"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pressing 'Against the Fall of Night'

Against the Fall of NightAgainst the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Prologue to Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night is so mesmerizing I thought I might have another Childhood's End on my hands. The first page or two encapsulates all that is most poignant in the book: a child looks to the heavens and wonders if all that is best about his world has already past, lost forever in a desert of myth and apostasy.

However thought-provoking this novel may be, as an early outing by Clarke it seems underdeveloped. The grand technology-driven themes, the operatic flavor with which Clarke embues time and space, the profound puniness of humankind--all these are present and vibrant. Yet the novel as a whole feels shy of richness.

The premise is engrossing, if a bit conventional. A promising young man living in a stagnant society of the distant future finds evidence that Earth was once much greater...and may yet be again. The protagonist becomes something of a chosen one--a John the Baptist type, driven by a considerable ego to search for lost knowledge and a scientifically plausible messiah. It's quite intriguing.

As Clarke's hero delves deeper into Earth's mysterious past--read our present and near future--he develops a deepening conviction that a new age is about to begin--fueled by his discovery of highly convenient and hastily explained advanced technologies. The themes and notions which Clarke explores with such elegance in Childhood's End and
2001: A Space Odyssey resonate well here too. However, the plot languishes in a literal desert. Too much time is spent on diplomatic conversation, and also on summary explanation rather than action. It's pretty good storytelling, but not masterful.

So much of this novel works. There is an intriguing subplot about rival societies with profoundly different value systems. That may be the most relevant part of the book for contemporary American readers. The sometimes helpful, sometimes destructive, nature of ego plays out intriguingly through the protagonist. Will he do himself in like humanity once did? There are also wonderfully bittersweet explorations of knowledge being lost and/or suppressed--usually as a means to consolidate power and control the young.

My ultimate gripe gets back to that notion of richness. Against the Fall of Night is a thin volume filled with lots of summary. It depicts a young man's quest for the truth. Along the way, the author drops increasingly big hints about a dramatic history and the promise of a grand future. The end result for me was disappointment. As I realized in the final pages, I had read about the search for a great story, rather than reading the great story itself.

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