3.13.2004

Childhood's End as Parental, as Metaphysical, as Metafictional

Adam Roberts argues that Childhood's End embodies aspects of parenthood.

Roberts argues persuasively and insightfully, so the essay's well worth reading. But a more obvious corollary is the metaphysical embodiment of the Overlords, who behave more inscrutably like gods than interventionally like parents. In most religions, gods father the people, so the connection is here as well.

In fact, "sense of wonder" itself may be an unwitting pseudonym for the transcendently metaphysical, so Clarke finds it necessary to distance himself from this while he simultaneously and ironically embraces the spiritual through the stipulation that, since the world's religions are all different, they must all be wrong (a little specious, but a logic trap that we all fall prey to).

The embodying of the metaphysical while rejecting the metaphysical is almost omnipresent in the field. Even Asimov, devout atheist, dipped into the Gaian mythology with his Foundation series. This strange relation is made less strange when we boil down both science and metaphysics to express the same ideology: The universe is far larger and stranger than we can know (at this time).

Although this is a well of inquiry that intrigues and has much left to plumb--it seems likely that someone else has tackled this in one form or another (feel free to discuss it further)--I'm actually more interested in the less obvious connection: Childhood's End as metafictional.

1953, the date of publication, may be early for the first use of the term, "The Golden Age," but certainly writers had time to consider that a regime change was underway. This was the height of the magazines' explosive proliferation. Even Hollywood was also growing increasingly fascinated with the genre at the time. For the moment, we must forget what we know happened beyond 1953 and examine what the view from there looked like.

Clarke published his first story around 1937 with comparatively little publication to later decades. 1949 appears to mark Clarke's logarithmic catapult to fame. What's interesting to observe, especially in light of the metafictional theme of Childhood's End, is that Clarke's esteem had a beautiful trajectory, climaxing sometime after Stanley Kubrick's 2001. One could chart the catapult with Childhood's End itself using various polls regarding the all-time SF novels.

(In some ways, Jonathon Lethem may have Kubrick to blame for Thomas Pynchon's loss at the Nebulas--not that Rendezvous with Rama is without merit, especially in the realm of wonder. It's too unfortunate Kubrick didn't have the same effect on Brian Aldiss' career.)

With the background estabished, we can now examine Clarke's book as metafiction or, as Barry Malzberg puts it, "recursive science fiction."

The Golden Age of man, as Clarke defines it, is the bringing of peace, order, and stability to Earth as instituted by the Overlords (Campbell's Astounding?) but later the conditions stagnate the world into a blasé culture.

A new age of man comes through the children of the Golden Age, who are able to transcend the achievements of humanity beyond its imaginings--an ability that the Overlords do not possess. Clarke's character, Jan Rodricks, witnesses the final transfiguration, not with hate or envy or loss, but with simple awe.

Clarke's style is definitely Golden Age, but this perspective is a retrospective assignment, and his best work came after the Golden Age through the 50s' Childhood's End, the 70s' stunning "A Meeting with Medusa" and Rendezvous with Rama and on into the 90s' "The Hammer of God."

But whatever your choice of interpretation, do not forget Clarke's opening words: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author," which leaves us the question of which opinion does the author not agree with?

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