#18 – Childhood’s End Review – Arthur C. Clarke

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Childhood’s End shares many similarities with Clarke’s first novel on this list, 2001, in that it describes a jump in human evolution brought about by an advanced alien species. But while the aliens of 2001 are never seen or explained in any detailed way, the ones in Childhood’s End make themselves apparent at the very beginning (although they don’t show themselves in physical form until later in the book). The novel doesn’t spend a lot of time developing the individual human characters in any meaningful way and instead focuses more on the gradual transformation of society that occurs when Earth is confronted with the seemingly benevolent Overlords. In a way, though, Humanity itself is the main character in the book – and we watch as it slowly begins to realize its greater purpose and potential for achieving a higher plane of existence.

Childhood’s End Summary: In the midst of a heated space race between the United States and Russia over who will be the first to send a mission to the moon, large spaceships begin to hover over most of the world’s major cities. While they don’t show themselves at first, they do communicate with Earth enough to assure them that they are not hostile and have been charged with helping to smooth over international tensions in the hope of preventing the extinction of humanity, much like a parent would to a child who has been unruly. While the Earth begins a period of peace and prosperity under the Overlords watchful eyes, there are some who believe that the aliens are limiting human creativity and ingenuity. They decide to start a separate colony devoted solely to the development of creativity and the arts. Eventually, after years of “Supervision,” human children begin to exhibit telekinetic powers and are separated from the rest of humanity. It is then that the Overlords finally reveal their true purpose in helping human kind achieve the next step in their evolution.

The idea that our current stage of human development is merely a stepping stone to a greater level of consciousness and existence is one that has fascinated Science Fiction writers for decades, and it is a reoccurring theme in many of Clarke’s works. But he is not simply saying that we should submit blindly to the rule of omnipotent beings. While the Overlords do help usher in a Utopian period, they also help produce a world of increasing artistic stagnation and dissatisfaction. As humanity starts to resist this “Growing Up” that the Overlords force upon them, Clarke seems to be showing us how conflict and struggle are at the root of our desire to better ourselves and achieve a higher purpose and that utopias, by their very nature, only serve to repress these emotions. While the eventual goal of the Overlord’s forced transformation is a communion with a single galactic consciousness, man’s primal instincts lean more toward individuality and the power of unique human expression.

Childhood’s End Review: If you’re a lover of “Big Idea” books, then Childhood’s End won’t let you down. If you’re more of a swash-buckling, adventure type Sci-Fi fan, you may be a bit disappointed. But if you’re someone who has ever contemplated the nature of the universe and our true purpose in the grand scheme of things, then this book will definitely give you something to think about.

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September 13, 2010

#16 – The Time Machine Review – H.G. Wells

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Although it clocks in at less than 150 pages long, H.G. Wells’ is still one of the most influential Science Fiction novels ever written. Not only was it the first book to popularize the notion of time travel, it was also one of the first works to help bring the genre of Sci-Fi to mainstream fiction fans. Along with Jules Verne, Well is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Science Fiction and The Time Machine is one of his best known works. The novel is also known as one of the first examples of the Dying Earth sub-genre, in which events usually take place in a distant future where the Earth (or even the Universe) is seen in a state of advanced decline.

The Time Machine Summary

The main character in the book (referred to only as The Time Traveler) is a scientist and inventor in England who has been able to construct a machine that will allow him to travel back through time. At a meeting of dinner guests, the Time Traveler recounts the story of how he first tested his machine by traveling over 800,000 years into the future. Once there, he discovers that society as he knows it has fallen into ruins and that all that is left are remnants of crumbling buildings and overgrown vegetation. Instead of modern humans, he comes into contact with two species: First, the Eloi – a pint sized group of androgynous simpletons who seem to do no work and subsist mainly on fruit. Second – the Morlocks, scary ape-like creatures who live underground and come out only at night. The Time Traveler spends a good amount of time trying to decipher the relationship between the two species (whether it is symbiotic, predatory or something else completely).

After briefly losing and then recovering his Time Machine from the Morlocks, the Traveler then escapes into the distant future (30 million years) where he witnesses events on Earth at the end of its life. As he travels further in short jumps, he slowly sees the decay and degeneration of life on Earth – including the eventually dimming of the sun and the slowing down of the rotation of the planet. After coming to the end of life on Earth, he then decides to return to his own time and eventually finds himself back home.
Review

The Time Machine Review

The Time Machine is a quick and enjoyable read that you can probably get through in an evening. Wells doesn’t dwell too much on the mechanics of the Machine or how it works – and that’s probably for the best – as even a theoretical basis for time travel wouldn’t be discovered until much later. While in some ways it is an adventure tale about a brave inventor who travels into the distant future, it is also a somber vision of the future of man unlike anything that had come before. Where most Science Fiction novels show us a future in which mankind is more technically advanced and powerful (either in a Utopian or Dystopian way), Wells instead posits a future in which the degeneration of intellect and curiosity has somehow caused us to revert back to our primitive ways. And while it may not be as technically dense and complicated as some of the other books on this list, The Time Machine is still a work of great imagination that can be read and appreciated by both Science Fiction and Non-Science Fiction fans alike.

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September 15, 2010

#94 – Cities in Flight – James Blish

A lot of science fiction stories claim to be epic in scope. But few come close to the size and spectacle of James Blish’s Cities in Flight. Beginning in the near future and culminating in the destruction of the known universe, this four-volume series (published as a single volume omnibus in 1970) spans thousands of years, hundreds of protagonists, multiple sentient races, and even hints at a scientific explanation for the existence of god in creating new universes. If that’s not “epic,” I don’t know what is. And while the individual stories themselves can be sometimes drag a bit, and the amount of characters can often make it confusing as to whose doing what and for what reason, the sheer audaciousness of Blish’s vision of the future and the various technologies that shape mankind’s path more than make up for any narrative shortcomings.

The first volume, They Shall Have Stars, starts in the near future. With the Cold War still raging and civil liberties in decline all over the world, scientific progress has stalled and Western Civilization seems to be stagnating. In secret, Bliss Wagoner, the Head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight has been supporting research into “Fringe” scientific theories as a last grasp attempt at spurring innovation and growth. One particular project, a bridge made of ice on Jupiter, leads to two unique discoveries. First, the discovery of properties that allow for the manipulation of gravity – which eventually leads to the development of technology that allows for faster-than-light travel (known as a “spindizzy”). Second, the discovery of an anti-agathic drug which helps stop aging. These two discoveries together finally make interstellar travel possible. While Wagoner is eventually tried for treason, his work sets the stage for everything that follows.

The next volume, A Life for the Stars, picks up years later as Spindizzy technology has been successfully developed to transport large objects through space. With Earth in a severe depression, whole cities have taken to the stars in hopes of finding work throughout the galaxy. The main character of this volume is Chris DeFord, a teenager who unwittingly catches a ride on the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania as it’s leaving Earth. These “Cities in Flight” are referred to frequently as “Okie” cities, referring to the Oklahoma residents who escaped the Dust Bowl in the 1940’s in search of work. After a series of adventures on Scranton, Chris eventually transfers to the larger and wealthier city of New York, where he meets Mayor Amalfi – a character who features prominently in the ensuing volumes. After helping successfully defuse a dangerous conflict, Chris is elevated to Resident status and made the City Manager of New York.

Earthman, Come Home continues Amalfi’s adventures as the head of New York, spanning almost 300 years (of relativistic time) and covering most of the galaxy. Over the course of the book they encounter an ‘Okie Jungle’ of economically collapsed cities, fend off a mythical alien threat to Earth, outwit a city of renegades, and outrun the Earth police. Eventually they find themselves hurtling out of the Milky Way into the Greater Magellanic Cloud and settle temporarily on a planet where they encounter and get the better of a group of renegades called IMT (Interstellar Master Traders).

The final volume, The Triumph of Time, finds the gang (now on a planet called He) undertaking the first intergalactic flight. During their journey, they discover that a collision of universes threatens to wipe out all life, and that a competing civilization has already realized this. The rest of the novel involves the Hevians racing to beat the other civilization to the singularity in order to potentially manipulate the new universes that will result from the collision.

While a lot of the concepts and technical specifics of cosmology and intergalactic travel went waaaaaaaaay over my head, the ideas and compelling story helped me get past some of the more incomprehensible moments in the book. I’ve always been a sucker for “Big Ideas” so you might not be as forgiving as I am (unless you’re a cosmologist). But if you’re not a cosmologist and you’re down for a little incomprehension, James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a fun flight of fancy filled with interesting ideas about the future of humanity (and the universe we live in).

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