Since they’ve made a short TV mini-series (an “event”) out of this 1953 book, which came out when I was six years old, and are planning to air it a week from now, I thought this might be a good time to review it. I didn’t read it until probably 1960 or so, but it made an impression. From 1953 (probably written in 1952—a term of 63 years!) to today, means a lot has changed since Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book. The first version of this book I got was the Ballantine paperback with the cool Richard Powers cover. The book has been in print pretty much the whole time; although he probably wasn’t a great writer in literary terms, the sweep of Clarke’s imagination, from “The Sentinel”—the story that was the root of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey—through The Deep Range (Earth’s liquid version of outer space) to Rendezvous With Rama and everything between kept readers (and film audiences) fascinated. Back when I was first reading SF/F, Clarke was one of the “Big Three” of science fiction; the other two were Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Although lots of new—and bigger, in terms of sales and name recognition—SF/F authors have come up since the 1950s, there’s still a certain cachet to Sir Arthur’s name.
The book was written at a time when the world was different. The Cold War—Millennials might not quite understand the paranoia of the time—was in sway; the good will of Russian aid to the Allies in winning World War II had been submerged under a rising tide of anti-Communist fervor. The “Duck and Cover” film—telling children that in effect they could safeguard themselves from nuclear attack by hiding in ditches and under clothing, desks and so on, had been produced in 1951; since nobody had yet come up with the phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD), people were building and stocking fallout shelters. Children, even teenagers, were better seen than heard; the “model housewife” was—at least in the U.S.—becoming Donna Reed or (in a few years after this book) June Cleaver. Smoking was good for you; even doctors touted its benefits, and you could smoke darned near anywhere—except, maybe in church. Only hoods, musicians and “folks of the coloured persuasion” had much to do with drugs, even marijuana (“Mary Jane,” “reefer,” and so on, was seen as just as evil as the “hard stuff” like opium and its derivative, heroin.) White was in—both for summer clothing and for skin colour. American society was ten years away, when this book was published, from its first big revolution since the men had gone away to war in Europe and the women held all the jobs.
Clarke, however, didn’t really hit on the politics—any politics, including religion, sexual or societal–as much as might have been done by an American author. Still years away from his move to Sri Lanka, he envisioned a society at the end of the 20th century fairly close to what prevailed in 1952, except that—in practically the sole mention of real-world politics—South Africa had suffered an uprising and the white “masters” were now the underdogs (it was painfully obvious to almost everyone except South Africans that apartheid—though few outside that country were aware of the word and the practice—was not going to last). Otherwise, there were the Russians (Soviets) and the Americans as the two major world blocs. The U.N., of course, would stay in its New York headquarters.
By the way, it would be impossible to discuss the actual point, the dénoument, of the book without spoilers, and many people are nearly rabid on this: I read a review of a paperback edition Amazon is selling that gave the book one star. The buyer said, in effect, that the book was great, but the foreword gave too much away, including one of the earliest revelations about the major players. So I will only hint about the ending of this book and discuss other things that will happen without giving away—I hope—any of the real plot.
The book begins in approximately 1975-1980. It appears that the major powers, those being the US and the USSR, are about to start their first moon mission, using atomic power for their rockets. (Let’s not forget that the only rockets seen by Clarke at the point this book was written were the German V-2s that devastated England in the 1940s; the modern ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), like the one that launched Sputnik in 1957, was still five years in the future. Clarke knew that solid or powdered fuel charges (like those in fireworks) probably wouldn’t have had enough “kick” to launch an expedition into outer space; there’s a power vs. mass tradeoff that was solved partly by the use of liquid fuel and multi-stage rockets, but he (like many in the early ‘50s) had an unrealistic view of how atomic power would be used in the future. Although there have been plans for an atomic-bomb-powered rocket, called “Project Orion,” political considerations—not only because people are more afraid of atomic energy, especially bombs, than they have been in the past, thanks to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents*—but also the international Partial Nuclear Test Ban in 1963 put an end to that particular idea. (This, by the way, is totally separate from NASA’s “Orion” spacecraft that is planned to take astronauts to the asteroid belt and ultimately Mars.)
Just before the Americans, at Taratua in the Pacific and the Soviets, at Lake Baikal, were about to launch their atomic-powered rockets, the giant silver starships of the Overlords appeared over many of the Earth’s major cities: New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Rome, Cape Town, Tokyo, Canberra… and humankind knew that they had lost the race to the stars—the stars had come to them instead—and that we were definitely not alone in the universe. After nearly a week of hanging over these major cities and capitals, motionless and silent, the Overlords had finally announced themselves to a world that could not deny their presence or their superiority. They were the Overlords, and the Earth was henceforth a colony.
The Supervisor for Earth was to be one Karellen, but as far as the Overlords’ appearance, we were to have no clue for another fifty years. They spoke only to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and he only by teletype. Their demands were simple: there would be no more national sovereignty; all nations would be subsumed into a One World government; there would be no more war or killing; and there would be no more animal cruelty. When some country attempted a preemptive strike on an Overlord ship with a nuclear-tipped missile, the missile did not explode, and there was no retaliation. The Overlords simply ignored it, and the missile disappeared. Their methods were simple, too: when South Africa denied their ability to enforce their demands, they simply turned out the sun over South Africa until that country complied and returned civil rights to the white minority. When Mexico attempted to hold a bullfight, the pain inflicted on the bull was instantly inflicted on the audience. When a crime was committed, they had “instant replay” of the action and the perpetrators; they could and apparently did, surveil the entire world.
Eventually, the world complied; all armies were disbanded; machines eventually took over all “work,” and leisure and plenty were available to all. And it is at the end of the first fifty years that the Overlords revealed themselves—when humankind was ready to receive them—and the real story began. It is a story as vast in scope, perhaps, as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, in many fewer pages; it is a story of of humankind itself. And I cannot reveal more without spoiling it for you.
So the thing here is: did I enjoy it as much as the first time? All I can tell you is that it is worth a read if you’ve never read it—and if the TV people have the guts to tell it the way the book does, without excessive cutting or emendation, you should enjoy it a lot. People have found it mind-expanding—because the concept was pretty original. I enjoyed the sweep, but I don’t think one can really revisit the state of mind one is in when first reading such a revolutionary concept for its time. It is a terrific book in its scope and its concept; but perhaps the writing is a bit dated by now.
One of the things I enjoyed was comparing some of today with some of the ideas Clarke puts forward for his technologically superior—his people, in the 21st century, have lots of dials and buttons and levers to push, kind of like Popular Mechanics of the 1950s predicted, while we have moved away from too many controls to more video-based controllers. And while we base most of our entertainment on TV and video, Clarke visualized radio as being equal to TV in that mid-21st century future (which is not too far from now). For example: “… there are too many distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges-absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day?
Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!” Does this sound even vaguely familiar?
We have moved so far socially and—in some ways—societally from the early 1950s; in technological progress we’ve come far. But the book’s protagonists are very much rooted in the 1950s—it’s been a long while since anything I’ve read made a point that someone was a “negro,” for example; Clarke seems to accept the male and female roles of the fifties implicitly, too. It’s the woman who cooks or entertains; since nobody has to work anymore, the man isn’t the bread-earner, but you can see the assumed male superiority implicit in the writing. Which is okay if you’re familiar with all that; I think younger readers might be taken a bit aback by some of the assumptions Clarke works under—nothing major, but still, probably a bit jolting to a Millennial.
It is my hope that, since they’re bound to update the TV series, they correct those flaws without changing the thrust of the novel. Because while the conclusion of the novel can be seen as uplifting and fulfilling, it could also be seen as dark and scary. What comes after childhood ends? Adolescence or adulthood? And are we—the readers and viewers—ready for that?
Again, I can’t do an in-depth commentary on what I think of the book’s main thrust until you’ve either read it, or seen the mini-series. Maybe I’ll revisit this after that has aired, and we can compare notes. What do you say?
*I’d like to point out here that the US Navy (of which I’m a proud veteran) has been running nuclear powerplants on a number of vessels for decades, and as far as I’m aware, without any accidents or incidents—especially like the accidents cited above. You can probably use the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to verify that if you wished.
I’d appreciate your comments on this week’s column if you could. You could also comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome—I love hearing what my readers say. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, either. I learn a lot from differing opinions. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!
(Editor’s note: SyFy’s 3 episode miniseries adapted from the novel airs on December 14th 8 pm est)