The Fourth of the Big Three

During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the Big Three Names were the three authors with the greatest prestige in the John W Campbell Jr stable of authors: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and one now is unfairly unrecognized, A.E. van Vogt. His obscurity may be due in part to a malign attempt by Damon Knight to undermine his career.

These days, the term ‘The Big Three’ is still sometimes used, but the third name is given as Ray Bradbury or Arthur C Clarke. Why this should be is also unclear, since no one linked the names at the time, but, again, it may be due to Damon Knight, who for all I know is also responsible for the hole in the ozone layer.

Arthur C Clarke is a fairly convincing stand-in for a Campbell-style writer, and indeed sold his first story to Campbell (“Loophole”, in 1946 Astounding), so this may be why he is often photo-shopped into the position A.E. van Vogt was airbrushed out of. But I would argue that there was a theme, or even a philosophy, to Campbellian fiction, and that Clarke represents and older, and perhaps more literate, style of science fiction harkening back to H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon.

I submit to your candid judgment that Arthur C Clarke has a particular sense of a broader vision, and yet it is a darker vision, of man and his ultimate fate in the universe which is keeping with H.G. Wells and alien to Campbell.

Asimov, Heinlein, Van Vogt and other regular contributors to Astounding betrayed a heady optimism typical of America at the period. The tales regularly involved heroes who solved their problems by reason, by the power of science, and they were, in effect, something like the character in detective stories who always get their man before the end.

Even stories that seem quite grim about their view of the littleness of man in the universe —Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ springs to mind as an example—are based on an optimistic idea. Nightfall assumes that men of a world where the sunset came only once every thousand years would go mad at the sight of stars. This at first seems a pessimistic view of man, that we are like the ninnies in Lovecraft stories, who go insane upon learning the truths of the universe, rather than being fascinated. But in fact the idea is a typically modern one, full of the optimism and hence the folly of modernity. The idea here is that men are plastic and pliant in our souls, and that evolution can adapt us eventually to any environment, or propel us eventually to superhuman heights.

Science Fiction differs from all other genres. Membership in another genre is based on elements that appear in all stories. To be a detective story means to have the mystery plot. To be a pirate story means to have a pirate character. To be a Western means to have a frontier setting. To be a horror story or a romance means to have a theme or mood of fear or love. All stories (except modern mainstream ones) have plot, character, setting, theme, mood. But Science Fiction has one thing more. It has world building. To be Science Fiction the natural laws of the story-world, which includes the science, technology, must differ from the laws of the real world we know, and the expectations of the reader must be flexible enough to adapt to the new rules.

This flexibility is why imagination is paramount in the Science Fiction field, and, for hard or realistic Science Fiction, it is a disciplined imagination.

Readers are simply cheated in the story-world has laws and technologies and therefore expectations of what is possible or not that change according to the storyteller’s convenience, or which do not explore a logical yet unexpected side-effect of the hypothetical situation.

(If the supernatural laws differ, and include witches and magicians, dragons and elves, or anything redolent of the period before modernity, this is Fantasy, which is a sister empire to science fiction, overlapping in some places, and which these days bids fair to replace her, but the two are nonetheless distinct.)

I would go so far as to say that Science Fiction is the essential and archetypal literature of the modern age, because it is the only literature which confronts and incorporates the central idea that separates modernity from all past philosophies and worldviews: namely, change and evolution. Science Fiction is more popular during eras when technological change is faster or more profound.

To be sure, men of the Enlightenment, and Renaissance, and Middle Ages, and the Ancient world were aware of technological changes in history but these occurred at a slow enough rate and small enough scale that it was not the central pillar of their worldview. The essential note of their worldview was one of stability and centrality. Even after the Roman Empire was long fallen, the European mind continued to use it as the bases of reference and comparison and as the source of legal legitimacy—up through the Napoleonic Era, which was the era of revolutions, and arguably the beginning of the modern world.

So I submit that Science Fiction, no matter what it seems to be about, is always about progress, and even when it is a cautionary tale, is a caution about progress gone wrong.

I would also suggest—for the point is too broad to be argued here—that Jules Verne wrote the type of fiction that Campbell would later expand upon, the hard and technophilic SF set either in a today or a nearby tomorrow of a world not much changed. Asmiov, Van Vogt and Heinlein tended to set their stories no farther in the future than the launch of the Wright Brothers was in the past, or the America Revolution.  When tales were set in the farther future, as SLAN or FOUNDATION, the cultures were immediately recognizable: SLAN is set in a totalitarian fascist-state, complete with secret police, and FOUNDATION is set in Roman Empire, complete with Emperor and Senate.

In each case, the fundamental benevolence of the fate in store for man is on display in the imaginings of these and other Golden Age authors. The pulp field was famous for stories of apocalypse and scientific Gotterdammerung (One can grow weary counting the planets destroyed by World Wrecker Hamilton or E.E. “Doc” Smith) but the Golden Age was different.

The Future History of Heinlein ended in an era of Maturity of Man, when, thanks to advances in General Semantics and psychology, insanity and therefore war and therefore the need for government is left behind on Earth and the stars are ours; the Foundation stories of Asimov promised a Second Empire ruled by a benevolent technological elite, mind-reading pscyhohistorians who had mathematical control over the future, and could obviate wars before they began; the Slans of Van Vogt, and the Null-A men likewise were creatures more wise, more sane, more benevolent than man, and were secretly or openly ruling them for the good of mankind and their own.

Please note the recurring theme. Politically speaking, no matter where a Campbell author falls on the spectrum, he regards the human condition, the political nature of man, the questions of war and government, as a problem that can be solved.

There is no Greek Tragedy for the Big Three, no Twilight of the Gods which Odin foretells and cannot forestall. But then again, the Campbell authors rarely fixed their eyes are the farther horizons, or told us what would happen after the golden age of nudist telepaths on nine world the near future promised.

On the other hand, Arthur C Clarke and H.G. Wells are haunted by a sense of the true magnitude of time, and while some of their stories (A FALL OF MOONDUST or THE ISLE OF DR MOREAU) are near future tales, they are most famous for those who go to the end of mankind and beyond.

H.G. Wells when he has his Martians invade Horsell Common, he is putting on display not a truly alien creature of truly alien psychology, such as Tweel from ‘A Martian Oddessey’ by Standley W Weinbaum. He is instead showing the dark Darwinian future of man, a creature as feeble compared to modern man as modern man were to (at least Wells’ Victorian conception of) a Cave Man or Noble Savage, but as developed in those organs of his superiority, his brain and his hands. The Martian is the Wellsian conception of the Man of the Remote Future as sculpted, not by some fatherly supernatural Creator but by the remorseless and bloody chisel-blade of blind Mother Nature.

Likewise, in A TIME MACHINE, we see the effects of the passage of deep time on the evolution of man, because the eight hundred millennia of civilized life had bred out of the possessing classes intelligence, self-preservation, overt masculinity, and reduced them to Eloi, mere livestock for the cannibal troglodyte Morlocks, whose breeding was the opposite.

Three novels of Arthur C Clarke show his vision of the remote or ultimate destiny of man, and they are just as cold and eerie as the vision of HG Wells.

In AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT we see the city of billion-year-old Diaspar, inhabited by immortals, alone on an otherwise barren Earth, a veritable city of despair, when one lone lad, Alvin chafes against the sterile perfection of the deathless utopia, and seeks the hidden past where once man roamed the stars. All that is left of those days is a legend of a vast and alien power that refused the other worlds to man, and drove man out of heaven and back to a barren Earth.  The tale ends on a note of hope, when the siege of eternity is broken, and man once more turns his eyes outward.

In 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see man evolved by the direct intervention of transcendentally superhuman beings from space, who wait for him to achieve spaceflight, and select one astronaut for evolution into something as far above us as we are above our ape-man ancestors. The man dies and the Star-Child, incomprehensible to us, is born.

But the clearest expression of this theme of deep time is CHILDHOOD’S END. This tale is unique among invasion stories, because the aliens are benevolent. On the very brink of the launch of the first spacegoing ships by the Russians and the Americans, the aliens conquer mankind out of a condescending need to impose order on us, to preserve us from atomic self destruction, and to deny us the stars.

In one of the most striking images of all Science Fiction, one copied more than once, vast disk-shaped ships hang weightlessly over the cities of man, announcing the end of human dominion over the Earth. War and crime, hunger, and even cruelty to animals is instantly done away with. There is no war, no resistance, because the Overlords are superior in technology in a fashion that is simply irresistible.

Two centuries pass, and mankind, no longer their own masters, withers under the benevolent peace, losing religion, losing will to live, turning its eyes inward away from the stars forever beyond reach, puttering away the years before the extinction of man.

For the children of men are being born with psychic powers, and an evolutionary change as dramatic as the end of the Neanderthals is coming to pass: and this is the true reason for the visit of the Overlords. With something of an apology, the Overlords kidnap all the psionic children, and explain that the invasion was meant not just to stop mankind from destroying itself scientific investigation of the power of the atom, but to stop mankind from destroying much more by scientific investigation of the paranormal.

A man stows away on one of the alien vessels, and is the only human to visit the homeworld of the Overlords, NGS 549672 in the Constellation Carina. Here he finds the Overlords — who turn out to be the horned and winged demons from Christian mythology — are no more than the thralls of a being immensely superior to themselves, an Overmind which exists as a purely psychic entity, or collection of entities. Returning home after eighty years, it is discovered that the children of the human race are no longer human, but are dull-eyed members of a vast telepathic group-mind, that they are no longer men but Man, Man-as-One, or, rather Superman-as-One.

Freed of its need for planetary, or even physical existence, and equally beyond the comprehension of human or Overlord, the mass-mind destroys the Earth and joins in an inexpressible cosmic union with the Overmind.

The last star vessel departs the now-empty solar system, and the alien Overlords regret that, for reasons unknown and inexplicable to them, while they can help nursemaid other races into transcendence, they will never join it themselves.

On this note of sorrow, the book, and mankind, ends.

Now, I suppose an utterly bloodless intellectual with no great love for mankind or any of the things that make us human might regard the theme of transcending into posthuman inhumanity as a noble or hopeful one, but that is not the message of the book. The alien-influenced children of men turn into something described as being repellent in their nonhumanity: the posthumans have no more expression on their faces than idiots, and the ramp through the wildness, naked as prelapsarian man, in some dance-pattern covering the continent, and too complex even for the aliens to comprehend. This is THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS where the cuckoos are triumphant.

The book is meant to depict a disquieting sensation, similar to looking at the ruins of Nineveh and Tyre, and seeing the current glory of London, or looking at the bones of dinosaurs, and seeing the men and horses on the modern street.

The glory of man is to pass away, and the superhuman children of man are superior without being benevolent, or companionable, or friendly. They are no even godlike: no Zeus of the new race visits any Semele, even in disguise. There is no more amity or concern between the species as between men and ape.

I suggest that this is a thoroughly H.G. Wellsian view of man and his place in the universe. To fly off as disembodied minds in the train of a cosmic Overmind is a fate as disquieting as that of the Eloi or Morlocks, but if these creatures were at the same time as superior as the vast, cool, unsympathetic intellects of Mars.

I note also that the writing style has the same lyrical stiffness and history-book quality as H.G. Wells. While I can recall characters from Heinlein and A.E van Vogt, Lazarus Long or Gilbert Gosseyn, who adventures were written in either a florid pulp style or a slangy journalistic style, rapid of pace, CHILDHOOD’S END is written more like WAR OF THE WORLDS. None of the main characters make any impression on the imagination, the prose is dignified and austere, more like Edward Gibbon than like World-Wrecker Hamilton, and the plot is that of a great historical event unfolding, not like that of a murder mystery in space or an interplanetary adventure or even a puzzle-solving story about a malfunctioning robot.

Partly by upbringing and partly by inclination, I tend to appreciate and savor the Big Three authors a bit more than this Fourth of the Big Three.  I do not think he fits in their ranks. The American optimism, the belief in progress, the sheer orneriness of the Campbellian heroes have a greater appeal to me than the Wellsian man, overwhelmed by events, evolved into Star-Child or absorbed into Overminds as a passive observer of vast unstoppable cosmic events.

Is there a rational basis for this discontent with Arthur C Clarke’s worlds? It is a judgment call, and reasonable men can differ on matters of judgment, on the weight given one thing or the other, but it is not an arbitrary judgment. Let me list the particulars in order:

First, the idea of benevolent nursemaids descending from heaven to pry the atom bomb and the spaceship from our chubby little fists is obnoxious on several levels. It is condescending, it is puerile, it is cowardly, and it is typically European. Our ancestors came to the New World to get away from slavish little men who delight in the desire for rule by the benevolent elite. The TV show “V” was more realistic. The benevolence of the elitist aliens turned out to be a trick.  They came to eat us.

The Overlords in this book are never shown suffering any temptation or weakness. There are no factions among them, no argument between tradition and innovation, or between formality and expediency. The Overlords are as bland and unrealistic as any Communist’s daydream of a world government that fades out of existence voluntarily at the end of its term.

Second, the idea that men would submit without fighting to the last man, without any show of brutality on the part of the aliens is unrealistic. While there are plenty of men, maybe most, willing to be slaves, one need only look toward the Middle East or the Midwest to find men, who, for good causes or bad ones, are willing to fight against impossible odds, even with zero chance of success.

Third, the idea that natives just die off in the presence of superior cultures, while it has happened in history, is an exception rather than a rule: there are many cultures which kept slaves, and many slaves that flourished. (Indeed, the Janissaries ended up ruling in Egypt.) Here, the race of man is not being kept as slaves, not being sent to labor, they are merely being prevented from harming each other. Why would, for example, the Indians of South America, already conquered and crushed by the Spanish, feel any more overwhelmed and inferior now that some outer spacemen have halted the Russians and Americans from global war?

Fourth, the scene where bullfighting is outlawed by the aliens, who stick everyone in the Spanish arena in the buttocks with illusionary pain when the bull is gored, is one of those pet peeves of an author or a pet cause which strains the suspension of disbelief.

Consider: Creatures entirely alien in biology and psychology and outlook who have less in common with us than we have with digger wasps or starfish, spent the unthinkable energies needed to cross the fifty light years from the constellation Argo Navis for the purpose of stopping war and crime and  — wait for it!— to impose vegetarianism on us.

Hmm. If in one of my stories, I ever have a ship land from Argo Navis, and the vast vessel is shaped like a giant crucifix adorned with stained glass windows, and out marches the Archibishop of Alpha Carinae with a miter on his insectoid head, and announces that contraception is against the order of nature and must be outlawed, do you think there is even one reader, even one, so unwary as to not realize that the writer is Catholic, and that I am using my story time as an excuse to preach some particular pet peeve of mine? So, here, when the benevolent dictator outlaws cruelty to animals, hotbutton topics of particular interest to the English intellectual class of the 1930’s to 1950’s, there is that creaking strain at the traces of suspension of disbelief.

Instead of imposing the dogma of SPCA or PETA on us, the story could have said that the octopi beings of Spica would demand that we arrange all mothers to die in childbirth, as they do, or the spider beings of Arcturus insist that we eat our mates during copulation. Whether this is more realistic or less I leave for xenobiologists to debate; but in terms of what a reader can swallow in a story, the conceit that advanced beings care about fuzzy animals rings hollow.

It rings doubly hollow, especially since these same advanced beings later in the book allow all Earthly life to be destroyed at the hands of beings more advanced yet. All the bulls saved from the Spaniards are obliterated when the core of the planet blows.

Fifth, the idea that religion would simply fade away and disappear is stupid. If anything, the stress and pressure of being confronted by alien overlords would encourage religion. Someone would start worshipping them, if nothing else.

The book handles this by saying a time-viewing television is set up in the basement of an Oxford building, and scientists are allowed to look at some historical events and not others. There is only one religion which rests for its validity on a specific historical event—the book coyly does not name that religion by name. The book assumes that once the spacemen show a picture allegedly from the past that no one died at Calvary and rose again, gee willikers, all the Zen Buddhists would turn in their saffron robes.

I myself know plenty of Jews who don’t believe Moses ever parted the Red Sea, and plenty of Witches who don’t either. I don’t see how a photo produced by an alien monster that no burning bush ever blaze on Oreb without being consumed, would convince, or even interest them.

The fact that the pictures come from the horned and winged gargoyles of Christian religious art, of course, would increase their credibility, at least with me. And we all know Christianity is a biological theory about the origin of species AND NOTHING ELSE, so that when the central premise was shown to be historically inaccurate, the pseudo-science known as faith would simply fade away. Just the same way Mormonism vanished overnight once genetic science proved the American Indians were not the lost ten tribes of Israel.

Parenthood apparently disappears as rapidly, since there is no scene where the humans fight the aliens who come to take away their children who have psionic powers, or even voice vehement objections. Professor X, call your office.

Sixth, the whole idea of psionic evolution into a spiritual form of being as the next step of evolution is a lazy cheat. Bob Heinlein’s idea of the next form of man (as portrayed in his short story ‘Gulf’) as a being of greater intellect, or A.E. van Vogt conception of a Slan as a hominid of finer grained and more densely packed and powerful nervous system, not to mention Way Cool Mind Powers, are both more solid and real. It is not just a vague pink cloud labeled ‘The Superman’ with nothing in it.

I say it is lazy because it is like the supremacy of the Overmind: just something that is established by auctorial fiat, not given any sense of proportion or solidity. It does not even have the solidity of showing what it looks like when someone opposes it.

In other words, a lazy conceit is one that cannot be imagined when set against a background not prepared carefully by the author to receive it. If the Overlords of Carina, for example, were show conquering the Middle East, and prevented the Islamic Fascists from nuking the Jews, how would they prevent them from butchering the Jews with machetes? Inflict illusion-pain? Pain does not stop suicide bombers. Stun them all? For how long; and what if they continue their evil once the stun wears off? What then? Crucify them by the thousands like the remorseless Romans did?

For that matter, landing during the Cold War, how did the Overlords prevent Stalin from starving the Ukrainians, without any act of brutality against Stalin?

I am not saying there are not answers which could be deduced from the book to these questions. I am saying that, as an artist, there is something oddly flat and artificial about a benevolent invasion by powerful aliens who, because the author has prepared the ground and weeded away any remotely human seeming or realistic characters, neither the power is shown nor the benevolence put to a test.

The lack of any such scene makes the Overlord seem benevolent even though they are conquerors, and this illusion is preserved only by the lazy sleight of hand of not having any resistance to conquest on stage, or any brutality.

In the novel METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN and again in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, Lazarus Long, the curmudgeon that was Heinlein’s ‘peak’ character, that is, his most Heinlein-like character, confronts aliens of supreme and godlike power. His reaction is to get a handweapon and go kill them.

Whether this is good or bad or simply gobstoppingly stupid I leave for the reader to decide, but the point is that there is no character like Lazarus Long seen anywhere on Earth at the time of the Overlords, and when someone smuggles himself aboard one of their vessels, it is not Long carrying a suitcase nuke.

The author did not bother to imagine what the Overlords would actually act like in a situation involving some stress or moral pressure. Would the beings so advanced that the stop bullfights put Lazarus Long on trial, or do they just kill him like a bug? It would have given the aliens a specific personality, which the author here was careful to avoid.

This lack of detail is deliberate. The only way to portray something as incomprehensible is to leave it blank. If the next step of human evolution which the children of man embrace had been something other than psionic and disembodied, it would have failed to awe.

Gazing upon the fate of man in this yarn is like gazing upon a vast Artic ocean frozen mile after endless mile to the far horizon beneath the eerie light of the aurora borealis. It is awe-inspiring but infinitely cold. The stars are not meant for man, and the future is inhospitable and deadly.

This leads to the final point. What was Arthur C Clarke trying to accomplish in this book? I suggest that he was trying to tell a myth rather than a story, and that he succeeded brilliantly.

A myth is a tale of a certain narrative shape with rests for its beauty on the proportion of ideas. A myth is the most abstract, most universal and most easily told and retold of human literary inventions.  Here the story is about what it says it is about: the end of the childhood of man and his evolution into unimaginable maturity, the posthuman beings of pure spirit, them to whom the stars truly belong. The universe is too vast and cool and deadly for beings of merely flesh and blood like us.

The myth is as simple and sad and dramatic as the death of the octopus to give birth to her young, or the sacrifice of the spider to her own hatched eggs: simple, horrible, awesome, and with a promise of the great mystery of the universe acting to crack the Earth like such an egg, a cast off shell the higher beings we shall birth, but never understand, shall crack.

Let me end with an idea at once shocking and obvious. Myths are about religious notions. The notion here was that science, or the purely materialistic and naturalistic world view, the cold and dull and empty world without God, could somehow find in its remorseless grind of blind evolution something as interesting and dramatic as damnation and salvation.

The whole book as an ersatz sort of religious myth, as cold and pitiless as the Ragnarok of the Norseman, and as inescapable. There is perhaps some strange hope in the disembodied ghosts who are the heirs of mankind, but they mean nothing to their parents, and have no human properties, no, not even names. They are a type of Tarzan who never thanks the apes who raised them, a Romulus and Remus who put up no statues to the wolf that nursed them.

Which leads to a final question of why? Why does the Overmind use the overlords of Carina, but cannot discover a way to evolve them up to his level? They are the Moses of this book, who can lead others to a promised land but not enter themselves. As in myth, this is given by auctorial fiat, without explanation. The younger brother, Man, is preferred over the Elder, the Overlords, like Jacob over Esau, or, more likely, like the ratlike mammals who conquered the world after the downfall of the dinosaurs. Again, as in a myth, this is just given by auctorial fiat.

Only upon reflection, long after the book is put down, does one realize what shabby gods these godlike beings are.

The children of men are allegedly very advanced, but why have they forgotten how to speak to their parents. Even if such speech would be baby-talk to them, the cooing and simple words of a mother to her child, it would have shown love.

And likewise, the Overmind cannot uplift its own servants, even though its resources and wisdom are transcendental. The problem is just insoluble? Or the Overmind simply does not love its serfs?

You see the problem of seeking for ersatz religious sentiment among the artic splendor and inhumanity of the blind cruelty of a universe without God. You might find some very awesome and even godlike beings, such as the Arisians of the Lensmen, or the Martians of H.G. Wells, or the Martians of Robert Heinlein, beings with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, creatures as impressive as some mighty prince of Hell with a legion of devils clad in admantium at his command.

But a child’s idea of a superior being is the same as Nietzsche’s: a creature greater in power, but indifferent, callous, reticent, remote. A creature beyond good and evil. The idea of love will not even be brought up, not even to be dismissed, even though this is the first idea a mature man contemplates when he thinks of superior beings who are truly superior.

The book succeeds and succeeds brilliantly on every level but this one. The core idea of seeking for religious transcendence in the dead cosmos of materialism is an incoherent idea, a self-refuting idea. The mythical image produced is one of beings of immense power and retarded capacity for love, like some super-villain caricature of an evil scientist, or the hallow grandeur of the Satan of Milton.

As far as the philosophical depth is concerned, the book might as well have been called CHILDHOOD’S IDEA OF SUPERIORITY.



  1. Comment by Jordan179:

    But in fact the idea is a typically modern one, full of the optimism and hence the folly of modernity. The idea here is that men are plastic and pliant in our souls, and that evolution can adapt us eventually to any environment, or propel us eventually to superhuman heights.

    Well, consider this: beings (it’s not obvious that the main characters of “Nightfall” were actually our own species, they may have been highly humanoid aliens) who lived for generations upon generations upon a planet where they never saw full night, save once every millennium or so (which would mean given lifespans like ours that most would never get to see it) would probably be terrified by night and the sight of stars. Why? Because it would be totally unknown to them, and it is human to be terrified by the complete unknown.

    Consider savages who go mad upon even short periods of confinement in a jail, because the very concept of imprisonment (rather than death or illness or injury) is alien to them. These savages are of our own species and subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, and we know as a fact that their descendants, raised in civilization, will not react similarly. Yet they have a remarkably different reaction to imprisonment than do we: imprisonment merely depresses us.

    So why couldn’t a race of humanoids, even if descended from a lost colony of Earth (and we have no reason to think that the people in Asimov’s story are so descended), have an extreme reaction to Nightfall? They might not all go mad, and they might not stay mad for very long, but as Asimov pointed out, if they know how to make fire they know how to do one thing which in and of itself would be highly destructive to their civilization: set fire to their own cities.

    So actually I don’t find it implausible at all: it’s not as if the sight of the stars made them capable of working a utopian socialist economy, or something really far-out like that ;-)

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I assume the men are members of a long lost colony, because if they are not human the whole point of the story is lost. Emerson did not say that if Ents or Dwarves or some other intelligent race unaccustomed to nightfall saw the stars only once a millennium they would adore God, he said men. Asimov’s snarky answer has no point if the critters in this story are psychologically nocturnophobic.

      In one thousand years, has society developed the capacity for mining? Or making a closet with the door that fits tightly to the frame? If so, there would be at least some candles or artificial lights.

      How long does the night last? Twelve hours? The planet’s rotation has not halted, it is just that all the suns on are one side of it, and maybe a lunar eclipse is going on. Is there no one in the lit hemisphere? What about a yachtsman?

      So there should be either a squad of miners or a hemisphere of cities left intact after each thousand year long day. Even without that, how much of the city is burnt during the crucial night? Every stick of wood? Every book? And why do the memories and the sanity of the humans not return by dawn?

      What about people who slept through the whole thing, or farmers or hermits, or blind guys? Wouldn’t they remember at least some of the previous days civilization, things like language and the multiplication tables? Wouldn’t the legends of Nightfall on this world be at least as commonplace as legends of the flood of Noah on our own?

      The yarn has the plausibility of a diagram. The diagram evaporates when you put real people on the face of the world.

      Imagine some real character from a real story set into that background, and a jarring note appears.

      Would Frodo and Gandalf both go insane if they had never seen the stars before? Frodo has been in a wine cellar, so he cannot be too afraid of the dark.

      What about Peter Parker? He could go insane? He would care more about all the peering and bright little blinky things in the sky than his breakup with his girlfriend of his rotten job? He has worked in a darkroom with chemicals, so he cannot be too afraid of the dark.

      What about Cugel the Clever? Wouldn’t Cugel be ready to use the opportunity to steal something?

      What about Severian the Torturer? Even if he had never seen the stars before, he has worked in a dungeon, and knows what darkness is. Would he not now kneel and pray to the Pancreator, and so preserve his sanity?

      And why would Conan the Barbarian go mad? It is not worse than facing a giant snake, and he has surely burnt cities before.

      You see, the only people I can imagine going mad are the pliant plastic-souled critters Asimov invents for this purpose.

      • Comment by Darrell:

        I recall the story but fuzzily, but I’d thought that it wasn’t the darkness that drove the men mad but rather the stars.

        All at once mankind realized that there were other stars and therefore other worlds. That they were not the center of the universe but that there were other intelligences and civilizations and since they had had no preparation for this revelation it shattered the rigid mindset that the last 1,000 years inculcated in them and sent them spinning into madness.

        If that was not the story that Asimov actually wrote it would have been a more interesting one — if still not particularly believable.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          Earthlings have been seeing stars since who flung the chuck and it did not immediately suggest to them that:
          a) Therefore there were other worlds.
          b) The Earth was not in the center of the world.

          Asimov was never celebrated for his insightful characterization and realistic portrayal of human interactions.
          + + +

          Tying into a previous thread, note the recurring trope of the Nietzschean uebermensch in the SF of that era.

          • Comment by Jordan179:

            Tying into a previous thread, note the recurring trope of the Nietzschean uebermensch in the SF of that era.

            I just recently re-read the Skylark series, and the first three books in particular have the fate of the whole world — and ultimately Universe — hang on the personal rivalry between two men, Seaton and DuQuesne. Literally everyone else who gets meaningful characterization is a close friend or ally of either Seaton or DuQuesne.

            The fourth book is better in that regard — it was written in the early 1960’s, after Smith had written the Lensman series and hence gained some skill with handling more complex storylines and character motivations. But the first three are pure wish-fulfillment: the reader is essentially being asked to imagine himself as Seaton and then the whole universe is presented to him as being a matter of “my pals versus his pals,” like childhood play gangs writ on a cosmic scale.

            Which doesn’t change the fact that these are truly great stories. Smith had Big Ideas, and wrote them well.

          • Comment by Mary:

            Asimov thought that if Venus had a moon like Earth’s, we would never have believed in geocentricism, because it would have been visible from earth and so revealed that the morning star and evening star were the same.

            Insightful is indeed not the word we are looking for.

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              This may reveal Asimov’s superficiality. People did not believe the earth was stationary because they thought Venus was two planets. In fact, they knew quite definitely it was one. The thought the earth was immobile because they could sense no motion, could feel no east wind in their faces, saw no Coriolis effect, no parallax among the fixed stars. The empirical evidence was all in their favor, and it wasn’t until the 19th cent. that there came observations that could not be explained by a geostationary, Tychonic system.

              • Comment by Mary:

                He had a certain tendency to think of his own era’s beliefs as self-evident and other eras’ as nutty.

                This is why I recommend aspiring writers to get out and read lots and lots and lots of primary source — to knock their blocks off. So they don’t turn out like that.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          No, no. That was not in the story at all. The planet Lagash was in the center of a galactic cluster, and the number and magnitude of the stars was so bright and impressive and overwhelming that it drove them mad. The splendor drives them mad. The passage, I have it on good authority, was actually written by John W Campbell Jr, which is why it is more purple and poetical than the surrounding journalistic prose. It is the indifference of the stars that drives them insane. It had nothing whatsoever to do with rigidity of geocentrism.

          Here is the passage:

          With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window.

          Through it shone the Stars!

          Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.

          Theremon staggered to his feet, his throat, constricting him to breathlessness, all the muscles of his body writhing in an intensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing. He was going mad and knew it, and somewhere deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the hopeless flood of black terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad — to know that in a little minute you would be here physically and yet all the real essence would be dead and drowned in the black madness. For this was the Dark — the Dark and the Cold and the Doom. The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him.

          He jostled someone crawling on hands and knees, but stumbled somehow over him. Hands groping at his tortured throat, he limped toward the flame of the torches that filled all his mad vision.

          ‘Light!’ he screamed.

          Aton, somewhere, was crying, whimpering horribly like a terribly frightened child. ‘Stars — all the Stars — we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn’t know we couldn’t know and anything — ‘

          Someone clawed at the torch, and it fell and snuffed out. In the instant, the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them.

          On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of a sun.

          The long night had come again.

      • Comment by deiseach:

        “Wouldn’t the legends of Nightfall on this world be at least as commonplace as legends of the flood of Noah on our own?”

        Going on fuzzy memory here, but doesn’t one of the astronomers in the story make that association? Some remark along the lines of all those myths and legends about supernatural thing called ‘night’ may be a distorted folklore memory of the real event which – with a light chuckle – he assures his listeners that real SCIENCE!!! will now investigate and being as they are all real SCIENTISTS!!!, they can handle what happens, and never mind all that stuff about the thousands of blazing lights in the skies, the Best Scientific Theory of the Day assures us that there can only be something as high as maybe tens of those lights?

        It struck me as a little jab at the overconfidence of science versus religion, which was odd in an Asimov story, since he was one of those Campbellian optimists where science would indeed conquer all. But I may be misremembering.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Hm. It’s been a while since I read it, but I do recall a scene where the scientists hypothesizes that there many be up to ten additionally smaller lights in the sky, blotted out by the brighter light of the suns.

        • Comment by Mary:

          One of the paradoxes of writing, that leads to belief in Muses, is that writers can produce things they seem not to fathom at all. The moral of “Nightfall” has always come across to me as the vanity of human wishes and the hubris of human intellect — thinking that they could figure out what the nightfall was without actual experience — though it is very atypical for the good doctor.

      • Comment by Nostreculsus:

        Yes, the notes and observations of Professor Asimov (Boston University) on the tragic events on the planet Lagash are difficult to comprehend. Fortunately, the eminent physiologist, Professor Filostrato, late of the reasearch institute at Bracton College, left some notes on this very topic, before his untimely death.

        Filostrato notes first that the human eye contains two classes of photoreceptors; cones, adapted for day vision, and rods, adapted for vision in the dark. The rod system of the colonists degenerated under conditions of permanent light adaption. Thus, all the colonists had what we on Earth would call cone dystrophy, although they were well adapted for their own planet. They all became blind in darkness. There may well have been a few underground mines, permanently lit by artificial illumination, but there was certainly no street light or interior illumination, thanks to the universal use of transparent ceilings in the sprawling metropoli of Lagash.

        Furthermore, the permanent illumination of Lagash meant that cheap, abundant, safe solar power was virtually the only source of the electric power upon which their communication network and all machinery in their world ran.

        Professor Filostrato raises another issue of signal import. In darkness, the human pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Naturally, the brain of the Lagashii evolved to become extra-sensitive to the small doses of melatonin secreted in their permanent day. In darkness, the Lagashii pineal secretes such a large dose of melatonin that it acts as a powerful hallucinogen and hypnotic. The Lagashii were aware of this phenomenon and even used darkened dungeons as the ultimate torture and interrogation device.

        Imagine then the Lagasii when night fell. All power sources failed. There was universal blindness, where their familiar world was replaced by this baffling vision of – the stars! Strange incomprehensible visions, while their brains were flooded by endogenous hallucinogen!

        Filostrato makes some further mention of plans by his science institute to effect an analogous transition on this planet – a permanent Endarkenment. How sad that with the closure of his institution and his own tragic demise, he is unable to continue his visionary work.

        • Comment by Jordan179:

          That retcon actually makes a lot of sense. Some degeneration of the ability to psychologically-function below certain light levels could happen given enough generations. After all, we ordinary baseline humans tend to have an instinctive fear of the dark …

      • Comment by Mary:

        Is there no one in the lit hemisphere?

        Yes, that’s another flaw in it. It’s a Flat Earth story.

        • Comment by Tom Simon:

          Actually, if you read closely, that isn’t true. The problem is that the apparent diameter of the moon is much larger than that of the sun that it eclipses, and consequently the eclipse remains total for more than half of the planet’s period of rotation. During this time, every part of the planet’s surface rotates through the umbra and experiences nightfall.

          Now, it remains pretty weak sauce to suppose that in the fringe regions (where total Night lasts only an hour or two) people would go mad enough fast enough to burn everything to ashes before the light returned. It’s probably a biological and chemical impossibility; unless the artefacts of Lagash are, for some reason, all built out of magnesium powder and nitrocellulose. But at least Asimov did address the issue of making the event planet-wide, and it’s unfair to criticize him as if he didn’t.

  2. Comment by Jordan179:

    I submit to your candid judgment that Arthur C Clarke has a particular sense of a broader vision, and yet it is a darker vision, of man and his ultimate fate in the universe which is keeping with H.G. Wells and alien to Campbell.

    Clarke sees us as being at the mercy of an uncaring Universe, which is pretty much my take on reality as well. Our minds fit us well to deal with what the Universe throws at us, but the astrophysical evidence shows that there are things the Universe can throw at us which we are not yet ready to handle (such as mammal-killer asteroids or gamma-ray bursts), and if we get hit by something we can’t handle, well, tough, them’s the breaks. We’re far from the first species on Earth to go extinct, and we may not be the last even on this little planet.

    I’m not sure why you assume otherwise. Even if you choose to assume a benevolent God, how do you know that our destiny isn’t to all perish from this planet, to clear the way for something better or more interesting? The Bible itself says that there’s an End of Days … why couldn’t it take the form of the Sun going nova (“Rescue Party,” but notice that this one of the optimistic stories) or a race from beneath emerging and destroying our environment (“The Fires Within”) or even a race from beyond molding our evolution into something which suited their masters (Childhood’s End)? I mean, all these scenarioes would suck, but if I’ve learned one thing in my 48 years on this planet is that the Universe as a whole is not looking out for your own best interests.

    As for God, if we all have immortal souls, what does it matter so much if we all perish from the Earth? Whatever happened would be part of His eternal plan, and presumably He would have decided to gather us in to Himself for His own unguessable reasons. (One of the reasons I find omnipotent Gods scarier than no gods at all is that there’s no reason to assume that his idea of benevolence would match our own).

    I think that the source of Clarke’s nastiest thoughts was the awareness that sheer random chance can screw up our lives very badly. In “A Walk in the Dark,” which I reviewed on Fantastic Worlds, the protagonist runs afoul of bad luck and a creature he thought was mere myth: even though we don’t know for sure that it kills him, we do know that if it didn’t it was just good luck, as he was helpless — unarmed in the dark, before something with huge claws capable of scoring hard rock. In “The Other Tiger,” the main characters are devoured by an improbable Lovecraftian horror that just happens to surface right near them, on a close parallel of our world, because, well, if everything’s possible, so is the random appearance of giant hungry monsters.

    And this is really a lot like our world, especially the subset that Clarke saw growing up in the RAF during World War II, where people he knew were alive and well and cheerful in the morning and dead in the evening, because the trajectory of a piece of shrapnel intercepted their aircraft or their landing gear failed coming home, or whatever. Life isn’t usually this randomly malign, or we would perish as a species, but it can be like that, and sometimes it is.

    Think about being an animal on the late-Permian Earth. You’re adapted for one kind of life and you’re good at it, you follow your instincts and maybe sometimes use your brains (proto-mammalian reptiles and early archosaurs were not known for their intellectual capacities) and you survive and even enjoy it a little.

    Suddenly — without you ever grasping this — an asteroid slams into the part of Pangaea that will one day be called Australia, and massive volcanoes flood-erupt all over what will one day be called Siberia. All you know — if you survived what I just described — is that the air has become foul, everywhere, and every breath you draw has become painful. If you’re lucky you live long enough to breed, and if you’re incredibly lucky one of your offspring happens to have a good enough lung capacity that it lives in some discomfort long enough to breathe, and so on. Generations upon generations of animals lived like this until the air cleared or their lungs adapted to the changed atmosphere.

    Did they do something wrong or evil to suffer like this? No. They were just unlucky. And the fact that we are smarter simply means that we are a bit better surviving than they were. It’s not likely that something this bad will happen in our generation, or our children’s, but it could — and there’s nothing we could do about it, we’d be as s-o-l as those poor proto-mammals, at least one of whom was personally our ancestor.

    That’s just the way life can be, sometimes.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I’m not sure why you assume otherwise. Even if you choose to assume a benevolent God, how do you know that our destiny isn’t to all perish from this planet, to clear the way for something better or more interesting?

      Notice the difference between (1) someone who chooses to assume a benevolent God (no doubt in the same fashion that one chooses to assume that the speed of light is the same for all observers) and (2) someone who has a father whom he has met and whom he loves and by whom he is loved.

      While reading horror stories or police blotter stories shows such crimes do happen from time to time, what does it say about the mind of an otherwise healthy child in an otherwise happy home if she asks herself ‘How do I know my father is not going to come home one afternoon and kill my siblings and me to clear the way for something better or more interesting?’

      Also, with all due respect, I think you are entirely missing the point of Mr Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END if you think it is a depiction of a random event. There are such depictions in SF — I am thinking particularly of a short story by HG Wells called ‘The Star’ which made exactly the point you are making: that the universe is cold and indifferent and any random accident could wipe out mankind.

      But that is not what CHILDHOOD’S END says. The end of man is not random there, but the product of a mystical evolution from lower to higher. The humans in CHILDHOOD’S END explicitly do not turn into Eloi and Morlocks and base and degenerate forms. The disembodied state is explicitly said to be higher in the cosmic scale. The universe here is not indifferent, it is sadistic, that is to say, it deliberately sets its sites on wiping out man so that a greater and inhuman thing can come to pass, and the tale is told in such a way as to cheer for the inhuman thing and against humanity.

      I say again CHILDHOOD’S END is a myth or a religious writing, but of an antichristian form of religion, where death rather than life awaits, where (as Socrates or the Gnostic would have liked) the body is to be destroyed rather than glorified, and where the gods despise us as cattle rather than love us as sons. It is a child’s view of what a god should be like.

      • Comment by Bobby Trosclair:

        If we’re talking about the same short story, wasn’t “The Star” also written by Clarke, not Wells? This is the one where the Star of Bethlehem is found to have been a supernova that wiped out a splendid alien civilization?

        I have always seen some similarities between the thematic content of Clarke and Lovecraft, although I think you’re right about Clarke and Wells sharing a lot of the same tropes.

        Both Clarke and Lovecraft were materialist atheists, both had a somewhat grim view of the future, yet both used godlike aliens as a substitute for God, and physical immortality of the consciousness granted by aliens, whether an Overmind or having one’s brain excised and placed in a metal tube to be carried across the darkness of space by the Mi-Go. The drive towards religion is hard to resist, even for atheists, I suppose.

        Neither Clarke nor Lovecraft seemed capable of creating a recognizably human female character, either, although probably for different reasons. I read quite a bit of Clarke when younger and enjoyed a lot of his work, but learning after his death about his pederastic activities in Sri Lanka made it impossible for me to open any of his books again.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          I think that last was why he fled England for Ceylon in the first place.

          He gave a talk at my college and being that Buddhism was all the rage on campus in those days, I asked him why he had not discussed Buddhism in his talk, given that he had portrayed Buddhists sympathetically in his earlier stories. He answered, “That was before I had met any actual Buddhists.”

          • Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

            Concerning Clarke’s reputation, I think it is only fair to note this, from the biographical notes about him in Wikipedia:
            “On 26 May 2000 he was made a Knight Bachelor ‘for services to literature’ at a ceremony in Colombo. The award of a knighthood had been announced in the 1998 New Year Honours, but investiture with the award had been delayed, at Clarke’s request, because of an accusation, by the British tabloid The Sunday Mirror, of paedophilia. The charge was subsequently found to be baseless by the Sri Lankan police. According to The Daily Telegraph (London), the Mirror subsequently published an apology, and Clarke chose not to sue for defamation. Clarke was then duly knighted.”

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          No, the story I had in mind is one where a comet passes close to the Earth, creating immense havoc, and observers on Mars notice nothing but a slight diminishment of the polar ice caps. I thought that was the name: I am relying on my memory.

          The story you are thinking of may have the same name, and it is indeed by Clarke.

        • Comment by Jordan179:

          Neither Clarke nor Lovecraft seemed capable of creating a recognizably human female character, either, although probably for different reasons.

          I’ve noticed this. Clarke was gay; Lovecraft most definitely wasn’t, if we can believe his ex-wife Sonia Greene, but his experience with women was as as domineering and sometimes insane beings (his aunts, and the strong-willed Sonia herself). His marriage may have failed because he was too passive and thus he could not respond positively to Sonia’s attempt to drive him to greater success.

          I don’t know if Clarke ever wrote a single female protagonist, though he of course has female characters in secondary roles. Lovecraft’s most famous female character wasn’t female, it was a male soul inhabiting a female body; his other notable female character was only there to mother two monsters and was disposed of before the main story even began.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Yup. Ah, “The Star” — a story that centers around a character who has to go to another star system to discover that people get hurt and die.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        My father was benevolent –but if our fate is mostly afterlife, our life on Earth might be mere childhood and being wiped out as a species might logically be construed as childhood’s end. Was my father malevolent because he eventually wanted me to get a job and find a wife? He wanted me to grow up — and I eventually did.

        Now the situation in Childhood’s End is nastier because the previous human race — the one with which we identify — is wiped out, apparently not going to any particular afterlife. It’s the next generation who winds up as disembodied superbeings. Though note that we don’t know that the baseline-humans don’t go on to an afterlife. The Overlords, after all, don’t fully grasp what happens.

        How do you know, even from a Christian point of view, whether the disembodied state is “higher” or “lower?” Even a fleshly Resurrection implies that one was at some point between one’s death and one’s resurrection in a disembodied state. If one’s disembodied pattern can incarnate more than once, but one body cannot have multiple patterns, then this certainly implies that the pattern is more essnetial than the incarnation. This is even more the case if we make atheistic assumptions about patterns and incarnations (note that atheism does not logically contradict the concept disembodied patterns — it doesn’t even preclude calling them “souls”: atheism addresses only the existence of gods).

        It’s not so much that the events in Childhood’s End are random — actually they’re the opposite of random, they’re inevitable given the assumptions of the verse. It’s that the Universe turned out to really be of a nature such as to contradict our previous assumptions about our future (which is, btw, why the story really depressed and still to some extent does depress me). Humanity gets an unpleasant and fatal surprise.

        I do not, right now, believe that a 20-mile wide asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and is due to impact in just a few months, far too short a time for us to save ourselves. If it turns out that I am wrong and such an asteroid is due to strike us, then the Universe would have presented you, me and and the entire human race with an unpleasant and fatal surprise.

        Is such a surprise possible? Sure it is: our knowledge of the Universe is hardly complete. Is it likely? No, but the point of a lot of Clarke’s fiction is that unpleasant and fatal surprises are possible. Cosmic horror, in other words: the same sort of point that Lovecraft was making.

        The lesson I would draw from this is we should try to increase our knowledge and power as much as possible, so that we are unlikely to be surprised by and more likely to be able to handle whatever the Universe happens to throw at us. I don’t know if that’s the lesson Clarke intended, but then I’m both curious and combative :)

  3. Comment by Jordan179:

    But yes. I do agree that Clarke can be a very dark writer, and Childhood’s End is one of his darker books. And I sure as heck hope that our destiny doesn’t work like this — but if it does, there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s life — and death.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Of course the whole point of the vision of CLarke’s in CHILDHOOD’S END is that there is nothing to be done about it. Had the same invasion, benevolent or no, taken place in a story with a Gray Lensman in it, something would have been found that could have been done, because that is the way Campbellian Science Fiction rolled — it was about men who used science to solve problems.

  4. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Excellent essay, Mr. Wright.

    When I first read Childhood’s End, I thought Clarke had simply missed dramatic potential. But it became apparent that it was all by design, and I was merely injecting for him what I would have put in had I written it. I have in mind the docility of the parents, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims taking a leave without a whimper (that may be Clarke fantasizing) the utter zero of the children.

    One merely need see 2001: A Space Odyssey to know that that is the Clarke philosophy. 2001 being merely a combination of his original idea The Sentinel with some of the themes of Childhood’s End (and then put through Kubrick’s mind).

    I think he succeeded on all levels – it is just that what he offers in his myth is so abysmal, so nihilistic – and necessarily so. Love (and even hate) is a human trait, but a post-human in Clarke’s world is not only beyond good and evil, but above any sentiments or emotions.

    One has to wonder at how much of a mystic Clarke, the staunch atheist, was. Perhaps it was the loving Father part that bothered him. If someone had offered him a giant, nameless, loveless, careless, formless, Overmind to kneel to – I mean, what was the Overmind but some sort of god?

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      I have in mind the docility of the parents, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims taking a leave without a whimper (that may be Clarke fantasizing) the utter zero of the children.

      Not that the parents or religious folk in general could have done anything about it. The Overlords were so far beyond us in power and technology that any resistance would have been at most tragic and futile.

      Love (and even hate) is a human trait, but a post-human in Clarke’s world is not only beyond good and evil, but above any sentiments or emotions.

      We don’t actually know that. We just know that we don’t understand their sentiments or emotions. It’s not like the gulf between a cat and myself; it’s more like the gulf between a bacterium and myself.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        We don’t actually know that. We just know that we don’t understand their sentiments or emotions. It’s not like the gulf between a cat and myself; it’s more like the gulf between a bacterium and myself.

        If whatever moves the Overlords is utterly beyond our comprehension, then our words sentiment and emotion can have no application to it.

        It is said, in Christian and Jewish theology, that we can at least know some of the properties of God by analogy: we can point to qualities exhibited by God which resemble human love, human sorrow, human wrath, etc., sufficiently to be usefully referred to by those names. Clarke’s Overlords (and his hive-minds in general) were made so utterly alien that he denied even the possibility of such analogies. I think he would have reacted rather sharply against your claim that they had sentiments or emotions beyond our understanding.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I agree with Mr Simon here. There is not even the slightest hint in the book of any human emotion, compassion, or concern on behalf of the Overmind toward any lesser being. Allow me to quote the only paragraph I can find where the matter is addressed:

          He never learned the full story of the strange symbiosis between the Overmind and its servants. According to Rashaverak, there had never been a time in his race’s history when the Overmind was not there, though it had made no use of them until they had achieved a scientific civilization and could range through space to do its bidding.
          “But why does it need you?” queried Jan. “With all its tremendous powers, surely it could do anything it pleased.”
          “No,” said Rashaverak, “it has limits. In the past, we know, it has attempted to act directly upon the minds of other races, and to influence their cultural development. It’s always failed, perhaps because the pull is too great. We are the interpreters-the guardians. Or, to use one of your own metaphors, we till the field until the crop is ripe. The Overmind collects the harvest-and we move on to another task. This is the fifth race whose apotheosis we have watched. Each time we learn a little more.”
          “And do you not resent being used as a tool by the Over-mind?”
          “The arrangement has some advantages: besides, no-one of intelligence resents the inevitable.”
          That proposition, Jan reflected wryly, had never been fully accepted by mankind.
          There were things beyond logic that the Overlords had never understood.
          “It seems strange,” said Jan, “that the Overmind chose you to do its work, if you have no trace of the paraphysical powers latent in mankind. How does it communicate with you and
          make its wishes known?”

          “That is one question I cannot answer- and I cannot tell you the reason why I must keep the facts from you. One day, perhaps, you will know some of the truth.”

          A false promise: nothing is ever explained.

          Notice what is missing from this dialog: any hint of the Overmind having any compassion, or giving the Karellans their version of the Ten Commandments, or the Overmind having the power to incarnate itself as one of them and walking among them as a Messiah. The relationship is described in the most sterile, cold, and empty terms imaginable.

          And that coldness and sterility, I submit, is Clarke’s point. It is a teenage atheist boy’s idea of what a superior being is like: an little man with a big head, all brain, all intellect, with no more altruism or compassion than a bug, or than a Victorian caricature of a eugenic scientist in goggles.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        Disagree on the first, agree on the second.

        Of the first. I accept as part of the premise that they could not have succeeded as it was set up. Even if it were tragic and futile it would have been human. It is just not believable, at least to me, that the human spirit, even in the face of zero chance of success would have succumbed so. Even a mother, desperate to save her child will join it over the precipice of the abyss to the last to save her. In that light I find the book to be a testament against the human spirit – a fatalism of the darkest kind.

        Of the second. This is why I call Clarke, despite his supposed atheism and devotion to science and a scientific worldview a complete and utter mystic. He ended up no where else than a divine plan that we cannot comprehend because it is above us. But his is even worse because it offers no hope, no reason, no future, no ideal, nothing. The next man is who we are not, and we die like incests. We, being man.

  5. Comment by Mark McSherry:

    From Mr Wright: “On the other hand, Arthur C Clarke and H.G. Wells are haunted by a sense of the true magnitude of time…”

    Poul Anderson! You need to read more Poul Anderson!

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I believe I have read everything Poul Anderson ever wrote, or near to it. He is arguably the Fifth of the Big Three, although, having never achieved the recognition of the bigger three, he also never fell into a period of resting on his laurels and lazy writing, as Asimov (sequels to Foundation) and Van Vogt (Null-A Three) and Heinlein (Number of the Beast) all did.

      Anderson also could do fantasy, which none of the Big Three could do.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        And what fantasy! I have not read much of Anderson — the moment I discovered his work, great swathes of it began going out of print — but I was indelibly impressed by the little I have read. In particular, A Midsummer Tempest is an absolute tour de force. I don’t know whether I got more enjoyment from the systematic working-out of the idea, or from the language (who else could make characters converse in iambic pentameter without sounding stilted?) — but the combination was utterly delightful.

        • Comment by Sean Michael:

          Dear Mr. Simon,

          I am very glad you too have a high opinion of the works of Poul Anderson. And sorry you seem to be having trouble finding copies of his books. May I suggest using the “Fantastic Fiction” website as a good place for finding books? FF has author bibliographies and links to many booksellers. I’ve used FF myself to fill out my collection of books by Poul Anderson (and for other authors).

          And I fully agree with what you said about A MIDSUMMER TEMPEST. Altho I’m chagrined to have to admit it was not till I read (I think) Dr. Paul Shackley’s analysis of that book that I realized large parts of it was written as poetry, WITHOUT seeming affected or stilted.

          Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

        • Comment by Mary:

          Operation Chaos is also delightful. And Three Hearts and Three Lions — though if you start to think parts sound like D&D rip-off, you’ve reversed the order.

          • Comment by Bobby Trosclair:

            I think Operation Chaos is one of my favorite novels. Anderson was one of the best at writing “hard fantasy.”

            • Comment by Mary:

              Well, Broken Sword I didn’t like. Too dark.

              • Comment by Sean Michael:

                Hi, Mary!

                Well, I like THE BROKEN SWORD, altho Poul Anderson himself agreed in the preface to the revised second edition that he would not have later have written anything so “…unrelievedly savage.”

                One part which stuck in my mind was how even the brutal Valgard, after having made himself the trolls Earl of England longed to be able to sit near flowing streams and let the music of the waters sooth his rage and anguish.


        • Comment by Sean Michael:

          Dear Mr. Simon:

          Third attempt to comment here. I’m sorry you are having trouble finding the books of Poul Anderson. Have you tried “Fantastic Fiction”? The author bibliographies have links where you can book sellers who have many of Anderson’s works. I’ve used FF to fill out my collection of Andersons’ s books and get works by other authors.

          And I fully agree with your comments about A MIDSUMMER TEMPEST. Altho, alas, I was not (I think) aware of how Anderson wrote large parts of that book as poetry before reading Dr. Paul Shackley’s analysis of it. It’s an indication of Anderson’s skill as a writer that I was able to read the book without it seeming either affected or stillted.

          Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

        • Comment by Jordan179:

          What Anderson gets entirely right about heroic fantasy is the tragic element of the meeting of incompatible worlds. Even when his stories are “comedies” or even “eucatastrophes” in the sense of having happy endings — as in A Midsummer Tempest — there is a strong sense of awe at strangeness and regret for what must pass. A lot of modern writers miss this point.

          • Comment by Sean Michael:

            Hi, Jordan179

            I agree with what you said about how well Anderson handled tragedy in his fantasies. Which can be seen most clearly in THE BROKEN SWORD. I suspect some readers found the depicting of the tragic meeting of two incompatible worlds in that book too BRUTALLY clear.

            And, of course, tragedy (as well as hope) is not absent in Anderson’s science fiction. The example which comes to mind being the sense of impending doom found in his Dominic Flandry stories.

            Sincerely, Sean

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      Dear Mr. McSherry:

      I absolutely agree! It is my firm belief that Poul Anderson is an unjustly and inexplicably neglected master of SF. But, Mr. Wright has also written about Anderson, look up the essay he wrote about his HARVEST OF STARS.

      Part of the problem is that while Anderson is firmly of the “Campbellian” tradition of SF, he does not fit in wholly with either the optimism of Asimov, Heinlein, or Van Vogt, or the bleak alternate vision offered us by Wells, Stapledon, and Clarke. Anderson is aware of both hope and tragedy, in other words.

      Poul Anderson is also one of the few major SF writers who takes religion seriously and treats religious believers with respect. I actually wrote and had “published” an essay touching on these points (and the fate of aliens) called “God and Alien in Anderson’s Technic Civilization.” Anyone who is interested can find it at a blog called “Poul Anderson Appreciation” (owned by a UK fan named Dr. Paul Shackley).

      Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

      • Comment by Mark McSherry:

        Sean, thanks for the tip on your essay and the PA blog.

        My point to Mr Wright, and I see you agree with me, is that Poul Anderson’s writing (of all the other Biggies) is the most balanced in his mix of Campbell’s “full-speed ahead” SF approach and the idea of a universe coldly indifferent to humanity’s best efforts.

        Plus none of the other Bigs can touch PA when it comes to fleshing out aliens and their cultures. And none of the Others so consistently immerses the reader in the details of his world-building as Poul Anderson does.

        • Comment by Sean Michael:

          Dear Mr. McSherry:

          I hope you find my little effort of some interest!

          And I agree with what you said about how excellent Anderson was in creating and fleshing out convincing aliens. While he of course differs in detail from Tolkien’s work, Anderson is very TOLKIENIAN when it comes to world building.

          Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by The OFloinn:

            Yes, his stories seem somehow “thicker.” Asimov’s characters were two-dimensional and the backgrounds were often stage scenery and white rooms. Heinlein has often been accused of using a small repertoire of characters over and over. Van Vogt was writing myth, so it is understandable. Few of the characters in Voyage of the Space Beagle (or its predecessor stories like “Black Destroyer”) are ever more than last names and stereotypes of “physicist,” “chemist,” and the like. (Yet the story is an enjoyable romp. It’s just not a fully realized and fleshed out tale.) Elliott Grosvenor, the “Gilbert Gosseyn” character in Space Beagle, was an add-on for the fix-up and does not appear in “Black Destroyer.”

            Compare Manse Everard of the Time Patrol, Dominic Flandry, Nicholas Van Rijn, and other Poul Anderson characters. I may be biased because I once received a fan letter from him regarding Firestar, so his fine taste is not in question.

            • Comment by Sean Michael:

              Dear Mr. O’Flynn/O’Floinn,

              Thanks for your comments! Not much I can say about Van Vogt, I need to reread some of his major works first.

              And I fully agree with you on how “fleshed out” the characters, both human and non human, Poul Anderson created were.

              And I too used to correspond with PA. He replied to every one of my sometimes far too long and argumentative letters. And was always very kind and patient in his replies. Even doing me the honor of saying he found my letters interesting.

              Need to start looking your own work up! I did read the book you co authored with Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, FALLEN ANGELS. And greatly enjoyed it. I did think some Catholic monasteries and schools might have become refuges for real scholars and scientists fleeing the despotism of the Greens bringing down the US to its Ice Age ruin. But I realize you wanted to focus on SF fandom! (Smiles)

              Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by Mary:

            Like Tolkien, he was deeply versed in his sources.

        • Comment by Jordan179:

          Poul Anderson could write rousing tales of human heroism, and he could also write very dark and nihilistic horror tales. I think a lot depended on the mood he was in and the kind of story he wanted to write. One thing that appeals to me about his writing is that in either case he was very aware of the gulfs of space and time, and also aware that such gulfs did not invalidate the values of benevolence, courage and decency.

          • Comment by Sean Michael:

            Hi, Jordan179,

            I can only think of two stories by Poul Anderson which can be fairly called nihilistic as well as dark. They are “In Memoriam,” and “Murphy’s Hall.” I would argue that it wasn’t just because of the “mood” Anderson happened to be in when he wrote those stories, but rather he wanted to see where relentlessly following certain premises would take him in those stories. But, I realized that is what you meant by “…the KIND of story he wanted to write.”

            I also think the grim visions we see in “Murphy’s Hall” and “In Memoriam” are meant to be warnings or pleas by Anderson for us not to follow certain ideas, beliefs, policies. If we avoid or correct these things we can avoid the bleak scenarios of of those two stories.

            And, of course, I agree with you than Anderson stressed courage, benevolence, and decency in his works. Qualities which can be found even in the two stories I cited here.

            If Sir Arthur Clarke is legitimately the “fourth” member of the Big Three of Science Fiction, then I argue that Poul Anderson is rightly the FIFTH member of the Big Three.

            Sincerely, Sean

            • Comment by Bobby Trosclair:

              Anderson’s “The Pugilist” is a very good story, but also very depressing.

              • Comment by Mary:

                He has a frequent tragic edge to his stories. I think our host would classify him as a Stoic, in many ways.

                • Comment by Sean Michael:

                  Bobby Trosclair: I forgot about “The Pugilist.” Yes, that too is a tale where the premise Anderson relentlessly followed was wondering what might happen to a US conquered by the USSR. “The Pugilist” belongs with “Murphy’s Hall” and “In Memoriam.” Dark, but excellently written tales.

                  Mary: I don’t know if Poul Anderson could accurately be called a stoic. There’s a list of the philosophers in OPERATION CHAOS whom he apparently respected, and Marcus Aurelius is included.


  6. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    For some unaccountable reason, this article made me think of Stan Ridgway’s “The Overlords”.

    In my opinion the best SF rock song ever written, and I think quite Campbellesque in its message, too.

  7. Comment by Mark McSherry:

    In the pre-WWII era of SF’s Golden (Campbellian) Age there were just the Big Two. Isaac Asimov introduces (in THE GREAT SF STORIES 2: 1940) van Vogt’s “Vault of the Beast” with this:

    “I saw science fiction through John Campbell’s eyes during the magic years of 1938 to 1942, when I was learning how to write under that great editor’s tutelage. Each month I would come to his office and each month he would tell me of the great stories he had received and my mouth would water and my heart would yearn to be able to duplicate such marvels and have John speak of “me” and “my” stories that way.

    “And in those years there was no question at all which writers John admired most and which absolutely bestrode the field like collossi. They were Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt. How fortunate those two were. Never again will the field be bestridden like that. It’s now too large for any one or two writers to set the pace. But while it lasted it was those two on one side and everyone else on the other.”

    Concerning Arthur C. Clarke— Martin H. Greenberg comments (in THE GREAT SF STORIES 8: 1946):

    “One month after his debut with “Loophole” Arthur C. Clarke published what most observers consider to be one of his finest stories. “Rescue Party” … is more than just a fine tale. It is perhaps the ultimate John W. Campbell, Jr. story, especially in its view of our species’ status in the universe, and of our ultimate destiny.”

    Finally, Poul Anderson’s first published story appeared in the March 1947 ASTOUNDING. Here’s Asimov’s intro (in THE GREAT SF STORIES 9: 1947):

    “I’ve always had a sneaking envy of those who burst onto the science fiction scene with eclat. My own first story showed no signs whatever that I was going to be a major science fiction figure. It could easily have been written by one of the many who appear in order to shine dimly for a while and then recede into the outer darkness again. I was quite aware in my early years that this was true and I also knew that with their very first stories Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt (to name just two) had established themselves unmistakenly as first-magnitude stars.

    “Well, Poul Anderson was another. To this day I remember the impact “Tomorrow’s Children” made on me. It helped, of course, that the nuclear bomb and its effects occupied all our minds at the time (as, indeed, it does now) and that Poul had that funny first name— but it was the story that counted and I was quite certain that Poul would keep on writing and would continue to turn out masterpieces.

    “And, as a matter of fact, Poul has been hot on the heels of the “Big Three,” longer and more consistently than anyone else in the field.”

  8. Comment by Cambias:

    We tend to think of Asimov as relentlessly Campbellian, but I think it’s noteworthy that his later works, written when he no longer had to please John W. Campbell in order to sell them, are much less so. His novel The Gods Themselves has an oddly technophobic, antirational undertone — a new power source has the potential for disaster, and even the technical fix which solves the problem is partly discovered by a character with “enhanced intuition.”

    More to the point, the Foundation stories themselves have a very low regard for human potential and achievement. Everything anyone does is simply part of what Seldon has foreseen using mathematics — and even people who react against that are still part of the plan. Worse yet, the ultimate destiny for humanity is to become part of yet another damned collective supermind.

    I hate collective superminds. I’m an unbeliever myself, and it bothers the heck out of me when writers who loudly proclaim their atheism (e.g. Clarke, Asimov) somehow feel the need to drag something suspiciously God-shaped into their works. Oh, sure, it’s called an “advanced collective intelligence” but it’s immortal, omniscient and all-powerful.

    At least the God of the Bible doesn’t eat entire civilizations. Portraying such things as desirable or anyway inevitable is just plain creepy, and goes against all the ideals of the Enlightenment that atheists claim as their taproot.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      At least the God of the Bible doesn’t eat entire civilizations.

      “We are the Overmind. Your distinctive culture will be assimilated into our collective. Resistance is irrelevant.”

      Yes, exactly.

      Portraying such things as desirable or anyway inevitable is just plain creepy, and goes against all the ideals of the Enlightenment that atheists claim as their taproot.

      The first time I read Childhood’s End that was exactly what bothered me. I’m myself very much a child of the Enlightenment, and the reason I knew that what the Overlords and Overmind were doing was wrong was that it was being done without reference to the choice of the human race. Why did the transcendance have to be involuntary, all-encompassing, and destructive? My reading of human history is that “saviors” who demand such forcible transitions to Paradise are simly slavers in disguise.

  9. Comment by Mary:

    There is only one religion which rests for its validity on a specific historical event—the book coyly does not name that religion by name.

    Two. Islam turns on the belief that the Koran is the exact dictated word of God. If it showed that in fact Mohammed revised or otherwise cheated, you would refute Islam — if, of course, you could get anyone to believe that an image on a screen actually has to relate to reality, giving you know neither the method of its obtaining nor the motives of those who are displaying it for you.

    Some skeptics make more extravagant claims about Mohammed, such as that he could not have lived in Mecca. Though they tend to sound like the same sorts of skeptics as in the nineteenth century claimed that Jesus never existed — I have even read one of them claim those skeptics had a point — that would also refute it.

  10. Comment by John Hutchins:

    “Mormonism vanished overnight once genetic science proved the American Indians were not the lost ten tribes of Israel.”

    I will admit that this was a common claim early in LDS history, though there were a few early church leaders that pointed out that the Book of Mormon itself doesn’t make or support this claim. It is likely there are still Latter Day Saints that think this claim is true, but not most. The Book of Mormon itself centers on a very small number of people coming to the Americas just before the destruction of Jerusalem, which would not leave a huge mark on the genetics of those living in the Americas. Further even at the height of the civilization described in the Book of Mormon they were tiny, and tiny compared to the civilizations surrounding them. Finally, any genetic markings from the time period in question could also have come with the Columbian exchange and we don’t even know the genetic markers that would be distinctive enough to look for.

    Of course, if even one person did come over from the middle east and any of their descendents survive then it is very likely that nearly all Native Americans are (in an nearly infinitesimal amount) descended from them.

    Complaining about the lack of genetics for the Book of Mormon is similar to complaining about the lack of artifacts from the 40 years in the wilderness in that it isn’t known where to look for the evidence, even if one knew where to look there is no easy or good way of determining whether it is valid, and anyone claiming otherwise on either side is partisan and likely using science badly. Of course that doesn’t stop people from doing either/both but it does mean that if one if familiar enough with genetics and archeology that there is plenty of room for faith in the Book of Mormon being completely historic to exist, just like there is room for belief in a historic Exodus.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You see my point, I hope. I was being sarcastic. The kind of man who believes the Mormons would give up their way of life merely because of some scientific handwaving is the kind of man who believes that science has already proven that free will does not exist because one test somewhere showed some detectable brain action before the test subject said he had decided to move his finger, or other such humbug.

      My point is that even his religions that rest on specific historical claims are not making scientific hypotheses which can be prove or disproven by empirical evidence, no more than a man who asks a woman to marry him is offer her a scientific hypothesis. Only an idiot, or someone committed and devoted not to seeing the obvious, can confuse the two science and religion, or assume that they can be in conflict, or assume they address the same subject matter, or assume science can serve as an ersatz religion, or assume that science can exist outside the metaphysical framework provided by Christianity. It cannot. Without Christianity, science devolved into Lysenkoism, or Global Warming Hysteria, mere science-worship, with no explanation for its objectivity and no reason to be objective.

      I have sober and serious reasons to dissent from the noble Mormon religion. They are not based on scientific handwaving or pseudo-science. Arthur C Clarke’s idea that aliens showing us a scientific gizmo would obliterate the Christian faith is sophomoric: the wish-fulfillment of a teen atheist.

      • Comment by The Deuce:

        I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. Surely it would be a problem for Christianity if Jesus never rose from the dead, or if Abraham never existed so that Jesus wasn’t the fulfillment of the promises God made to him as Jesus claimed Himself to be, and so forth. And the reason we know about these events is through written and spoken testimony, which is a species of empirical evidence.

        Of course, in very few cases are the claims being made something that could be disproven by the methods of physical science, and when people claim to have done so, they’re pretty much always relying on materialist presupposition rather than actual scientific knowledge. Is that simply what you’re getting at?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          If Jesus never rose from the dead, then all your faith is in vain, and you are still in your sins. Clearly, if Jesus rose from the dead, there is no Christian religion.

          But the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead is not a scientific question, and more than the question of who shot Lincoln is a scientific question. While, in theory, some form of scientific evidence may one day be brought to bear on the question, in reality none ever has.

          The absurdity of the scene in CHILDHOOD’S END is that the author treats the question of Christ as if the Overlords had indeed brought a scientific inquiry to bear on the question.

          But what is described in the book is magic: a crystal ball which no human knows how it words producing an image which is edited by the cartoony looking winged devils with horns, which the devils (who later steal all the children of man and sacrifice them to Baal, excuse me, to the Overmind) say is accurate, and all the world bows to the image and calls it accurate, and belief in Jesus, with no drama and no dispute, disappears as abruptly as the belief in phlogiston. Does that sound like science to you? Does that sound like the way any real person in real life acts?

          Or does it sound like the way a surly yet shallow teen atheist daydreams his retaliation against the evil Catholic Church that told him not to masturbate? “Some day SCIENCE will prove me right! Then you’ll be sorry!”

          • Comment by Jordan179:

            If Jesus never rose from the dead, then all your faith is in vain, and you are still in your sins. Clearly, if Jesus rose from the dead, there is no Christian religion.

            Or Jesus was misinterpreted by his disciples, but still offered Salvation in some form. Mind you, this would be an odd heresy, but it’s logically possible.

            It would be an odd heresy because it would rob the tale of the tie between its emotional impact and its logical conclusion. It would thus make the Gospels less effective as prose: as if the Ring were destroyed and Sam and Frodo escaped Mount Doom only to suddenly contract the pox and die before returning to the Shire. The larger outcome of the novel would be the same, but I think that would much spoil the tone.

            Death followed by resurrection is both heroic and eucatastrophic; a feigned death followed by re-emergence would seem shoddy and hence mar the message.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              No, sir, it is not logically possible. It is like saying Karl Marx was an advocate of laissez faire capitalism who was merely misinterpreted by his followers, or that Jesus was merely a kind man and great teacher whose words were misinterpreted by his followers.

              In a court of law, when you have one and only one eyewitness, it is not possible both to discount the testimony of the witness and to bring in a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on a speculative reconstruction of what the eyewitness would have said had he said other than he did. That is called hearsay.

              As a matter of history, however, you are quite right. There are numerous heresies that claimed there was no resurrection, either because Christ did not die (Mohammedans, Albigensians, Gnostics, etc.) or because he was never physically present in the first place (Docetists, etc.). While our modern sense of fairplay tends to give these heretical opinions equal weight with Orthodoxy, in their day, they were treated with the same respect by thoughtful men as the opinions of UFO Hunters and the stories in weekly tabloids about Bigfoot’s Love Child.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              The heresies following this include Mohammedanism and Gnosticism, the strongest and the oldest heresies of all.

  11. Comment by Brian Niemeier:

    It’s apt that you mentioned Lovecraft. His entire catalog is a reaction against modernist writers who naively assumed that the more we learned about the universe, the better off we’d be. Lovecraft imagined a universe that was largely incomprehesible, and the little we could learn about it was terrifying.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      Though Lovecraft was horrified by many things that I find wondrous and even uplifting. For instance, if humans really were able to produce fertile offspring with the great apes (“Arthur Jermyn”) or if Earth had been colonized in the past by interstellar aliens (At the Mountains of Madness) this would not terrify me. The presence of dormant, hostile interstellar aliens (“The Call of Cthulhu”) or our secretly being colonized by a hostile sapient race (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) — now that might scare me. But not the mere revelation that the great apes were smarter and more like us than we imagined, or that there was other intelligent life in the Universe.

      We should remember that Lovecraft was writing out of an earlier worldview than ours, and one that had not as fully-adapted to the implications of astronomy, palaeontology and biology as have ourselves. Many things that he found horrific, many of us take for granted. Plus, he pitched his stories toward a horrific emotional effect, which makes a big difference.

      Consider this: E. E. “Doc” Smith’s aliens are actually every bit as strange as Lovecraft’s, many of them are hostile, and some of the events of the series are every bit as terrible as anything in Lovecraft. The difference is all in the attitude with which the author approaches his tale.

      • Comment by Mary:

        The source for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet treated them as two viciously unfilial children who deserved what they got:

        And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.

      • Comment by Bobby Trosclair:

        “Though Lovecraft was horrified by many things that I find wondrous and even uplifting. For instance, if humans really were able to produce fertile offspring with the great apes…”

        You want to do it with a gorilla? Eeew!

        Just kidding. (I hope.) Actually, Lovecraft did a pretty good job of keeping up with the scientific advancements of his era, and you can see the evolution of his writing away from the medieval, ookie-bookie, incantation-heavy black magic view of the early Cthulhu mythos to the scientific explanations of the mythos in his later works, as his materialist worldview came, I think, more to the forefront, as he began to expound on more fully to his correspondents. (Christopher Hitchens even included one of Lovecraft’s letters in his anthology of atheist writings as an example of the materialist viewpoint.) His worldview as expressed in his letters, as opposed to the horrific effect he was working towards in his writing, was remarkably bleak, as was his view of the future, and a cosmos in which we matter not at all.

  12. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    Childhood’s End is very useful as an inkblot test, though. When someone tells me they like the book and think it has a happy ending, I know something very important about them. And it comes as a very nasty shock, usually.

    Personally, I thought that the book was both very depressing, and that it was meant to show the stupidity of the whole meme of Homo superior/X-Men/Fans are slan. Because yeah, it would be very stupid and depressing for that to actually happen, even though it’s the ultimate escapism for a nerdy kid to think oneself the next step in evolution.

  13. Comment by The Deuce:

    the Foundation stories of Asimov promised a Second Empire ruled by a benevolent technological elite, mind-reading pscyhohistorians who had mathematical control over the future, and could obviate wars before they began

    It’s interesting how much that overlaps with the Left’s fantasies of government by all-knowing, all-wise, all-moral, technocratic dictators who can socially engineer a utopian society with “math and science” (where “math and science” means Keynesian economics).

    You want to know something scary? Guess which influential economist says that he was inspired to his life’s work by the Foundation series.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      It’s interesting how much that overlaps with the Left’s fantasies of government by all-knowing, all-wise, all-moral, technocratic dictators who can socially engineer a utopian society with “math and science” (where “math and science” means Keynesian economics).

      Which however does not mean that Asimovian psychohistory is impossible. Asimov’s point that enough human beings might be predictable, because the numbers create a large enough statistical universe to average out free will, has always struck me as valid — though the nature of chaos might make it more a matter of identifying “attractors” than hard and fast prediction. But then Asimov himself said something like that, without using the term “chaotic attractors” (because it had not yet been invented when he wrote the original trilogy).

      The major problem with using psychohistory to predict the future is the same one Asimov himself realized: if the secret of psychohistory were generally known, all factions able to afford a psychohistorian would be using it, simultaneously, rendering society more aware of its own probable futures and hence each faction more able to avoid acting in obviously self-destructive ways. IMO if something like psychohistory were developed, it could not be kept secret for long — mathematical ideas are particularly hard to contain since they do not require elaborate equipment to use — and we would wind up with a society in which numerous factions were using psychohistory to manipulate events. Which might not be a bad thing: knowledge rarely is a bad thing, after all.

      You want to know something scary? Guess which influential economist says that he was inspired to his life’s work by the Foundation series.

      The really scary thing is that Krugman doesn’t know enough nor does he have enough control over policy to implement any psychohistorical plan competently. He’s like a South Seas cargo cultist, or (worse) an Alexandrine Library natural philosopher messing about with radioactives because he’s heard a vague rumor that they can be used to power war engines.

      Krugman has no chance of actually attaining his ends, since he’s starting from a fundamentally-flawed economic perspective. I’m actually sorry that something as beloved from my childhood as the Foundation series is being attached even by association to this imbecilic Obama Administration.

      • Comment by The OFloinn:

        Read In the Country of the Blind by your blushing correspondent here. The Tor edition includes a version of an article I wrote entitled “In Introduction to Psychohistory” but re-labeled as “cliology” because psychology has nothing to do with it.

        Of course, statistics is not mathematics, but a branch of philosophy, and provides no efficient-cause explanation for diddly-squat.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          In my version of IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, called COUNT TO A TRILLION, I called the science of predictive history ‘cliometry.’

          It is all horsefeathers and applesauce, of course, since no matter how many numbers of people you study, where they decide as a group to go, what leaders they decide to follow, what fashions they decide to pursue, cannot be predicted based on past behavior, or based on inanimate historical forces.

          If Hari Seldon can predict the influence on history of the Stand of the 300 at Thermopylae, or the decision (if it were a decision) of Saul of Taurus to convert, or the writings of Confucius or Buddha or even Hitler, not to mention predicting technological inventions based on worldviews that do not exist when the great psychohistorian sits down with his pen and abacus to calculate the future — then what he is doing is not a statistical overview where individual decisions are lost in the Brownian motion of the great waves of forces over which men have no control.

          Pscyhohistory is a gimmicked-up Marxist view of history, just with SCIENCE! rather than ‘material dialectic’ serving in the role of the Norns.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        Which however does not mean that Asimovian psychohistory is impossible. Asimov’s point that enough human beings might be predictable, because the numbers create a large enough statistical universe to average out free will, has always struck me as valid.

        What invalidates it, Sir, is that human beings have ideas, and transmit them. Psychohistory was, as I have read, John W. Campbell’s idea — he thought, I suppose, that ‘the fall of the Galactic Empire’ was not SFnal enough, and wanted Asimov to write the stories as an exposition of a fabulous new (projected) science. Asimov himself thought the idea far-fetched, and to do him justice, worked very hard at making it seem plausible: for instance, by giving his Galactic Empire a population in the quadrillions, so that it approached the numbers needed to make the kinetic theory of gases apply. But he never fully believed in it himself.

        It was, perhaps, partly for this reason that the Foundation stories really came to full life with ‘The Mule’, which was all about how an individual human being could make psychohistory go wrong. The unique power of the Mule, we are told, was his ability to impose on human beings whatever emotional states and attitudes he wished them to retain. He could turn a staunch soldier of the Foundation into a loyal minion of the Mule with no more than a slight effort of will.

        It sounds like fantasy — but is it? There have been a good many human beings in history who had this power, though not to the same handwavium-powered degree as the Mule. Consider the power of a Hitler to spellbind crowds with his oratory — or the power of a Caesar to turn loyal Romans into loyal Caesarians. Consider, above all, the revolutions in human affairs produced by religious innovators. Before the seventh century A.D., the tribes of the Arabian peninsula had played scarcely any role in human history; they were too poor, too backward, and above all, too much addicted to fighting one another in trivial tribal quarrels. Then came Muhammad and the Quran, and in the space of a decade the tribes were unified by a single idea — as unanimously, almost, as iron filings lining up under the influence of a magnet. And like iron, the converted Arabs gained the power to ‘magnetize’ other tribes and nations, until they reached and exceeded the physical limits of their capacity to organize the conquered territories and populations into a single polity.

        Nothing in the analogy from gases covers situations like this. To draw a parallel, you would have to imagine a strange kind of atom that can learn new chemical properties from its neighbours — an element that can turn from a noble gas into a ferromagnetic metal overnight. Even with gases, kinetic theory does not quite describe the observed phenomena, because the fixed and determinate chemical properties of any given gas prevent it from acting as the ‘perfect gas’ of the theory.

        If psychohistory cannot account for the effects of a Mule, then neither can it account for the effects of a Muhammad, a Confucius, a Jesus, or a Marx. It is no accident that there were no significant differences of ideology between the societies in Asimov’s Galaxy, and that the only religion depicted in the entire series was an obvious and deliberate fake. If you can get human beings to assume without question that they are as independent as gas molecules, and as mindless, you may be able to predict their actions as if they were gas molecules. Once you let them have their own ideas and be influenced by those, the game is up.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          Eruptions from the Arabian Peninsula have happened on a fairly regular basis: Amorites, Aramaeans, Chaldeans, “Arabs,” the Beni Hilal and Beni Sulaym, Wahhabis, etc. These have been contrapuntal to eruptions of Eurasian nomads: Cimmerians, Sarmatians, Scythians, Huns, Turks, Qalmuqs, etc. The quasi-regularity of these eruptions suggest a relationship to climatic cycles alternately expanding and contracting growing/herding seasons so that populations grow in the good times and then are extruded into surrounding areas when the food supply diminishes.

        • Comment by Darrell:

          Bearing in mind that I have not read anything by Asimov in twenty years, I had (mis)remembered that there was a secret society (of perhaps robots) that was also working behind the scene to make history turnout the way that Seldon had predicted.

          Maybe I should start writing all of the books that I thought that Asimov wrote!

    • Comment by Mary:

      In the sequels — well, the one I remember is the man who was tasked to choose between First Foundation, Second Foundation, and a planet with a hive mind, and picked the hive mind because it had no immediate effects — that he could see. He picked it imagining it was not irrevocable.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        Yes; and as soon as he had written that, Asimov realized he had painted himself into a corner from which there was no possible escape. All the Foundation stories he wrote after that were prequels, dedicated to the silly and pointless goal of tying the Robot books together with the Foundation books, and making R. Daneel Olivaw (who was interesting when he was Elijah Baley’s robot sidekick) the Universal Hero and God-Emperor of Everything.

        Foundation’s Edge was not a terribly good story — it didn’t hang together well — but it had some pretty cool pieces in it. The Robots of Dawn was as good an SF novel as Asimov ever wrote. But if you ask me, everything after that was half-baked at best, and at worst, completely spoilt by Asimov’s insistence on tying together two future histories that had been conceived from the start with incompatible assumptions.

        In Asimov’s last SF novels, you can see a lot of the little fudges and big failures that characterize (this, I think, is no coincidence) the Star Wars prequels and some parts of the later Harry Potter books. I believe the same evil was at work in all these cases (and some others I could name): the writer seizing the easiest way out of each difficulty, instead of sticking with the problem a while longer and trying for the best.

        As John Cleese said in a famous talk on creativity:

        Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.

        And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’

        The evidence available to me strongly suggests that Asimov, Lucas, and Rowling all made the same mistake. Faced with the enormous pressure of publishers (or studios) and fans clamouring for the next instalment of the magnum opus, they chickened out of their creative discomfort and took snap decisions to hurry the process along. By doing that, they forwent all kinds of more interesting and creative possibilities that might have helped to lift their later works up to the same artistic level as the earlier ones that made them famous.

  14. Comment by deiseach:

    Mr. Wright, I read this courtesy of the estimable Dr. Boli’s blog, and immediately thought of you (emphasis mine):

    “Here we must pause for a moment and contemplate what history might have been if one little detail had changed, for we have come to one of those rare junctions in history where everything might have turned out very differently with only the slightest push in one direction. Very serious efforts were made to bring Charles and Irene together in marriage—efforts that very nearly succeeded. The old Roman Empire was within months of a personal union with the new empire in the West. What might the world have been if Charles and Irene had ruled jointly over Rome and Constantinople? Could this restored European colossus have brought the Renaissance five or six centuries closer? Would the Greek learning still preserved at Constantinople have permeated western Europe again, as it did when Rome first conquered Greece? Would our technology today be half a millennium more advanced, so that we would finally have the flying cars we keep dreaming about? These are the questions no historian can keep himself from asking; but he cannot answer them without making such a long detour into certain peculiar subgenres of science fiction that the thread of his narrative would be lost entirely. If there are any science-fiction writers who would like to take up the story of the Roman Empire as revived by Charles and Irene, Dr. Boli wishes them well. He will confine himself to the tale of what actually happened, which was that the arrangements for the marriage came to nothing. ”

    Just in case you happen to be stuck for an idea for the novel after the novel after your next novel :-)

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      I’ve pondered the question myself, and there are a great many difficulties. For one thing, it practically seems to be an invitation to write the kind of romance novel that would have starred Elizabeth Taylor and that Welsh guy throwing things at each other. Except I don’t see either Karl or Irene throwing things when they could just plot and stuff. The other thing is that Irene wasn’t exactly super duper popular in the City, and marrying a Western upstart wouldn’t have gained her any popularity at all.

      However, if you jettisoned sf and hit up fantasy, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from writing the story of how Charlemagne and his 12 Peers went to visit the Summer Country and win its queen for his wife. Because the Peers could use their mutant magic powers to get the attention of the super-science Constantinopolitans, and that would even things up a bit.

      • Comment by Mary:

        Eh, it’s not less probable than some of the what-ifs that historians as well as writers use.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Myself, I would like to read about the restored Roman Empire under Charlemagne and Irene fending off the attack of the invaders from Mars, assuming they landed in their giant interplanetary cannon shells circa 804 rather than 1898. The first landing in Horshell Common would perhaps go unnoticed for some time, as the Roman governments had withdrawn from the British isles. Maybe the Saxon prince dimly remembered as Arthur could fend them off.

          • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

            Okay, I can believe monsters from outer space bringing those two together. Especially if they were Iconoclastic monsters from outer space. :)

            And yes, once brought together I can see them working out.

            But why _did_ the Martians wait so long? “Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic… and horribly procrastinatory.”

          • Comment by Mary:

            That cries out for a Charles/Irene/Arthur triangle.

            • Comment by Tom Simon:

              One notes that Irene became Emperor by deposing, blinding, and imprisoning her son, the Emperor Constantine VI. Had there been such a triangle, maybe she could have taken care of Mordred before he got to be so much trouble.

              What a pity that the dates are off by about 300 years. By the time of Charles and Irene, Arthur was already a figure in Welsh legends about the days of old.

              • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

                But since Arthur is supposed to awake in the hour of Britain’s need, and since some versions of Arthur have him either defeating the Emperor or serving him… I see no problem here. Especially if it might be super-science/the Lady of the Lake’s fault.

                • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

                  And some versions even have Arthur asleep with a selection of his knights handy (and their horses and weapons &c.), so yeah, it could happen.

                  • Comment by Tom Simon:

                    It certainly could. But I think that Arthur, when he returns, is liable to have other things on his mind than a three-way with Chuck and ’Rene. Yes, I know, Rule 34; but you don’t bring King Arthur back from Avalon to ship him.

                    • Comment by DGDDavidson:

                      Yes, I know, Rule 34; but you don’t bring King Arthur back from Avalon to ship him.

                      Guy Gavriel Kay did. You can keep the love triangle as a subplot in the midst of the Martian-fighting.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      The ending will not be that the trio sails off into the sunset of the Summer Lands in order to have a menage a trois, which is what I interpreted (misinterpreted, I hope) the ending of Guy G Kay’s epic to be. The tragic love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Gwen is resolved by the miracle of jealousy-free polygamy!

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