Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Old SF sometimes has a kick to it that nothing modern can quite manage. There's a speed and economy of words, of action progressing so quickly that I feel like I'm on a roller-coaster ride and it's all downhill.
This is what Childhood's End feels like.
It's hard not to write about this book without giving away spoilers, so I'll just warn you now and get right down to business.
It starts out with damn old tropes and bit of spunky adventure, but it quickly becomes obvious that all that was a lark. The real story wasn't glamorous in the traditional sense. It was certainly glamorous in a few instances, but it did manage to do was pull off both tragedy and glory. Or the old definition of Romance, if you so prefer.
Who are the overlords who have disrupted and forced humanity to behave? They hid their faces for good reasons. Our race has had an old premonition of its end, and these tragic figures figure heavily.
But wait, is this a novel about them, or humanity?
Humanity has had its last hurrah. Our childhood is done. It is time to move on and discard everything we might recognize as *our* lives.
There's no sense of the life we known continuing. It's certainly the end of the novel. There's no hint of anything resembling future conflict, no hook to give readers further meaning or interest beyond a "Hey, look at those pretty lights!" moment.
Of course, the point is that when we're ready to put down our toys and pick up the mantle of adulthood, we'll not understand a damn thing from this side of the veil, and that's just fine from a story standpoint, and it definitely has a lot of impact. It doesn't pull any punches with me. I like that.
But then, I'm handed a full-stop.
There's no where else for this novel to continue, even in my head. There's no further wondering or amazement. When it's done, it's completely done.
Even our tragic overlords sit and pity themselves, never having changed as a people from page one. They're stuck in the same cycle forever, living out the same story, guarding and watching other's children grow up and leave home, without ever once having a taste of something truly grand.
Of course, that's the point.
The fall from heaven, always being cast out, learning that the greatest hell is the one in your own mind, always separate from the state of grace. Yes, they are a tragic race.
Fortunately for us, the readers, Clarke doesn't expound. He weaves a simple tale from start to finish and ends it on a full-stop.
Am I the only one that wishes that such a story might have been teased into something much greater, and have avoided that dreaded full-stop? If SF is in a constantly shifting conversation with itself, including the other writers of the craft and the public that reads it, then this book is an utter conversation-stopper. There's no where else to go unless we change the nature of what is written.
It's a great story. Don't get me wrong. But it's about as subtle as an SS boot on my neck.
Still, this is a classic for a very good reason, and it will always be memorable, even if there are a lot of imitators. I think this one is going to remain superior, even if I think some of the old cultural quirks (such as referring to blacks as negros) really needs to be edited out, and damn "literary integrity." Leaving that stuff in at this late date serves absolutely no purpose to either the story or the character. It only serves to date the novel and pull it out of an argument that it should be considered one of the "Great SF Masterpieces".
But even so, it still deserves to be on that list, even with its faults. :) Truly a great re-read.
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