Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you’re so inclined, and I’m generally not) is a cliché. Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I’d read nothing by the fellow.
This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707. My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle. Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover.
And just barely. Jets are fast. It’s hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3. And that was only a decade ago!
The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke’s best-seller, “Childhood’s End.” I can’t tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can’t chide me anymore for my illiteracy.
Here’s what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order. It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style. This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand.
For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto. For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters. Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous. Still, it is a very fine book.
And I shan’t tell you any more than that. Because first and foremost, it is a mystery. Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries. It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it. Suffice it to say that Childhood’s End is very original and never dull.
I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day. It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot. Moreover, Clarke’s future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day. It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke’s vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.
Disturbing stuff… but then Clarke’s book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff. Pick it up! You won’t regret spending four bits.
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)