…..without the exclamation mark, is the title of the book I was reading on my Kindle device on the bus into Peterborough City Centre last week and I have mentioned it before on a couple of occasions in the almost eight years that this blog has been going. This piece could as you will see, also, quite legitimately, be titled “Christmas message 2016”.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is a novel written by Arthur C. Clarke (he of “2001 a Space Odyssey”, “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Fountains of Paradise” fame) and it is the same age as me, having been first published in 1953. That is to say, it appeared 4 years before the launch of the 23 inch, 184 pound, beeping metallic beach ball that was Sputnik 1 which heralded the official dawn of “The Space Age” in our reality.
The story concerns the interference in human affairs on the very eve of Mankind’s first venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere by a race of visitors from another star. These beings dubbed “The Overlords” put a stop to space travel but benignly assist the development of our society into a peaceful, worldwide “Golden Age” with the aid of their advanced technology and social engineering.
After 100 years or so (the first 50 of which they spend hidden in their ships, unseen by any person – for reasons that I won’t divulge here because it would spoil one of the few real surprises in the novel) the newest generation of humanity begins, rapidly, to evolve into a single immature super-organism with a single integrated mind and mental control over the material world.
It is then revealed that the Overlords (who have reached the limits of their own evolution) are the servants of a collection of racial minds known as the “Overmind” of the cosmos and act as “nursemaids” to ensure that evolving races such as ours can fit in when their turn comes.
In 2015 a 3 part TV mini-series appeared on one of my cable channels and this (unusually) remained quite true to the book except, of course, that nearly all the characters had to be made American. The one exception is the leader of the Overlords, Karellen, who as the nearest thing the story has to a potential “baddie” is portrayed by the very English Charles Dance – albeit almost unrecognisable under alien prosthetics!
I am sure that if you want to have a look at this (and I can recommend it) you will be able to find it on Amazon or your friendly local illegal file sharing service!
If tackling the book one does have to ignore the massive technological advances we have actually made since 1953 and even Clarke’s attempts at predictions for the mid-21st century fall a bit short of what we have now.
For example, a character in the “Golden Age” part of the story states “Do you realise that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?”
Well, leaving out radio completely for simplicity, I have access to well over two hundred TV Channels coming to me through my Virgin Media cable and most of those are pushing out their content for 24 hours a day making the figure somewhere in the region of five THOUSAND hours a day. That’s a tenfold underestimate on the part of the man who predicted communications satellites!
I should say that, fortunately for me, the overwhelming majority of that programming output is totally unwatchable rubbish and I am still perfectly able to keep up with University Challenge, Mastermind and a couple of superhero series (“Flash” and “Arrow” if you’re interested) without having to go without sleep completely.
Nevertheless if you can put that sort of thing to one side it is no more outdated than any other science fiction of its era – nobody worries, after all, about the even greater scientific or historical inaccuracies of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, now do they? It is still one of my favourite novels and I commend it to you.
However, as with most science fiction that I read, I ask myself “would I want to live in the “universe” that this writer has created in this story?”
The answer is always a clear cut “yes” or “no” and the percentage of each answer depends entirely upon the author.
The worlds created by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov come out generally as “yes please” while the likes of Robert Heinlein usually get “hell, no”! I still enjoy reading all of those authors, though.
My problem with applying that sort of judgement to Childhood’s End, however, is that while the first (and only) generation of “new mankind” undoubtedly goes on to great things when it joins the larger organism, the last generation of “old mankind” simply withers and dies in various forms of massive depression and suicide!
As a member of Humanity Version 1.0 (or “old mankind” as stated above) and specifically one who has only just seen the arrival of the generation after next, this is not a scenario that appeals to me in the slightest – I want the same opportunities to enjoy my grandchildren that my father had!
I think that learning to catch Dabs and Whiting on Felixstowe Beach with Granddad is WAY more important to the little ones than buzzing off to join some massive hive-mind, don’t you?
Warning: at this point we are going to move from a simple book review to something a little more philosophical so readers with short attention spans and those with fixed and unwavering religious opinions should probably leave now!
I do feel that Mr Clarke may just have missed a bet by having made it necessary for membership of the Overmind happen to races en-masse.
Once they are shorn of meaningless ritual, conflicting descriptions of various rewards and punishments (Heavens and Hells) and the differing attributes of the assumed Head Honcho, what all religions do is provide some comfort to we humans who never have been (and probably never will be) able to accept that we might just STOP on death.
I do not know if this is mere egotism on the part of (arguably) the most intelligent race on the planet or if the “instinct” that tells that some part of us, some immaterial essence, continues onwards after bodily function ceases has any basis in fact.
Let’s face it, we will sooner or later find out for certain – or if it transpires that we do in fact END, we won’t!
It seems to me then that there is no point in even thinking about that possibility as we can do nothing whatsoever about it. It therefore, surely, does no harm to follow the one remaining possibility which is that our disembodied self is freed up from earthbound restraints upon the breakdown of its’ physical container.
I like to think that, depending on the magnitude and nature of our personal curiosity, we can then get to spend as much time as we want (whatever “time” may mean to an entity capable, like photons, of moving only at the speed of light) exploring the wonders of the Universe.
And, when we are ready, or when mental loneliness kicks in, there waiting all around us is the growing Overmind with which we can merge for all of eternity (whatever eternity means to an entity capable, like photons…… etc.).
I don’t know about you but I find that prospect infinitely more attractive than the idea of spending the rest of eternity in the way that any of the major established religions suggest.
Although, I suppose that if you have always dreamed of, and believed in, a “heaven-style” afterlife that may very well be how the Overmind will appear to you. So you won’t catch me telling members of any Theist group that they are wrong – with an infinite number of variations possible WE COULD ALL BE RIGHT!
I just wish all those other groups would accept that, stop trying to convert the rest of us to their chosen path and start working to try and make THIS life as nice as possible for all.
Remember – this may just possibly be all there is so don’t waste it!
Here endeth this year’s Little Alfie Christmas message to all my readers (I just love saying that) – have a great 2017 everyone.