Reading Through the Bookcase: Arthur C. Clarke, Part I

Where. to. begin.

When it comes to Against the Fall of Night and Childhood’s End, I love several things and I dislike one other rather big thing. First, in Childhood’s End, I love the way we get to follow through the entire process as humanity evolves to its next, seemingly higher step. I didn’t remember much about the story except how it ended (I first read it long ago), but I did remember Karellen, the Overlord who shepherded humanity through the final years. I remembered how he seemed rather gentle and wise. I might quibble now about the evolution into the next form being so drastic and happening so quickly (surely there would be intervening steps, like humanity gradually becoming a species of telepaths?) But I did enjoy the speculation about what the next stage of human evolution might be.

However, there was a reason I hadn’t reread this book since the first time, at least a couple of decades ago. I really disliked what happened to the children and to the human race in general. More on that in a minute.

I also really enjoyed Against the Fall of Night, for a completely different reason. I absolutely love stories about finding remnants of civilization on a lost, supposedly dead earth. (This was one reason why I loved Edmond Hamilton’s City at World’s End so much when I was a teenager and why I searched for it for years so I could read it again.) I think it’s the disappointed archeologist in me; I love the idea of the melancholy of the lost earth as well as the idea of the descendants of the survivors having forgotten their beginnings but starting to discover the truth about where they came from. Or probably not the entire truth — but finding artifacts and fragments of writings or even ancient machines that they can start up again and try to figure out the original use of — and trying to piece all these things together to recall as much as they can. I also love stories about people who have been sheltered in some kind of scientific or historic refuge, perhaps for centuries, finally breaking out and discovering that the world is out there.

All of that is wound up in Against the Fall of Night. So I read it quite avidly. But…

Two books: Childhood's End and Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood and Night – What I Don’t Like

There were two elements that were somewhat similar, between Against the Fall of Night and Childhood’s End, that I really don’t like. In Childhood’s End, it’s considered some sort of good thing that humanity evolves into a type of bodiless, impersonal Unibeing with all sorts of mental powers, but loses the “selfness” of individual, separate human beings. Clarke isn’t alone in portraying this as some kind of “higher state,” but I don’t buy it and never have.

I see this idea both in scientific speculation and in religion. While I got my two degrees in Religious Studies, I spent a fair bit of time becoming familiar with religious world views that teach that being absorbed into a higher being and losing one’s self is a great thing. It’s often referred to as “bliss,” in fact. It’s stronger in some religions than in others, but there are elements of this idea in most of them, western or eastern.

I have always felt that if I had this kind of personal, individual annihilation as my goal, it would be some kind of death wish. I do like the idea of being able to see the universe more clearly and deeply and perhaps have some influence on its material nature. (Though we already have some influence, don’t we? We just use other physical objects to make the changes. In this scenario, we’d use our minds.) But if there is no “me” there, remembering what “I” did in the past and looking forward to “my” future, as an individual — well, “I” am dead. There might be something there, exhibiting some kind of universal awareness, but it’s not me or anything that gives the word “me” any meaning at all.

So I didn’t reread Childhood’s End for all this time because although it was an interesting study, I hate the way it ends. Humanity dies. Those children die. Absorbed/eaten up by something that is not “them.” That kind of scenario has no appeal whatsoever for me.

There are elements of it in Against the Fall of Night as well, though not as strongly. There, at least, it seems to be understood that a disembodied consciousness can be mad or it can be sane, and it can have desires and a sense of self as well. But the thing that bothered me most was not actually in the book as such, but was in the fact that it was rewritten as a book called The City and the Stars.

What I liked about Against the Fall of Night, or most of it, anyway, was that things were not explained. Even when Alvin and Theon got some answers, they only answered broad questions, and many things were left in mystery. There was a feeling that there would be more detailed understanding as the years went by, but that was not in the book itself.

I started to recognize, even in this book, that sometimes a story works better if it doesn’t explain everything or find solutions to every problem or answers to every question. Sometimes the adventure that remains–the fact that there is yet more to discover–is the story itself. Or it is the element that makes you come to the end of the story in a state of breathless anticipation. I was just beginning to realize this when I read this book, but it hit me with a hammer blow when I read my two Rama books.

Next time!


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