back to nature is here revealed to be, in part, a denial of technological reality, a kind of sentimental and reactionary pastoralism. (p. 220)

The other human escape from utopia is viewed less ambivalently than the New Athens experiment, but it too has a futile resolution. Jan Rodricks, frustrated by the limits put on his curiosity by the Golden Age imposed by the Overlords, breaks free to explore other worlds. His heroic and brash act obviously has the author's sympathies, but it does not solve the problem that confronts the whole society, and it leads to tragic isolation, not to renewal, for Jan returns to an Earth completely empty of human beings. The whole episode would seem merely a nostalgic excrescence to the main theme of the novel were it not that at the end Jan offers us a human perspective for the final metamorphosis and thereby powerfully brings to bear the awareness of loss that man's triumphant progress into higher being entails…. Jan gives us a scale by which we can measure the sacrifice transcendence involves.

Pastoral retreat and individual daring both fail to resolve the dilemma of progress. While the inquiry into their potentials sheds light on the problem and gives urgency to the issue, it takes the transcendent stage to save the human energy that leads to progress from futilely wasting itself. And, then, it takes in addition the magical agency of the plot to create an image and a situation which, while recognizing their incompatibility, can unify the two stages of technology and transcendence. The Overmind, which conserves the human spirit as it destroys it, and the Overlords, who are both masters and servants, combine to render a complex paradox which expresses our hopes for progress as well as our doubts about it. That the literary solution Clarke has arrived at should be so profoundly paradoxical need not alarm us; it is, after all, a commonplace of literary criticism that paradox of sorts works at the center of much literature, and the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, to say nothing of philosophy, have repeatedly shown us how often imaginative fictions, whether they be dreams, primitive myths, poems, or stories, accept and resolve the contradictions experienced in life. The first question that has to be asked of the artist is not have you appealed to contradictory truths? but have you created a pattern of meaning that is coherent in itself?

That we can view the basic structure of the novel as coherent does not mean that Childhood's End is without faults. The banal style of the novel is not adequate to the theme. The characters, while one does not expect fine detail in their portraits since the main concern of the novel is with larger issues of progress, are alternately pretentious and trivial. One might argue that the frivolousness of much of the middle section of the novel is intended as an ironic foil to emphasize the gap between human and Overmind, but, even if that is the intention, the device remains clumsy and distracting. Most important, as a presence the Overmind, inevitably, frustrates. We can have only vague hints of value and power; we can know it only by its consequences. But, given the coherence of the novel's large structure, these complaints diminish in importance. In Childhood's End Clarke has ingeniously and movingly solved a major aesthetic problem and has given unified form to his resolution of the dilemma progress presents. (pp. 221-22)

John Huntington, "From Man to Overmind: Arthur C. Clarke's Myth of Progress" (originally published in a different form as "The Unity of 'Childhood's End'," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. I, Spring, 1974), in Arthur C. Clarke, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1974, pp. 211-22.

L. David Allen

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

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

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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

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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

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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.

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