In addition to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey recently, I also indulged in a personal mini-Arthur C. Clarke festival, re-reading his novels Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama, and reading for the first time his short story The Sentinel that contains as its central idea a key plot element that reappeared in 2001.
One of the interesting things about Clarke’s books is how for him, it is the science that is the most interesting element. That, and his vision of what future society will be like, are what moves his stories along. He tends to eschew traditional storytelling devices such as love, intrigue, violence, and all the other strong emotional factors. His stories focus less on fleshing out the characters and more on how normal human beings might react when they encounter an astounding new piece of information, such as making contact with intelligent life from elsewhere in space.
To the extent that one can discern an author’s views from his books, Clarke sees a future in which racial prejudice has disappeared. His books contain a diversity of characters and it is taken for granted that these people take leadership roles in politics and science. In the case of gender, though, although women do play important roles, they do not seem to have reached full equality with men.
This was one feature in the film 2001 that did not ring true, where all the main characters were exclusively white men. That did not seem like Clarke’s vision of the future and may have been more reflective of Kubrick’s or the studio’s attitudes of that time.
Marriage in the future is also seen by Clarke as a series of time-limited contracts and people can sign these contracts with more than one partner at a time.
In Childhood’s End Clarke clearly sees war and conflict as infantile disorders, a human frailty that we are not be able to overcome on our own. It ends only with the arrival of superior aliens who, acting as overlords of the planet Earth, put a stop to it.
The aliens, although they allow the killing of animals for food, also put an end to wanton cruelty to animals. How that is done is interesting. Rather than the way we would do things, by issuing an edict or law against animal cruelty and punishing offenders, the aliens, for example, monitor a bullfight and whenever the bull is wounded, the alien spaceship hovering overhead uses its advanced technology to immediately inflict identical pain on all the spectators so that they experience the same sensation as the wounded animal. A few such demonstrations quickly put an end to the inhumane treatment of all animals.
In re-reading Childhood’s End I realized (once again) how unreliable our memories are. Initially, the aliens do not reveal their appearance to humans, creating some speculation as to what they might look like. There is a very moving scene in which the aliens finally show themselves and that is the one vivid scene that stood out in my mind from the original reading over thirty years ago. I had remembered it as the climactic scene at the end of the novel. I was surprised to discover that it actually occurs about a third into the book. That scene was so vivid that it had erased everything that came after, even though the events that follow raise some interesting questions that I will discuss in the next post.
Just as I finished the book, I mentioned that I was reading it to a friend who had also read the book a long time ago and he too, without any prompting from me, immediately mentioned the same scene was as convinced as I that it came at the end. This may be a pure coincidence but also shows how unreliable our memories are and how our brains rearrange events to create new stories that conform to our own personal narrative preferences, using the most vivid memories as anchors.
Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained argues that our memories, and even the sense of who we are as individuals, are like drafts of screenplays that are constantly being rewritten, with the drafts are appearing and disappearing in our minds. Which one takes hold at any given time can change.
I was also interested on re-reading Childhood’s End to see that Clarke describes in some detail a tsunami, where the first wave is followed by a deep retreat of the sea that draws curious onlookers onto to the newly revealed beaches, intrigued by this strange behavior, only to get destroyed by the massive second wave that suddenly hits. Given that Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life where exactly that scenario played out in 2004, it is a sad that more people had not read his book and thus been aware of the danger signs of a tsunami and fled away from the beaches as soon as they saw the sea withdraw.
POST SCRIPT: The danger of using the auto-correct utility