Reviewed by Galen Strickland
In my profile article on Clarke, I said this early novel could still be considered one of the best of his career. Following my recent re-read I stand by that statement. It does contain more elements of mysticism and the paranormal than his later hard-SF tales, but that merely reflects a passionate interest he had at the time. He would later become more skeptical of such ideas, while still retaining a fascination with the potential evolution of the human mind and spirit. The novel is an expansion of a short story he initially wrote in 1946. "Guardian Angel" was rejected by several publications, including John Campbell's Astounding. Without Clarke's knowledge or permission, his agent presented it to James Blish, who rewrote the ending. That version was eventually published in the minor periodical Famous Fantastic Mysteries in April, 1950, with Clarke's original appearing in New Worlds later that same year. Clarke's version more closely resembles the first section of the novel, entitled "Earth and the Overlords," with Blish's contribution showing up in the second section, "The Golden Age." In 1989, Clarke revised the first chapter, changing an upcoming space mission to Mars rather than the Moon, but the current print and e-book restores the original text, with the revisions offered in an appendix. I am confidant it would have been nominated for a Hugo, except that SFCon, the 12th World Science Fiction Convention, chose not to present those awards the year after they began. It was nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2004, losing out to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
Characterization was never Clarke's strong suit, but I feel he did an adequate job here, creating several distinctive and sympathetic protagonists. There are a couple of minor antagonists, but they are dealt with and swept out of the narrative early in the first part. One could think of Karellen, the spokesman for the alien race, as an antagonist, but he's a sympathetic character too, and as much a victim of circumstance as any of the humans, but I won't spoil that aspect. For many years after the aliens' arrival, Karellen's only human contact is Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish Secretary-General of the United Nations, and even then it is only by voice. Karellen refuses to reveal himself, saying his appearance would likely frighten and alienate humanity, but he agrees to do so in fifty years time. He feels that with all of the benefits his race will have bestowed on mankind by then, they will be in a more receptive mood. He has grown fond of Stormgren, and is sympathetic to his pleas, thus he allows the human to get a brief glimpse of his physical form. Stormgren keeps the secret, knowing full well why the aliens have remained hidden in their ships.
The second part of the novel begins on the day set for Karellen to reveal himself. As he speculated, there is only minor alarm, but most shrug off his appearance as coincidental. By this time, war and standing armies are in the past, peace and prosperity abound. Individual nations are still allowed their internal governments, but in truth all the world is One. Famine is unheard of, and disease is also quickly becoming a thing of the past. Everyone has the freedom, and the means, to pursue any work they desire, or to travel anywhere in the world, or to start or continue their education. Karellen and the other aliens are welcomed on Earth, even into private homes. All humanity bask in the utopia the Overlords have established. Well, almost all. Jan Rodricks, a young astro-physicist is obsessed with learning the secret of the aliens' origin, and in one of the more overt mystical scenes he believes he has learned the location of their home planet. The aliens have been collecting specimens of Earth lifeforms and artifacts, and there are frequent ships leaving the solar system. Rodricks devises a plan to stowaway on one of the ships due to depart, although I think it likely his plan was known and allowed by Karellen. Due to the paradoxes of relativity and the space-time continuum, eighty years will have passed on Earth by the time he is returned, but it will have only been a few months for him.
The third section divides its time between a colony established on a Pacific island and the events Rodricks experiences on the alien world, then later on his return to Earth. The island, dubbed "New Athens," is designed as a haven for artistic types, ones who feel the Overlord utopia has caused a stagnation in human creativity. Two of the main characters, George and Jean Greggson, were introduced in the second part, in the same sequence in which we first met Rodricks. The mystical scenario that gave Rodricks his clue about the alien homeworld is also one which brought the Greggsons, and later their two children, to the attenton of Karellen. I'm not giving any details about that, although the subtitle of this part, "The Last Generation," might give you a clue.
It is at once an inspiring story, and a sobering one. Man has long considered himself the ruler of his domain, the crown of creation, master of all he surveys. Clarke may have been too naive and optimistic in the way he portrays most of humanity and the way they embrace the alien Overlords. Peace and prosperity is something we all should desire, but at what cost? Would it not be better to continue making our common mistakes, mainly because that is what makes us human, rather than relinquish control of our destiny? What if we have no choice? In spite of the fictionalized mysticism, these and other profound questions are proposed (and possibly answered) about our place in the universe. The clear and lucid prose from the mystically-inclined Clarke makes the revelations from the less-than-scientific Clarke easier to accept.
Several studios had optioned the book over the years, but finally in 2015 a six hour mini-series was produced by Syfy. It had a few good points, but several changes they made dropped the production down a notch or two, in my opinion. My review of it is less than positive, but I'll always have the book, and I know I'll be reading it again sometime in the future. It is recommended.
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