Sunday, August 22, 2010

Childhood's End

Rendezvous with Rama was the only Arthur C. Clarke novel I had ever read, until I decided to continue with whom some people call one of the science fiction authors ever. So I grabbed Childhood's End from the library, which is supposedly one his best works.

What I really enjoyed about Rama was repeated with Childhood's End, specifically Clarke's cold dispassionate prose style. Every character speaks with the same educated and scientifically inclined voice. The science is complicated, but Clarke's description never leaves the reader behind. As well, aliens are treated as being so wholly alien as to be on a different plane of existence - scientifically speaking more likely than little green men.

Childhood's End is about a race of aliens calling themselves The Overlords who have taken over Earth completely but who offer only peace for the planet. Concepts of countries, borders, war, disease, etc all are annihilated in the wake of a peaceful conquer. But the loss of ambition for the stars and for creativity are also extinguished with nothing to strive for. The novel follows a couple characters over 50 years as humanity learns slowly about the mysterious aliens and eventually struggles against Earth's eventual destiny.

This is intellectual science fiction, rather than an action-packed space opera. Clarke is dealing with philosophical concepts, such as destiny, free will, and subjugation. Luckily, Clarke's masterful pace of revealing things keeps the reader wanting more. Each revelation is shocking, or at least unexpected, and he paces them out in a clever way.

Clarke, like many of his contemporaries, was an expert short story writer, and often the long form of the novel suffered from being composed of short stories, creating a disjointed and episodic feel overall. Childhood's End doesn't really have this problem. While it does seem to be formed of shorter sections, they work hand in hand. The whole of the novel succeeds because of the cooperation of the sections.

What doesn't work at all is the prologue. I'm glad I worked my way through the prologue because I enjoyed the novel, but rarely have I read a novel that opens so weakly. Taking the point of view of two astronauts competing for space supremacy, Clarke is trying to show the human race's constant ambition for the stars. This is snuffed out by dominance of a superior race who have absolute control of space. However the little plot threads that are started are never picked up on, making the prologue almost entirely superfluous. It's also just plain boring.

(The updated and anachronistic prologue, attached to the end as an appendix, is also horribly tedious)

While the prologue might be boring, the rest of Childhood's End never is. Clarke keeps things moving briskly and his treatment of science and the philosophical consequences of the premise are handled expertly. I really enjoyed this novel, almost more than Rendezvous with Rama, which never gives any explanation for itself. Childhood's End is a fantastic science fiction novel, and I would certainly keep reading more Clarke.

No comments: