I had also just caught on television 2001: A Space Oddyssey, and had watched that lonely, moody, and ultimately trippy art film one late evening. (Unfortunately, I had missed the showing of No Blade of Grass.)
Which brings me to Childhood’s End. Like Foundation, it reads like it was a series of short stories put together. It certainly gave more meaning to 2001, because it is almost the same story, although it hardly ventures into space. Instead, it revolves around the arrival of a superior alien species to earth that eventually transforms humanity.
Dystopias are easy to write about: what mortal doesn’t have a good imagination about what can go wrong? Utopias are much more difficult, for obvious reasons, because like beauty, they are in the eye of the beholder. And Clarke’s eye – which has the sweet naivete of the 50s when this book was written – saw a world where education, acceptance of scientific principles, rejection of religious and national differences, kindness to animals, reliable birth control, and the ability to know the father (remember, this is pre-Watson) without question – create world peace.
Which is to say, Clarke is a Nerd. Clarke loves science. He was a minor, but real working scientist who just happened to write a paper proposing that satellites be set up for 24-hour television and radio communication. (Too bad you couldn’t have gotten a patent on that, huh?) His adoration of science and space comes through in this story. However, his conviction that science is solid may keep him from needed explanations for his audience, which could baffle the uninitiated.
Which is probably why, in high school, before I had studied biology, chemistry, physics, the Clarke books I had tried to read had zero appeal to me. That appeal, now, is mixed. Bad: extremely clompy, hard-to-read sentences that took some getting used to. Good: a real page turner. Clarke knows how to set up a spike. Bad: he sets up a spike almost too well, I found myself a little let down by each revelation, but not so much so that I lost a taste for his cliff-hanger chapter endings. I even guessed his first one! Good: his women characters, though not lead, are solid, interesting, and important. Oh, and there was a Welsh character, complete with musical accent. Bad: some of his other convictions have not aged well at all with time, and many of them are not explained, but taken for granted. This story is a classic because it truly rises above its flaws, as well as giving a completely new “what-if scenario” for humanity. Were I to read more Clarke, it would be to see if he overcomes such flaws, and if he has any other themes that he works with.
For the writer, Clarke has lessons both in positive and negative examples. Positive: your world drives your story, though the concerns of your characters may be otherwise. Set-up and spike of cliff-hanger endings can drive the story forward. For some reason, in science fiction, several short stories linked together is stronger than a lengthy narrative. Is it because of the ideas? Negative: you may be able to publish a great book with painful writing, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Don’t leave your reader hanging in the technical world – explain things so they have buy-in.