I fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.
Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, Century Rain, Pushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.
Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!
I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.
In a way, this book is the opposite of Rendezvous with Rama. In both books big stuff from outer space approaches, and whereas in Rama ultimately nothing happens to Earth, in Childhood’s End ultimately everything happens to Earth. Childhood’s End is 20 years younger than Rama, and I found it much harder to like. Although the novel starts promising, the biggest problem I experienced was my growing disbelief. Clarke acknowledges this in his 1989 preface:
When this book was written in the early 1950s, I was still quite impressed by the evidence for what is generally called the paranormal, and used it as the main theme of the story. Four decades later (…) I am an almost total sceptic. (…) It has been a long, and sometimes embarrassing, learning process.
Seen in this light, it is one of the more interesting historical pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read… So much has changed in a few decades, and Childhood’s End is clearly a reflection of that. Interesting, yes, but after about the halfway mark I didn’t really enjoy the book anymore.
Aside from the paranormal being such an important part, there are other problems too. The book makes a few interesting social projections (like the effect on the sexual and marital mores of an oral contraceptive – about 10 years before it was invented – and easy paternal tests; or on South Africa) but misses the beat on the supposed effect the arrival of the alien Overlords has on culture. A big part of the book is devoted to this. Clarke poses that great art can only flourish if there is strife. The Overlords bring peace and material prosperity – Iain M. Banks must have surely read this book, humanity after the Overlords resembles his post-scarcity Culture in more than one respect – and as a result humanity becomes “placid, featureless, culturally dead”.
This is utter baloney, and Clarke knows it too. Yet, he is still stuck in the elitist Low vs. High dichotomy of modernism – and everything that came before it. In Childhood’s End entertainment thrives as never before, but of course, that is not real culture, no real, “significant” Art. A strange irony for a writer of what could be considered pulp. Continue reading
As a reviewer on Worlds Without End pointed out, this book is a bit of a mystery story. But, as a reader you can’t really participate in unraveling the mystery, you just have to follow Clarke’s lead. It’s an interesting world at first, with a real sense of wonder, but after about 150 pages it begins to drag, just because there’s no real story here, no character development, just one short chapter after another of exploring the big mysterious cylinder. So after a while, the book’s narrative shallowness starts to hinder the pleasure of exploring. The stale writing doesn’t help either. It does pick up pace a bit for the final 5th of the novel, but ultimately doesn’t deliver, with a disappointing ending.
Clarke is not a straight out horrible writer though: Rama is filled with some original, well thought out things. The ideas are what made Clarke the SF icon he still is.
Also technically it’s not all bad: the meetings of a council on Earth – monitoring the discovery – is a clever narrative device, that helps further the story with exposition that doesn’t feel forced at all.
Rendezvous is only 250 pages in a pocket edition, and since it’s a linear story without any complexity, it’s a quick read. As this is apparently one of the prime examples of a book about a Big Dumb Object, it’s a pretty interesting, non-demanding read for those interested in the history of SF. It’s also much better than that other classic BDO-story, Ringworld, and a lot more hard SF too. Still, I have to recommend Bank’s Excession for a really, really exciting BDO-book, with real characters, a thrilling story, grit, humor, and vivid writing. It just goes to show how relative winning 5 awards is.
originally written on the 25th of March, 2015
Posted in Reviews
Tagged 1970s, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA winner, Campbell Winner, Hugo winner, Locus winner, Nebula winner, Rama series, Rendezvous With Rama, Review, Science Fiction