Transhuman and Subhuman Part XIII: The Fourth of the Big Three of Science Fiction

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Expanding on a a point from last time, we turn to John C. Wright’s examination of Arthur C. Clarke, and why he shouldn’t be included among Campbell’s Big Three.

“I submit,” says Wright, “that Arthur C. Clarke has…a broader vision, and yet it is a darker vision, of man and his ultimate fate in the universe which is in keeping with H.G. Wells and alien to Campbell.”

Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and A. E. van Vogt wrote of pragmatic characters solving problems in a relatively near-future setting, with science and determination in a spirit typical of American optimism.”On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells are haunted by a sense of the true magnitude of time, and while some of their stories…are near future tales, they are most famous for those who go to the end of mankind and beyond.” The latter two authors’ characters usually face conflicts produced by cold, blind evolutionary forces, and are almost always outmatched.

According to Wright, “…the clearest expression of this theme of deep time is CHILDHOOD’S END.” In this novel, Clarke posits the intervention of advanced alien overlords who conquer the earth to prevent man’s nuclear annihilation and impose a ban on human space travel. Over two centuries of enforced peace, humanity loses self-determination, religious faith, and collective self-preservation. Children are born with psychic powers and a revolting lack of humanity, heralding the next and final step in human evolution. At last, the incomprehensible post-humans destroy the earth and merge with a sovereign space Overmind, leaving the invaders who served as cosmic midwives stuck in an evolutionary dead end.

“Now,” says Wright, “I suppose an utterly bloodless intellectual with no great love for mankind…might regard the theme of transcending into posthuman inhumanity as a noble or hopeful one, but that is not the message of the book.”

There are strong Wellsian themes in the story of Childhood’s End. “To fly off as disembodied minds in the train of a cosmic Overmind is a fate as disquieting as that of the Eloi or Morlocks, but if these creatures were at the same time as superior as the vast, cool, unsympathetic intellects of Mars.”

Wright makes no secret of his preference for Campbellian tales over Wellsian tales. In regard to Childhood’s End, he gives numerous reasons for this bias.

  1. Having superior invaders confiscate mankind’s nuclear weapons and spaceships like alien nannies is heavy-handed and annoying.
  2. It’s absurd to think that everyone everywhere on earth would surrender without a fight.
  3. The story takes for granted the ahistorical idea that native populations always die off after prolonged contact with more advanced peoples.
  4. The part where the overlords abolish bullfighting is a brazen authorial conceit that unnecessarily dates the story.
  5. “…the idea that religion would simply…disappear is stupid. If anything, the stress and pressure of being confronted by alien overlords would encourage religion. Someone would start worshipping them, if nothing else.”
  6. Depicting the post-human supermen as discorporate psychic beings is lazy. “It is…just a vague pink cloud labeled ‘The Superman’ with nothing in it.”
“What,” asks Wright, “was Arthur C. Clarke trying to accomplish in this book? I suggest that he was trying to tell a myth rather than a story, and that he succeeded brilliantly.”

Myths are about religious notions. The notion here was that science, or the purely materialistic and naturalistic world view, the cold and dull and empty world without God, could somehow find in its remorseless grind of blind evolution something as interesting and dramatic as damnation and salvation.

As a scientific myth, Childhood’s End falls short in one respect. “The core idea of seeking for religious transcendence in the dead cosmos of materialism is an incoherent idea, a self-refuting idea. The mythical image produced is one of beings of immense power and retarded capacity for love…”

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.