I recently stopped listening to an audiobook. It was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which was a book that impressed me greatly as a teenager. It was a very good reading, too, Eric Michael Summerer was the narrator, and he has a fine voice and a good grasp of tone and timing.
Despite this, I ended up having to give up on it about two-thirds of the way through. Part of it was that Clarke’s ear for dialogue has dated very poorly–the characters didn’t just talk like people in the 1950s, they talked like boring people from the 1950s.
Mostly, though, it was the polemic. I don’t remember it being this thick from when I read the book before, which may be due to the fact that at the time I agreed with it. Or perhaps I was simply a less sophisticated reader thirty-something years ago.
Childhood’s End has huge chunks of exposition that stops the story dead in its tracks. What’s worse, it’s painfully naive. He spends pages saying that since the Overlords abolished national governments there were no more armies and all of the money that the world used to spend on armies was now being spent to give everyone free food and shelter, and since everyone had free food and shelter, there was no more crime.
Fifty years ago that was believable. Today, sadly, there are wars being fought by armies that owe no allegiance to any nation, driven by ideologies rather than nationalism. And here in the US the areas with the worst crime are those in which the most money is spent by the government on providing food and shelter. It seems that a life of leisure doesn’t lead to a Renascence of art and culture, it leads to mobs burning down their own homes.
But, honestly, I think it’s less him being wrong, as him being wrong at such appalling length. There are three main stories in Childhood’s End–a high government official dealing with the Overlords taking control of the Earth, a young couple who are coming to understand that their children are frighteningly different from the rest of humanity, and a frustrated astronaut who makes a desperate journey to see the universe and comes back to Earth to find things horribly changed beyond recognition.
All three of the main stories are good–as I said, the character’s dialogue is frequently wooden, but the basic stories move. It’s the sections in-between that drag. Clarke doesn’t just state his thesis, he repeats it over and over again, with new examples. It feels as if he keeps thinking of new ways to explain how great it would be to abolish nations and every hundred pages or so he has to stop telling the story so that he can preach some more.
I don’t like being preached to. Being exposed to new ideas and new concepts is great, it’s a big part of why I love Science Fiction. I firmly believe that should be in the background, though. I came along on this trip to see what’s going to happen to the people–the scenery can be lovely, but that’s not what I here for.
I have very definite political beliefs, and my work reflects that. I do, however, try to make sure that my readers are concerned with my characters and what is going to happen to them. If those characters and events get my readers thinking about things like personal autonomy and the limits of coercive authority, that’s great. I like to make people think.
But I am an entertainer, not an educator. Cut the speeches, on with the show.