Wednesday, 21 December 2011

2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY and CHILDHOOD'S END, both by Arthur C. Clarke

            These two books were old friends—I owned them 30 years ago and eventually purged them from my collection when faced with a household move and far too many books.  It has been a long time since I read them and the first time I had read them close in time to Lonely Planets: the Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon, a book about the chances of extraterrestrial life existing and impinging on Earth. 
            The continual question in the search for extraterrestrial life is where are the aliens?  We’ve been broadcasting (intentionally and unintentionally) since the beginnings of radio and on into the television age.  May the Goddess help us if the ETs are judging us by our sit-coms.  I’d rather that they didn’t think that “I Love Lucy” and “Two and a Half Men” are representative of earth!  Ever since we realized that we were advertising our presence through our telecommunications, we’ve been listening to see if anyone else out there is trying to get in touch (the SETI project).  So far, there has been absolutely no evidence to suggest that there is anyone out there.  Are we alone?  Are the other civilizations long gone or still in their infancies?  Did we just miss them or will we be history by the time they are ready to talk?
            Arthur C. Clarke has that question covered: in both of these novels, the ETs are so advanced that they have abandoned their physical bodies and are energy beings.  They have either left behind technology to guide us (2001) or have recruited another race to do the finishing work for them (Childhood’s End).  Interestingly, in both novels he finds it necessary for us to be adjusted a bit, before we can become a suitable species.  In 2001 they intervene in the lives of Australopithecines on the African savannah three million years ago, setting them on the path to become us.  In Childhood’s End, the Overmind sends the Overlords to iron out the last wrinkles and prepare humanity for absorption into the cosmic collective.  (We are Borg.  You will be assimilated).
            Interesting that authors have looked at the collective from both sides:  Childhood’s End shows it essentially as a positive and necessary part of the development of humanity.  The Overlords, it turns out, are envious, studying each race that is assimilated into the Overmind, trying to find out what their own flaw is that prevents them from taking the same step.  Star Trek sees being engulfed by a collective (the Borg) and the death of individuality as a fate worse than death.  Perhaps these views are products of the cultures that produced them.  Star Trek is an American production and the United States is the land of the individual.  Clarke is a Brit and was a radar officer in the Royal Air Force at a time when being part of a collective (the Allies in WWII) was a very good thing indeed. 
            Having studied a bit of brain physiology, I have to wonder—if we leave the physical brain behind, including structures like the limbic system, will we still be able to feel emotion?  It seems to me that emotion is what links us to other people and those linkages are actually what makes life worth living.  Without emotion, we would be just drifting through life, bored stiff.  (That seems to be what’s wrong with psychopaths, they can really only feel anger and an occasional stab of vindictive pleasure when they think that they have “won” something.  They are drawn to risk-taking behaviour in order to feel any arousal at all, just to combat dreadful boredom.  They have no ties to humanity, which leads to inhuman behaviour*).  I have come to realize how much our emotions depend on brain wiring and on brain hormones—if I’m ever offered the chance to download my brain into a computer of some kind, I think I’ll be declining for that very reason. 
            Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending so much time with friends lately, as Christmas approaches, but I’m appreciating those bonds of friendship especially strongly right now.  The thought of leaving emotion, friendship and conscience behind doesn’t appeal.  Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that it is a choice that I will be forced to make in the near future.

*See The Sociopath Next Door : the ruthless versus the rest of us by Martha Stout (New York : Broadway Books, 2005).


  1. Hi Wanda

    With Arthur C Clarke you have struck another chord. I really loved the titles you mentioned again I preferred his earlier shorter works to the later larger novels or series. I do not dislike the longer works I just think the plotting is a bit tighter in the shorter novels. I also tend to like Ace Doubles which are even shorter, maybe that speaks to my attention span. I do think you raise an interesting point about the difference between British and America Science Fiction, there are definite differences in writing ( I think the British works are often, at least for me better written ) but they also have different themes and move towards different kinds of resolutions. While Clarke was not part of this trend I have always had a weakness for what is called the Cosy Catastrophes, many of which were published by Penguin Books, especially books by Wyndham and later Ballard. Jo Walton has a lovely discussion of this called “Who reads cosy catastrophes?” which is on the web. But I digress, I think many of the people who like Clarke are drawn to the cosmic scale of his work, the feeling the future holds a different and even more exciting fate for the human race. He does not envision us sweeping across the universe in a galactic game of cops and robbers like the Lensman of E.E. Smith. His is a mature and possibly overly optimistic view of what we are capable of as a race and that is nice to find.

    And all the best for the holidays.


  2. Guy,
    I've bought some of E.E. Smith's Lensman series (which I'm completely unfamiliar with) and hope to read them in January! You will no doubt hear about them in due course.

    Have a great Christmas & New Year's!


  3. "If we leave the physical brain behind, including structures like the limbic system, will we still be able to feel emotion?" Perhaps that is exactly what the ET's needed to purge from the human existence in order for it to advance beyond the thinking-killer hominid state we have been stuck in for the last million or so years.

    1. That indeed may be. Have you read Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy? In my opinion, she addresses how much the human genome can be changed without taking away our humanity. Good stuff!