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.