October 30, 2012

Childhood's End

In the long agonizing weeks between giving my daughter my Kindle Keyboard and waiting, waiting, waiting for my new Kindle Paperwhite to show up, I decided to grab something off my TBR pile.  I have an old, 80s cover art version of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End that I've always meant to get to.  I read a bunch of Clarke back in middle and high school and I was pretty sure I'd read this, but was foggy on the details.

As I re-read it this time I think I must have only read the first section because that was all very familiar but the ending was new to me.  Why did I stop reading such an elegant book half way through?  I have no idea other than I tend to read more than one book at a time and it must have just slipped through the cracks at some point.

Interestingly enough, this title isn't available on the Kindle as far as I can tell, so I guess it was a good choice. I remember buying it new (for $2.50!) and it has since yellowed with age. While dated in some ways, the story itself holds up marvelously.  I think it works so well because the science and technical details aren't as important as the allegory aspect of the tale.  Clarke is letting us know that the universe is bigger and stranger than we can probably imagine, so we need to do the best we can here and now before we drive ourselves to extinction.  He seems to worry more about a possible nuclear war, but climate change is a possibility as well.

I can't completely summarize the book without giving too much away.  Basically the old science fiction cliche (yes, even back in the 50s when Clarke wrote this) of a bunch of massive alien spacecraft appearing over the major cities of the world takes place.  The aliens never show themselves and do not take violent action except as necessary.  They become known as the Overlords and subtly but effectively push humanity in certain directions.  Wars cease.  Poverty is eliminated   Things are looking up.

But they never show themselves and the main point of view character tries repeatedly to find out why this is so.  Finally they give in and say that in 50 years, they will come down from their ships.  This gives them enough time to have a whole generation of humanity who have never known a world without them to be there when they reveal themselves.

The reveal isn't the major point of the book though.  It goes on with different POV characters and slowly more is revealed, not only of the Overlords, but of humanity and the universe in general.  It ends in some very surprising ways.

Many call the end depressing but I'm not sure I agree with that.  It's definitely wistful at least and probably more than that.  But just because something comes to an end, is that the worst that can happen?  Should we never buy a pet knowing full well we'll be burying it before two decades are out?  Should we never build or create anything knowing that nothing will withstand the ravages of time?  I don't think so but I suppose that those who find the ending depressing do.  I'm not saying nothing sad happens, but I didn't feel depressed after reading it.

Mostly, I was in awe of Arthur C. Clarke's achievement in writing such a fantastic book. He may be gone, but we still have his work to enjoy.  At least until the sun burns out or aliens attack or the Borg assimilate us or humanity evolves into something...else.

I have more to say but then I'd have to reveal too much, so I'll leave it to you if you're interested.