Sunday, 21 April 2013

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

From my vast expertise of having read all of two, count them, two, Arthur C. Clarke books, I am seeing a common theme. I don't know if it extends beyond that to his other books, but here it is: The universe is a very, very big place. And humans might just be irrelevant to it. What is going on out there is so vast that it's an immense piece of egotism to think of ourselves as central, or even incidental, to it.

This theme, of course, is deeply unsettling. But also challenging and exciting. He is the only science fiction author I know of to be delving into these ideas. Many have had humans as the poor cousins of intergalactic power structures, but Clarke's books (again, the two I've read) have us as virtually below notice.

Except, in Childhood's End, we are noticed. The Overlords come. They help solve human problems. Their ships linger over cities. They help mold humanity into a saner race. And yet, that's not what they're really after. But the humans who oppose them make certain assumptions about what the Overlords want, and why they've done what they've done. They're wrong. The truth is far weirder.

Like Rendezvous with Rama, this is certainly more a novel of ideas than a novel of character - there is very little setting each human apart. So I wasn't engrossed in the struggles these individuals had in a changed and quickly changing world. But the ideas behind it, the musings on what losing war and poverty and famine would do to humans were interesting, and the final reveals truly breathtaking.

I didn't find Childhood's End to be grim or pessimistic, although the ending is certainly, in many ways, shocking. It is so different and offputting, I can see why people have seen it as negative. But I was also intrigued by it, excited by it, got some sense of why this utterly different world might be something to see. Or at least, to explore through fiction.

Humans might be irrelevant to the wider universe, but there might be the seeds of something more.

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