Friday, August 20, 2010

Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is indisputably one of the great sci-fi writers of all time.  Not only are his novels 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, and The Songs of Distant Earth classics, but he had a brilliant scientific mind.  Based on a paper he published in 1945, he is considered to have been the originator of the idea of using satellites in geosynchronous orbit for communications.  Talk about a world-changer.

Childhood's End is one of his early novels, and probably not one of his best, but it's certainly enjoyable.  The set up is familiar: an race of aliens parks their massive spaceships in the air above several of the world's largest cities.  They set themselves up as benevolent dictators, of a sort, sharing much of their advanced technology with humans, yet retaining a level of control.  Clarke draws similarities to colonialism, like England's colonial occupation of India. 

There are groups who resist the aliens' influence, but for the most part mankind enters a new era of peace and prosperity.  Hunger and war are eliminated, thanks to the new technology, and work is mostly voluntary.  No one has to work for basic needs; they just work at what they like.  Eventually we find that the aliens are in fact working for an even more advanced race which has their eyes on humanity, which is about to enter a new stage of evolution.
The story itself goes downhill toward the end, in my opinion.  To me, speculation about interactions with alien races, the impact of technology on daily life, and cultural and historical futures are more interesting to me than the sort of mystical, fantasy story this turns into.  Despite that, Childhood's End is worth a read.  And get this: the edition I read had a blurb from C.S. Lewis!  Any book with an endorsement from St. Jack is OK by me!

Here are a couple of passages that I thought were interesting or notable.  Here, one of the characters is complaining to his wife about the media consumption of humans:
There's nothing left ot struggle for, and 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? . . . It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!
I thought this was rather humorous because when this was first published, in 1953, no one could have predicted the explosion of entertainment options over the next 50 years.  Five hundred hours of radio and TV?  That's a drop in the bucket, even before you add satellite and cable.  Three hours a day?  That's on the low end of most people's scale.  Not even the man who came up with the idea to make it all possible could have imagined where his ideas would go!

On another note, Clarke spoke often of his atheism, but many of his books have religion as a theme.  He seeks some sort of mystical meaning of life or a higher power that is not quite God but god-like.  In Childhood's End, the arrival of the aliens drove the final nails in the coffin of religion, which was already dead because of the advances of scientific belief:
Before the guardians came, ". . . your scientists uncovered the secrets of the physical world and led you from the energy of steam ot the energy of the atom.  You had put supersitition behind you: science was the only real religion of mankind.  It was the gift of the westerm minority to the remainder of mankind, and it had destroyed all other faiths. . ..  Science, it was felt, could explain everything: there were no other forces which did not come within its scope, no events for which it could not ulimately account.  The origin of the universe might be forever unknown, but all that had happened since obeyed the laws of physics."
The reduction of religion to superstitions created by man to explain what he does not understand does not hold up when one takes a serious look at the claims of the Bible.  I feel sure that were I too debate Clarke on the existence of God of the salvific nature of belief in Jesus, he would have won; I'll admit his intellect is superior.  Unfortunately, having died a couple of years ago, he has now discovered the error of his ways.

Clarke's brilliance as a writer and storyteller are indisputable.  Few have been as visionary as he.  Even though this is not one of his "don't miss" novels, it's still a great read.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

As a general rule, I think it's a good idea, every now and then, to view the world from unfamiliar perspectives.  That's what I like about The Reluctant Fundamentalist: the opportunity to view American culture in general, and the aftermath of 9/11 particularly, through the eyes of a Pakistani living in the U.S. 

The book takes place at a cafe in Lahore.  Changez, a young Pakistani, sits down with an American, whom Changez suspects is miltary or an intelligence agent, and tells his story.  Changez grew up in Pakistan, but gets an opportunity to attend Princeton and lands a job at an exclusive Wall Street valuation firm.  He lives the American dream, finding success in a high-paying field, meeting a terrific American girl, on track for long-term success and wealth.

But everything is shattered on 9/11.  Although he had done well in the U.S., and had no real reason for animosity toward Americans, he felt a sense of elation and gloating when he saw the towers fall.  He got a sense of satisfaction that someone more like himself and his countrymen could strike such a blow to the world power.  In the aftermath, he feels like people perceive him differently, viewing him with suspicion. 

If I place myself in Changez's shoes, pretending, for instance, that I have gone to Germany to study and work, then Americans attack Germany in a terrorist attack, and Germany retailiates, I can appreciate his mixed feelings.  When the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, Changez takes it personally.  Even if the U.S was wronged, were we always in the right in our responses?  Viewing history since 9/11 through the eyes of a Pakistani hasn't turned me against the U.S., but it certainly does make me stop and think, and consider the world from another perspective.