Archive for December 16, 2008
|Childhood’s End (Del Rey Impact)|
|by Arthur C. Clarke|
My copy of this 1950s science-fiction classic has a quote by C. S. Lewis on its cover: “There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own survival.”
The other day, while reading *The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963,* I found Lewis’ entire review on *Childhood’s End.* I was surprised, though, that he did not write it to be published at all. Instead, the review is a personal letter to his pen pal and then-future wife Joy Davidman Gresham, who had cautiously recommended the book to him. Joy subsequently showed the letter to Clarke himself, who asked Lewis if the publisher may quote from the letter for promoting the book. To which Lewis replied, “If you will let me know *which* bits of my letter your people want to use, I am sure I shall have no objection – as you know one doesn’ t like to give a free hand for *selection.* It is sometimes so done as to credit one with ungrammatical or even nonsensical sentences.” This probably explains why the above quote differs somewhat from the actual letter.
Since Lewis’ thoughts on the book mirror my own experience in reading it pretty closely, and since I suspect that people will be more interested in a review by C. S. Lewis than a review by me, I will give you the letter in full.
Here we go:
As far as I can remember you were non-committal about *Childhood’s End*: I suppose you were afraid that you might raise my expectations too high and lead to disappointment.
If that was your aim, it has succeeded, for I came to it expecting nothing in particular and have been thoroughly bowled over. It is quite out of range of the common space-and-time writers; away up near Lindsay’s *Voyage to Arcturus* and Well’s *First Men in the Moon.* It is better than any of Stapleton’s. It hasn’t got Ray Bradbury’s delicacy, but then it has ten times his emotional power, and far more mythopoeia.
There is one bit of bad execution, I think: chapters 7 and 8, where the author doesn’t seem to be at home. I mean, as a social picture it is flat and stiff, and all the gadgetry (for me) is a bore.
But what there is on the credit side! It is rather like the effect of the *Ring* [by Richard Wagner]–a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity. The first section, merely on the mystery of the Overlords, would be enough for most authors.
Then you find this is only the background, and when you have worked up to the climax in chapter 21, you find what seems to be an anti-climax and it slowly lifts itself to the utter climax. The first climax (…) brought tears to my eyes. There has been nothing like it for years: partly for the actual writing– “She has left her toys behind but ours go hence with us,” or “The island rose to meet the dawn,” but partly (still more, in fact) because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity: a man who could almost understand “He that hateth not father and mother” and certainly would understand the situation in *Aeneid* III between those who go on to Latium and those who stay in Sicily.
We are almost brought up out of *psyche* into *pneuma* [that is, from matters of the soul to those of the spirit]. I mean, his myth does that to us imaginatively. Of course his own *thoughts* about what the higher level might be are not, in our eyes, very new or very profound: but that doesn’t really make so much difference. (Though, by the way, it would have been better, even on purely literary grounds, to leave it in its mystery, to philosophise less.) After all, few authors’ glosses on their own myths are as good as the myths: unless, like Dante, they take the glosses from other men, real thinkers.
The second climax, the long (not too long) drawn-out close is magnificent.
There is only one change (in conception) that I would want to make. It is a pity that he suggests a jealousy and a possible future revolt on the part of the Overlords. The motive is so ordinary that it cannot excite interest in itself, and as it is never going to be worked out of the handling cannot compensate for the banality. How much better, how much more in tune with Clarke’s own imagined universe, if the Overlords were totally resigned, submissive yet erect in an eternal melancholy–like the great heroes and poets in Dante’s Limbo who live forever “in desire but not in hope.”
But now one is starting to re-write the book.
Many *minor* dissatisfactions, of course. The women are all made up out of a few abstract ideas of jealousy, vanity, maternity etc. But it really matters very little: the thing is great enough to carry far more faults than it commits.
It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the *cognoscenti,* while any “realistic” drivel about some neurotic in a London flat–something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books–as if it really mattered.
I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago, I felt no doubt that I should life to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.
And now, what do *you* think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?