Sunday, December 20, 2015

Childhood's End

When you think of Arthur C Clarke (if you think of him at all these days) you dont think surrealist. A stolid, workmanlike, old school, science fiction writer with serviceable prose, embarrassingly thin characters and some great big ideas, he was very much in the 1950s Golden Age tradition of hard sci-fi. Keeping his West Country burr right to the very end Clarke was an amiable skeptic who made debunking shows before James Randi and the Mythbusters and was an atheist way before it was trendy. With his pocket protector and National Health specs and love of math he was a nerd's nerd. But his life path did take some unusual - surreal - roads less travelled along the way. If you read Sherrill Tippins' excellent Inside The Dream Palace (The Life & Times of the Chelsea Hotel) it is not that big of a surprise to find Arthur C Clarke wandering the halls with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen. While the latter three were looking for downers cultivated in the poppy fields of Kandahar, Clarke was looking for uppers from the Andean forests of Peru and Columbia. The reason he needed these uppers was to cope with Stanley Kubrick's constant script revisionism during the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The old Peruvian Marching Power will help when a frantic Kubrick is calling at 3 in the morning demanding new dialogue for HAL. A friend of a friend knew Clarke in Colombo when the Englishman decided to permanently quit one overpopulated but chilly island for another overpopulated but decidedly more temperate one. "I have come for the diving," was what Clarke told everyone about his move to Sri Lanka. Some people believed him. My friend's friend said that Clarke enjoyed playing the eccentric Englishman abroad to almost alarming degrees. Paul Theroux visited Clarke in his journey recorded in Ghost Train to an Eastern Star and found the aged sci-fi writer in melancholy mood, pining for a lost England and particularly for a boy he loved in the RAF...
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All this is to say that Arthur C Clarke was a more interesting cat than first appearances would lead you to believe which is why Childhood's End is such a weird and interesting book. I read it when I was 15 in French in a caravan park just outside Perpignan. I'd read dozens of Clarke and Asimov books by that time but when I got to the ending of Childhood's End I thought that I had made some kind of serious mistake. I took the book to the younger chain smoking kid in the caravan next door and asked him to explain the ending to me. He read it and looked at me "What the fuck is this?" he asked in English. "Mate, just tell me what happens in the last couple of chapters, I think I got the wrong end of the stick or something." He shrugged gallicly (something you must learn in primary school) "You tell me what happens at the end. This book is nuts. Ce livre est fou!" 
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So it was with some sense of excitement then that I sat down to watch the SyFy network adaptation of Childhood's End. As is typical with the SyFy network there was a lot of extraneous bullshit before they got to the point (most of that bullshit involving unecessary 'love' interests and Colm Meaney), but eventually they did get to the point and they didn't apparently fudge the ending. But even so it was all a bit rushed and far too sunny for my taste. This was the end of the world as we know it and no one was supposed to feel fine. In the book the dance of the children is erotic and unhinged and fucking terrifying and in the SyFy network it wasn't even a pajama party at Michael Jackson's house, it was just kind of blah. With its budget, sensibility and taste restraints SyFy were probably the wrong people to have adapted this material. A Childhoods End by David Cronenberg or David Lynch or Werner Herzog wd have scared the bejesus out of us and shown us what a weird, dark misanthropic mind Arthur Clarke had buried away under those glasses and tan short sleeved shirts and Somerset levels yokel voice.