From Duncan Law-Green, 1 Jan. 2012:
Disclaimer: I have not read Childhood’s End, but from a précis of the book, I believe I would have many of the same issues with it as expressed by Trent Waddington.
My personal issue with it is that it denies diversity, individuality and freedom of thought: key qualities of Humanism. When offered Transcendence, not all humans will want to Transcend. The mechanism of Transcendence should offer freedom of choice: those who wish to delay it, or wish to continue human civilisation in something resembling its current form, should be allowed to do so. It is very hard to escape Fascist imagery when picturing an entire sentient species marching in precise lockstep to its own dissolution.
My other issue with Childhood’s End is what happens to the Earth in the act of Transcendence. Despite the damage that humanity may have inflicted on it to date, the Earth remains a beautiful, wondrous and fecund home for a dazzling variety of living species. If humanity were suddenly to disappear, it is distinctly possible (perhaps even likely) that the Earth may evolve another fully sentient species in a geologically short timescale.
In Transcending, the Child murders its Mother. It also murders Mind yet to come. That cannot be forgiven.
From SA, 7 Jan. 2012:
Duncan, thanks for a very interesting comment.
Basically I agree with you, but not Trent Waddington.
He talks about the futility of the human condition expressed in Childhood’s End and Clarke’s supposed glee at seeing the human race go extinct. This is unjustified: Homo sapiens as we know it will one day be extinct; that is an absolute certainty. The question is, what follows us: one or more successor species? nothing? something qualitatively different to anything that has gone before?
Clarke is right to speculate, and to depict one possible scenario as best he can. His mistake, if I can call it that, is to make the evolutionary transition to a new kind of species a sudden, overnight transformation, which in any believable scenario would take many generations to complete, even if assisted by technology or by psychic powers. But that would then be almost impossible to write about in a dramatically interesting way; as it is, he’s already split the reader’s sympathies over several generations of characters. The literary form demands specific characters affected by the change in the dramatically clearest way.
But I agree with you that diversity and individuality are important; not only because they feel nice to us, but because evolution actually works that way: the multicellular biosphere has not made single-celled organisms extinct, and neither has the first technological species made pre-intelligent species extinct (well, only a few of them!).
Totally agree that an attractive view of the future would preserve the existing wonder and variety of life on Earth, and add to it rather than replace it. Tho having said that, we do need to recognise that evolution is insensitive to such values and incorporates events such as localised and mass extinctions as a matter of course. Particularly for us, looking to a better future for humanity in space, finding the believable but still attractive middle road between a sanitised fantasy future and a dystopian future needs careful thought.
From Nick Spall, 1 Jan. 2012:
Happy New Year to you. Thanks for the link and I did enjoy your thoughts as always.
Re the practicality of the Tardis, isn’t it all about one of Clarke’s 3 “Laws”....“sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”....?
I’m confident, as Clarke probably was, that given enough evolutionary time, future humans (or our computerised / mechanical / organic evolutionary successors), will crack all the practical problems of dematerialising / rematerialising just above dense atomic structures (i.e. solid surfaces), and settle neatly onto Skaros High Street when it lands.
From SA, 3 Jan. 2012:
Nick, thanks. Happy New Year to you, too.
Re Clarke’s third law: I can interpret it three different ways:
(1) Any sufficiently advanced [alien or future] technology is [so impressive to people at our own level of knowledge that it seems to us to be] indistinguishable from magic.
(2) Any sufficiently advanced [claim of the possibility of a future] technology is [so impractical that it is] indistinguishable from [the brand of ancient superstition and charlatanry which we call] magic.
(3) Any sufficiently advanced [means of manipulating our environment, currently done using] technology[,] is indistinguishable from magic [because it really is magic, i.e. is a method based on entirely different principles than those of physics, being a direct application of conscious willpower and imagination no longer mediated through machinery].
But which of these is the true one in the real-life universe?! Presumably Clarke intended the first meaning, though in Childhood’s End he illustrated the possibility of the third meaning. But the second meaning may equally well be true; that technology has a natural plateau which intrinsically limits the power of conscious beings to manipulate their environment (consider the slowing down of progress from say controlled nuclear fission to controlled nuclear fusion), and that no magical successor to technology can be found...
From Nick Spall, 3 Jan. 2012:
As you say Clarke, ever the practical technology solutions believer, must have been thinking of the first definition.
However, the route that emerging LHC discoveries may lead us, plus outrageous concepts such as FTL speeds etc., may result in a somewhat depressing conclusion that, as Haldane said, “the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine”.
Next time we meet I must tell you about my embarrassing conversation with Sir Martin Rees re Clarke’s Second Law......hope he quickly forgave me!
From David Pink, 1 Jan. 2012:
I always enjoy what you write. It has been 20 years at least since I read The Master and Margarita and Childhood’s End, and so, if I misrepresent anything, it is my memory that’s at fault. My own, inexpert, view was that while Childhood’s End was full of AC’s imagination and brilliance, it was not in the same class as Bulgakov’s novel. AC’s stories, to me, are brilliant technical expositions and “mechanical world-views”. Their meaning is clear and determined by the author. Bulgakov’s story is, as far as I remember, in the genre of magical realism, like those of Isabelle Allende, and its meaning, at least to me, is not at all clear. I feel that Bulgakov’s novel is in a class above that of AC’s.
From SA, 3 Jan. 2012:
David, thanks very much for your comments.
I’m sure you are right that Bulgakov’s literary style is far above that of Clarke, and of most other science fiction writers, come to that. Even so, I find the contrast intriguing, in that both writers address huge themes of human existence in their different ways.
I’d suggest that Bulgakov’s meaning is clear enough: human destiny should be interpreted on the level of the individual rather than society or the species; injustice and suffering matter; normal waking existence in the material world is not the only level of consciousness possible. If you can understand Russian, I highly recommend Bortko’s 10-episode series of the novel (I was not so impressed with the shorter film version, made earlier but released later).
Am now sketching out ideas for a novel in which I reconcile the magical and the technical. Could be a difficult project!
Best wishes, Stephen