Let’s tell the future

While in the midst of a classic SF binge the other day I wound up reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the book deals, among other things, with the impact on Earth of the arrival of a protective alien species, known simply as ‘the Overlords’, that essentially reshapes human society.

As is the case with most visions of the future dating back more than fifty years (the book was first published in 1953) this one obviously gets quite a few things wrong… but I was amazed by how many details it actually gets right. Things like the advent of effective contraception and DNA testing, the ease of modern surveillance and the impact of our media saturated culture on our lives (to say nothing of our waistlines)… only we have managed to do it ourselves, no alien Overlords required at all.

This is one bit I found to be both so prescient and so naive that I couldn’t help but to laugh:

Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges –absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!

FIVE HUNDRED HOURS, THAT’S ABSURD! Well, we are sure past that point by now.
And if you think that was a one off, think again. Here you have another quote I found remarkably accurate:

This extension of human apprenticeship so far past the beginning of physical maturity had given rise to many social changes. Some of these had been necessary for generations, but earlier periods had refused to face the challenge –or had pretended that it did not exist. In particular, the pattern of sexual mores –insofar as there had ever been a single pattern– had altered radically. It had been virtually shattered by two inventions, which were, ironically enough, of purely human origin –and owed nothing to the Overlords.

The first was a completely reliable oral contraceptive: the second was an equally infallible method –as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very?detailed analysis of the blood– of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions upon human society could only be described as devastating, and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration.

And finally the next one is remarkable both by how much it gets right and how much it manages to get wrong:

There were no mysterious murders to baffle the police and to arouse in a million breasts the moral indignation that was often suppressed envy. Such murders as did occur were never mysterious: it was only necessary to turn a dial, and the crime could be seen re-enacted. That instruments capable of such feats existed had at first caused considerable panic among quite law-abiding people. This was something that the Overlords, who had mastered most but not all the quirks of human psychology, had not anticipated. It had to be made perfectly clear that no Peeping Tom would be able to spy on his fellows, and that the very few instruments in human hands would be under strict control. Rupert Boyce’s projector, for instance, could not operate beyond the borders of the Reservation, so he and Main were the only persons inside its range. Even the few serious crimes that did occur received no particular attention in the news. For well-bred people do not, after all, care to read about the social gaffes of others.

Okay, so maybe we are not quite there in terms of being able to solve a murder by turning a dial, not yet, but the amount of information that we make available about ourselves, and the ability to track pretty much anyone anywhere, are most definitely there… and we have also come to accept such intrusions as part of our everyday lives. How many times have we heard the phrase ‘search me, I’ve got nothing to hide!’? Of course, there is one thing that the author got totally wrong: if the number of gossip sites out there is anything to go by, I think it is safe to say that we do care to read about the social gaffes of others.

The obvious follow up question is: is the book any good? Well, it wouldn’t make it to the top 10 list of ‘the best books I’ve ever read’ (or it wouldn’t if I were interested in trying to pin quicksand to the wall by keeping such a list), in fact it probably wouldn’t even make it to the top 100, but it made for an interesting read, and it was well worth an afternoon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can blame the spammers for this one *