This was a childhood favourite, read and re-read fondly, along with another couple of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels — 2001 and 2010. Though I hadn’t looked at it for many years, I was a bit bemused when a book I’d read so many times was chosen by my reading group. My copy is in Ireland, so I had to borrow another from my trusty local library (with a lovely foreword by Adam Roberts). Unlike Legend, this book (expectedly) held up. It’s got a few quirks that I wouldn’t have noticed as a young’un, but it remains a powerful piece of work.
A mysterious alien race comes to Earth. Tremendously powerful, the Overlords’ (as they are named by humanity) gargantuan vessels hover over every major city. They quickly put a stop to all sorts of ills and insist on the creation of a single global government. The world becomes essentially post-scarcity (in a modest way). Significant inequality is done away with along with the need to work more than one would wish. All this comfort and ease comes at a cost however. Things become…flat, mankind loses its creative spark and starts to stagnate. The point of all of this, we learn eventually, is to generate conditions on Earth that will allow the evolution of humanity.
Over the last third of the book, we follow a nuclear family as they start a new life in a remote, low-tech, commune-type society. This splinter society, designed by “mathematical sociologists using some exceedingly complex mathematics”, is set up to try to resist the stagnation brought by the Overlords. One character complains: “Do you realise that, everyday, something like 500 hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels” (a funny complaint from today’s perspective considering the quantity of media output we can access today). In this future (where, apparently, knitting is fashionable again — Clarke truly is an uncannily accurate futurist), you can just dial “food central”, wait 5 minutes, and get whatever meal you’ve selected. When our family moves into their new home though, the mater familias sees that there’s a kitchen and “[wonders] darkly if she would be expected to make the family’s clothes as well as prepare its meals”. Clearly, even if there’s no need to do it, house work remains a gendered activity.
The end of man, when it comes, “repudiates both optimism and pessimism”. It is a cataclysm that literally sees the death of planet Earth, but Clarke, apart from a few quite affecting passages, describes it in an objective, intellectual style. This final section, with its matter of fact treatment of incomprehensibly momentous transitions in the life of mankind, is reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. It begins with the manifestation of psychic powers of various sorts in the two children of our family, who gradually become more and more distant and alien. This phenomenon quickly spreads across the globe, until everyone under the age of ten becomes a super powered autist. The rest of humanity, through means more or less direct, decides to end it all (think Children of Men only without the hope).
The children eventually shed their bodies and, to use Iain M. Banks’ phrase, sublime. They leave the physical universe behind to become part of the “Overmind”. Unlike the sublimation that occurs in the culture universe though, which is something that races choose to do and that seems really wonderful in every regard, this is something terrible and awesome that is forced on humanity. In fact, I felt rather outraged on humanity’s behalf. The book ends with the last man alive sacrificing himself to record what happens over the course of this ascension, as the once-children consume the Earth to provide enough energy for their transition. I found this “real time” description of destruction and devastation profoundly sad.
Anyway — though there’s not much plot to speak of, and the pacing and structure feel a little wonky at time, this novel is a science-fiction classic. If there were a spectrum of uniqueness (which there definitely isn’t), then this would be a particularly unique book. There’s very little out there like it, and it’s a million miles away from the currently dominant space opera genre. Recommended.