This book explores what might happen if an alien civilisation were to come to Earth, their technological knowledge being so far in advance of humankind that there’s no point in military resistance. In fact, the alien political and social engineering is so masterful that there’s no long-lived resistance of any kind. Fortunately, they use their abilities for good, eradicating wars and bring prosperity to all. It seems to be a utopia – everyone is free to explore whatever they want. However, exploration into space is prohibited until one human manages to stow away on a ship back to the mother planet. He gains a fresh perspective, both on humanity’s role in the galaxy and also the fate of the planet when he returns to Earth.
The frustration of this book is that the Overloads turn out to be less powerful that it first appears, they are not the premier, master-race in the galaxy, but themselves report to an Overmind. Their role is indeed benevolent, but both their own future and that of mankind are limited. As per the title of the book, the end of childhood is in sight whilst the Overload guardians watch over the humans, looking out for signs of the beginning of the end.
Suppose an alien craft was detected in the solar system, something like Oumuamua, little understood with a strange trajectory. Would the United Nations investigate it or just blow it up as a threat? That’s where we begin the story in this book – the options are narrowed down because only one spacecraft is close enough to be able to intercept the object (named as Rama), and the United Planets agree to gather as much information as possible. As you would expect, there are disagreements with the approach and Mercury in particular thinks destruction is the way to go.
The story concentrates on the strange geography of the craft – 50km long on its axis, 20km across and rotating every 4 minutes. Yet it has an ocean around the centre of the axis, cities spread out across the plains and few clues as to the nature of the constructors of the craft. It’s a great book, full of ideas that must have been mind-blowing when written in 1973.
Another book from the SF Masterworks series, this one traces the adventurous Alvin, a unique individual in the city of Diaspar on Earth. Set a billion years into the future, Diaspar is the only city left, run by AI and repaired into perpetuity by autonomous robots. Yet Alvin feels that something is missing and has a deep yearning to explore beyond the city. He discovers a route to Lys, a community set in countryside far from the city, where the populace has evolved quite differently from those in Diaspar. His destiny is to unify these divided communities and to re-examine the shrouded history that separated them in the first place.
A bit like The Right Stuff, this is a book most people have probably heard of, especially because of the famous film, made in collboration with the author. I knew that the plot involved the finding of black monolith, and a computer called HAL that mutinied against its crew.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the story, though, is that the book was written in 1968 at the dawn of the space age. When Clarke described Extravehicular Activity (EVA), needed by the crew to repair the antenna on their ship, he defined the term used by future astronauts working outside the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. He described the isolation felt by David Bowman on board, exaggerated because of time lag on communications between Earth and the space craft, and that lag forms part of space exploration experiments carried out today. When Dr Heywood Floyd plugged in his “newspad” to read the world’s major electronic papers, he effectively wrote the specification for today’s electronic tablets, 40 years before the first iPad was released.
There’s a fascinating scene where an alien intelligence has built an environment familiar to Bowman based on television and radio signals received out in space – yet books and magazines lack any content, because only the covers are transmitted. Perhaps the availability today of literature online means that, in a re-write, the aliens would be able to produce accurate re-print of the books.