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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (scriba)

Clarke of the Court

Because it was there, I decided to binge watch the TV adaption of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. The series is a joint American-Australian production so I had high hopes that the Australian influence would mean that it wouldn’t be too full of Hollywoodisms. Sadly I turned out to be wrong about that…

Childhood’s End is Arthur C. Clarke’s very best novel, but you probably shouldn’t take my word for that because I’m biased. I find myself quite unable to distinguish between eight magnificent Arthur C. Clarke novels. I am absolutely convinced that every single one of them is his very best novel. They are all firm favourites and I re-read them at regular intervals. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind – every single one of these eight books is his very best novel.

Let’s play a game. Go away and write your list of Arthur C. Clarke’s very best novel. Then carry on reading this essay. When you get to the end, you’ll find my list of his very best novel. Let’s see if you and I agree with each other…

Childhood’s End begins with the arrival of a fleet of alien spaceships which position themselves above Earth's principal cities. The aliens (who are quickly dubbed "The Overlords") announce that they are taking over the supervision of international affairs in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself.  This ushers in a time of apparent utopia, albeit under indirect alien rule. Some people worry that this may be a threat to the future of the human identity and culture. This worry proves to be not completely unfounded, though as it transpires, the manner of its final manifestation could not have been predicted and surprisingly it turns out to be not entirely without its benefits.

There is only one contact point between the aliens and the people of Earth. Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," periodically meets with Rikki Stormgren. In the novel, Rikki is from Finland and he is the UN Secretary General when the aliens arrive. Clearly he is the only logical person to negotiate with the Overlords as the representative of the Earth as a whole. After all, that’s almost the definition of the entire purpose of the UN!

Amusingly, in the TV series, Rikki is re-cast as an obscure  American farmer plucked seemingly at random from a field somewhere in the middle of Missouri. Obviously his agricultural experience makes him much better qualified to negotiate with the aliens than is a mere UN Secretary General. Quite why the TV people felt it necessary to make this change is utterly beyond me. Presumably an American TV series is simply not allowed to have a non-American hero. As a minor consequence of this silly decision, all the Finnish jokes that appear in the novel never make it to the screen, which is a shame. There are a couple of rather good ones...

Big Spoilers in the Next Paragraph.

A century or so after the arrival of the Overlords, human children are starting to display clairvoyance and telekinetic powers. Now Karellen can finally reveal the Overlords' true purpose. Far from being the lords of creation that they appear to be, they are actually merely servants of the Overmind, itself a vast cosmic intelligence, which (who) has sent them to Earth to supervise and guide the children into a transformative union with the Overmind. The Overlords have performed this function many times before with many other races. They are insatiably curious about how the process works and they will observe this transition closely, as they have observed it so many times before. But it will do them no good. They themselves are doomed to remain forever out in the cold, forever unable to take this final evolutionary step no matter how much they may yearn for it. One starts to feel a certain sympathy for their plight...

The TV adaption comes in three parts. I thought the first part was actually pretty good. It stuck quite closely to the spirit of Clarke’s book and Karellen’s make up was absolutely stunning. Some of the characters had their names and ethnicities changed for no very good reason that I could see – Rikki Stormgren’s transformation from Finnish diplomat to Missouri farmer is only one of many. But at least he managed to retain his name, which is more than can be said for Jan Rodricks who, in the TV series, metamorphoses into Milo Rodericks. Note the subtle spelling change in the surnames, and the not quite so subtle change in the forenames. But such peccadilloes are no more than cosmetic and I couldn’t really see that they made very much difference to the development of the story. So I just shrugged and let them get away with it.

The rot set in with the second and third parts which were both diabolically bad. They introduced a lot of (mostly Christian) religious shit, which made it very clear that, as far as this TV production was concerned, whenever the meaning of life, the universe and everything (as Douglas Adams so memorably phrased it) is up for debate, subjective faith is a trump card that is far more important, meaningful and compelling than any objective fact. This, of course, is completely antithetical to the message presented by the novel. It makes you wonder why they bothered making the programme in the first place if they hated the ideas so much.

In the novel, Clarke spends quite some time musing upon the reasons why humankind has always felt the need to develop so many completely contradictory religious beliefs – by definition, they can’t all be true. Then he goes on to demonstrate that when the reasons for depending upon those religious beliefs no longer apply, the religions themselves will, of necessity, wither and die. He clearly states that the only religion to survive this winnowing process is Buddhism, mainly because it isn’t actually a religion at all (a typically Clarkean joke).

The transcendence which the Overlords are there to supervise is strongly fought against in the TV series. It is portrayed as a terrible fate which must be resisted at all costs. Even the TV Overlords express some sympathy with this viewpoint which is utterly ridiculous, given their reason for being there in the first place! The novel, on the other hand, portrays the change as a natural evolutionary step, one to be coveted, welcomed, accepted and embraced. It can be (and probably should be) interpreted as something that leads to a complete absorption into (and therefore a direct understanding of the nature of) what we might as well call God, for want of a better term.

Having thrown away everything that matters about the novel, the series was left with little choice but to pad itself out with far too many pointless scenes in which characters try to solve whatever arbitrary problem is currently facing them by instantly losing their temper with it, screaming in hysterical rage at it and waving a gun around in its face. After all, it is common knowledge that rational people all over the world invariably react in that way to any and all minor difficulties...

All of this made the last two episodes almost impossible to watch. Whenever a significant crisis occurred on the screen the programme invariably favoured a (generally not very) dramatic spectacle (often with superfluous special effects attached to it) over any intellectual speculation or discussion whatsoever. Consequently the richness of the novel was completely overwritten and overwhelmed by the vast poverty of cliché.

Clarke is often criticised for his poor characterisation and wooden prose. I can only assume that the critics who say such things are tone deaf – I’ve always found Clarke’s characters to be vibrantly three-dimensional. His heroes are invariably competent, intelligent, quirkily erudite and witty. In other words, his heroes are all Arthur C. Clarke, and Arthur C. Clarke understands himself very well indeed. This, of course, is exactly why his heroes come to life so well on the page as they explore all the ramifications of the plot, both overt and covert. (As an aside, I note that in his youth Clarke shared a flat with other young SF fans. They quickly christened him with the nickname Ego. Not because he was big headed, but because his intelligence was frightening. I rest my case).

Clarke’s prose always flows smoothly across my eyeballs. His descriptions of people and places are always crystal clear and his observations are often extremely funny, though the wit and humour are invariably so very, very dry (and so very, very British) that I can easily understand how it may well pass some people by.

Clarke’s best novels are always profound and they address problems that have been the subject of philosophical debate, sometimes for centuries. Invariably he highlights his own generally rather oddball thinking about the topics under discussion. He explains his ideas clearly and he sneaks up on the topics from new, thoughtful and unexpected directions – though it has to be admitted that sometimes his conclusions mimic the solution adopted by Alexander the Great when he was faced with the Gordian Knot!

I strongly suspect that, in his own quietly understated way, Arthur C. Clarke is the most insightful SF author I’ve ever read.


Arthur C. Clarke’s very best novel in alphanumerical order:

2001 – A Space Odyssey

A brilliantly intellectual exploration of evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. It’s the closest Clarke ever came to a rational explanation of religious inspiration. The movie was MGM’s first multi-million dollar religious movie, though they didn’t know that at the time.

Childhood’s  End

See above...

Imperial Earth

A rambling and largely unstructured story that follows Duncan Makenzie, on a trip to Earth from his home on Titan. Partly he’s visiting as a diplomat on the occasion of the quincentennial of US independence in 2276, but also, for necessary plot coupon reasons, he intends to have a clone of himself produced. The picaresque nature of the story allows Clarke to indulge himself with miniature essays about whatever catches his fancy at the time ranging all the way from the mathematics of pentominoes, though the never-ending journeys into the Mandelbrot set and up to the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a gorgeous intellectual treat and a brilliant travelogue.

Rendezvous With Rama

The definitive first contact novel until the real aliens arrive.

The Deep Range

A "fix up" novel (though I think that only the first novelette was published separately). It tells of a future sub-mariner who works in the field of mariculture, herding whales in much the same way and for much the same reason that present day farmers herd cows. The sea was Clarke’s second love after space and he delighted in drawing comparisons between the two. Most of the novel consists of legitimate and very clever speculations about the possibilities of farming the sea in order to feed Earth’s ever growing population (I was particularly taken with the idea that maybe orcas could be trained to perform the same roles that dogs perform on terrestrial farms). Clarke’s usual deep thinking (pun not intended) involves the protagonist in a clash with the ideas of Buddhism which causes him to question his own motives. As a bonus, Clarke is unable to resist the temptation to describe an attempt to capture a kraken-like sea monster. Mysteries must always remain...

The Fountains of Paradise

Set in the 22nd century, this novel describes the construction of a space elevator. Among other things, it’s about big engineering projects and the hubris required to even begin to think about tackling them. Brian Aldiss once defined science fiction as Hubris clobbered by Nemesis. I wonder if he was thinking of this novel when he coined that memorably apt aphorism?

The Sands of Mars

Clarke hated this novel mainly because it contains the statement "There [are] no mountains on Mars". Given that Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, is to be found on Mars, that is a gaffe of monumental proportions. Also, I have to admit that the novel has not aged well. Almost everything that Clarke says about Mars has turned out to be wrong though much of it was accepted wisdom when he was writing the book. Despite this, the themes of the novel transcend its faults and it remains insightful. It’s also got a very funny scene where  the hero, pondering the nature of space sickness, thinks about it much too hard and, as a result, throws up copiously in the spaceship that is carrying him into orbit...

"It's very puzzling," said the M.O. thoughtfully as the now quiescent [passenger] was propelled through the airlock. "He's passed his medical tests O.K., and of course he'll have had the usual injections before leaving Earth. It must be psychosomatic.""I don't care what it is," complained the pilot bitterly, as he followed the cortége into the heart of Space Station One. "All I want to know is, who's going to clean up my ship?"

What's not to like?

The Songs of Distant Earth

This, by contrast, was Clarke’s very favourite of his own novels, probably because it was the first one where he felt free to discuss his own sexuality in print. It was always an open secret that Clarke was gay, and there are subtle hints in many of his stories (most notably in Imperial Earth) that his protagonists feel the same way. But here, all hints are abandoned and the subject is discussed freely. As a bonus, the novel is distinctly elegiac in tone. It tells of a utopian human colony in the far future which is visited by a starship fleeing from an Earth that has been destroyed, because the Sun has gone nova. The ship visits briefly and then continues on its way, but the crew of the ship and the inhabitants of the colony have both been profoundly changed by its visit. The book is an apocalyptic, strongly atheistic, and very utopian novel.

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