“No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.”
The United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of a military space race when large ships appeared in the skies over all the major cities. The aliens have come to keep humans from annihilating themselves.
An act of altruism? Or do they have another agenda?
The press dubs them THE OVERLORDS, but they much prefer to refer to themselves as The Guardians. They allow humans to govern themselves by whatever means they feel comfortable unless policy decisions involve hurting people.“Man’s beliefs were his own affair, so long as they did not interfere with the liberty of others.” The Overlords also did not approve of hurting animals for sport. In Madrid, when the Spaniards insist on continuing to hold bullfights, a lesson is administered. Every time the bull is stabbed, the pain the animal is feeling is transferred to the audience.
No more bullfights.
Robotics and computers are advanced to the point that humans are only needed as overseers. Work weeks are cut down to twenty hours a week. (OMG sign me UP.) People are encouraged to go to college, to develop hobbies and skills, and even go back to school several times over their lifetimes to learn something completely new. ”The existence of so much leisure would have created tremendous problems a century before. Education had overcome most of these, for a well-stocked mind is safe from boredom.”
And for a while the excitement of improving themselves keeps the humans on a spectacular track of not only bettering themselves, but also evolving civilization. Murder has become almost nonexistent, and when passion inspires such aggression, it is only the matter of turning a dial for The Overlords to find the perpetrator.
When I google NSA, the National Security Agency of course comes up, but so does No Strings Attached, which I found very ironic. Given the range and the depth of what the NSA knows about all of us, not just US citizens by the way, maybe we should start applying the term The Overlords to the United States government. It would be nice if they would convert all this information into something practical, like catching murderers. Knowing how these things work, they may not want us to know that they are capable of doing that.
We might get fearful of our government.
Barrage balloons over London during World War II. Clarke observed balloons like these floating over the city in 1941. He recalls that his earliest idea for the story may have originated with this scene, with the giant balloons becoming alien ships in the novel.
It seems to be the fate of all Utopias to turn leisure into sloth and turn unlimited possibilities into boredom. Interesting that Arthur C. Clarke uses the advancement of Television technology to be a major contributor to the degradation of a perfect society. People became passive sponges--absorbing but never creating.” Clarke mentions that people in this society started watching television three hours per day. Rookies! The latest statistics that I saw mentioned that Americans now watch five hours of television a day on average.
Obviously, I don’t watch television five hours a day as can be ascertained by how many books I read a year. If the Kansas City Royals are playing, I do watch about three hours, but I’m also still reading and researching while the game is on. Baseball is the perfect background noise for doing just about anything, including taking a much needed nap to rest the noggin for a few minutes.
When people ask me how I read so many books a year and still work full time, I usually ask them how much time they spend watching television or playing with their cell phone or playing games on their iPad? Everyone has the same number of hours in their day; it just depends on how you choose to use them. I choose to read. People who read fewer books than me are making different choices or in some cases may have more obligations. Of course, this is relevant only because I see reading as the best way to evolve the mind. I’m old fashioned that way.
“There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”
There are concerns voiced by various religious groups and also by people who are not thrilled about humans losing their ability to govern themselves, but for the majority of people the lack of responsibility and the lack of ambition to succeed are concepts they readily embrace. A society that was evolving to the greatest heights of artistic and progressive achievements starts to prefer apathy.
The Overlords are very careful to control what the humans learn about them. A man named Jan Rodericks stows away on one of their ships and sees a world he can barely comprehend.
“And in its sky was such a sun as no opium eater could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams. Too hot to be white, it was a searing ghost at the frontiers of the ultraviolet, burning its planets with radiations which would be instantly lethal to all earthly forms of life. For millions of kilometers around extended great veils of gas and dust, fluorescing in countless colors as the blasts of ultraviolet tore through them. It was a star against which Earth’s pale sun would have been as feeble as a glowworm at noon.”
In one of those time travelling, mind bending events that I always have trouble fully comprehending, Jan only ages a few months, but has missed eighty years on Earth.
The Overlords make allusion to the fact that science can destroy religions, but that science is not the top of the mountain, but only a stepping stone to a much greater understanding of life. They search through our archives looking for information on the paranormal and other elements that have been written about outside the realm of science. When the children of earth start to develop telekinetic powers, the true reasons for The Overlords being our guardians becomes clear. We also learn that the Overlords defer to another power much greater than their own capabilities called The Overmind.
I caught a commercial for the six hour miniseries that the Syfy Channel is planning to launch in December and realized that I have hauled a copy of this book around with me for a couple of decades without reading it. Sometimes we need one more push. As always I’m impressed with Arthur C. Clarke’s ability to tackle the bigger issues and to be somewhat controversial in his presentation of the best and worst of being human. It does seem that we are incapable of possessing true happiness for very long. We are designed for strife, for pain, for joy, and ambitious achievement. When any of those elements are removed from the equation, we start to falter. Joy can only be fully appreciated if we experience pain. Ambition can only be relished if strife was overcome to achieve it.
As The Overlords fix all the problems, there is a huge cost, too big of a cost, in that we lose what makes us unique. It is disappointing to think that harmony and lack of fear will turn us into beings unworthy of admiration. When defense is no longer a primary objective, it is disheartening to believe that the energy previously expended on security can not be transferred to higher levels of achievement in the arts, philosophy, music, and literature. To be the best that we can be, we still need the growl of the Sabretooth tiger coming from just beyond the edge of the firelight. We still need to be capable of picking up a club and saying “here kitty, kitty, kitty.”
This is a short book, power packed with ideas and concepts, and certainly deserving of inclusion in the list of classic, influential, science-fiction books.