I read a lot. A very lot. An E-Reader makes that very easy. Lately I’ve been on a kick of mid 20th century fiction – a lot of sci-fi. Lord of the Flies, Foundation, I, Robot, Fahrenheit 451 and the like. I can say with utmost confidence that sci-fi of the past is much better than today’s outings, for one major reason. Older sci-fi was about the psychological impact of the future rather than the gadgets. Foundation doesn’t have any major fights or technological “magic”. It’s just people being people in a different setting.
This brings me to a recent book and probably one of the most profound I’ve read in a while – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. There are 3 main parts – the advent of space ships and overlords that oversee the future of mankind, the prosperity of a golden age and finally the evolution of mankind into a higher life form.
The kicker here is that other than being actual space ships, there is next to no technology used in the entire book. There are no Deus Ex Machina events where something happens, with no explanation, just to move the story along (a-la Dan Brown or JK Rowling).
The entire premise of the story is how humanity acts, as a whole and individually, when a higher power comes along and provides nothing but benefits, though cloaked in shadow. Sort of like the TV show “V”, minus evil intents. Some people welcome the change while others fight the loss of “human identity” and accomplishments. To see how the various factions move along, in a short book mind you, to accomplish their various goals is intriguing. Some use subterfuge, others political control and others are granted leniency simply for the sake of curiosity.
The final act however has one heck of a speech where it states plainly that man is not made for the stars. The sheer scope of space, our galaxy and even our universe completely dwarfs anything that the human mind can comprehend. At most, we can visualize a city or maybe a small country. The moon takes weeks to get to, taking 30 times longer than going across the planet. Think about that. Jules Verne traveled across the world in 80 days. It would take 6.5 years to reach the moon at that speed. Our closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away – 8 million years if you traveled at the same speed of 80 days around the Earth. And that’s the closest!
Secondary to the psychological impact that number has is the lack of reasoning outside of science. Somewhat of an anti-sci-fi sentiment and more of a slant towards the paranormal. When faced with the abyss that is the universe, you start thinking there is more than what science can describe. When humanity evolves into simple conscious energy, to join a pre-existing mass, you feel a certain shame towards those left behind. Again, the humans that do remain undergo more psychological trauma where their investment (children) is removed from their grasp – dooming the entire species. The fact that the space ship aliens are unable to make this transition juxtaposes the scientific advances versus the paranormal ones. It’s like looking at two sides of a coin and trying to decide which one is better.
It is difficult to convey the imagery of this story as it truly is a personal reflection within the circumstances. Empathy for each situation is key and that depends on the reader’s disposition. You can take the face value of the words and be entertained or you can experience the story and become thoughtful. This, above all other criteria, is the mark of a truly great author.