Friday, June 25, 2010

A World Without Feminism (Childhood's End)

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke, was written in 1953 and it shows its age in more ways than its attitude toward racism. The book also displays a fair amount of sexism, not hatefully, but just in the way Clarke presents the role of women in his futuristic utopian society. For all his great speculation of the latter half of the twentieth century, Clarke was unable to predict the rise of feminism or even imagine a society that is not a patriarchy even when gender makes very little sense as in the case of the Overlords.
For throughout the book, the only real characters are men with the very slight exception of Jean. Male characters are the only ones who get things done or seem to care at all about what’s going on. Our protagonists are Stormgren, George, and Jan. These are all men, with George’s wife Jean as a minor character. Her great contribution is giving birth to the first of the next generation of humanity, the superkids who are assimilated by the Overmind. Of her kids, a boy and a girl, it is the boy who is the most active character. Jean is able to obtain the location of the Overlords’ homeworld via a Ouija board, but even then it’s her son from the future who really does it, and because time isn’t linear she’s able to tap into his psychic reserves because she will give birth to him. She herself has no clue what’s going on, and must depend on the smarter George, who is the real active participant in the plot.
As I said, Clarke was unable to predict how feminism would affect future culture. This was the man who was able to predict the communications satellite, the Y2K bug, the Spaceguard Foundation, and various other things that did come into being. He is known for having excellent ability for prediction. I’m not going to count Childhood’s End’s depiction of a post-racial society as a failed prediction because it seems to depend on the factor of the Overlords, which obviously was never present in real life. All the Overlords really did, though, was criminalize animal cruelty and discrimination on basis of race, while providing humanity with material needs. They never touched issues of sexism, and one would expect feminism to arise naturally within the new hierarchy, but Clarke never saw that coming. In the utopian society of approximately 2015, women are still dependent housewives. When George convinces Jean to move to the limited-technology island nation of New Athens, Jean feels out of place until “Jean ceased to pine for the car, and discovered all the things one could do with one’s own kitchen.” Personally, I think that feminism would thrive in this society, which is undeniably a patriarchy under the rule of the apparently all male Overlords, which brings me to my next point.
The Overlords are either all male or strictly patriarchal, both of which make no sense in the context of their civilization and evolutionary state. Childhood’s End uses the pseudoscientific idea of evolution as being in stages getting progressively better, and the idea is that the Overlords have reached the height of their evolution, which is just underneath the Overmind level. They are essentially immortal or at least so long lived that they might as well be from the human perspective and they bemoan that they can never have children or ascend to Overmind-state. They act as the Overmind’s servants to be “midwives” to other species to help them give birth to the next form of life at Overmind-state, hoping to one day learn how to reach this state themselves. Karellen, the ruler of Earth, is male himself and all other Overlords we see are male. Either Overlord women (Overladies?) exist in the background and the men run the show, or the Overlords are all male in their ascended state far beyond humanity. Either option is problematic given that the Overlords are supposed to be the most evolved beings in the universe just below the god-like Overmind.
In conclusion, the classic science-fiction novel Childhood’s End contains a fair amount of sexism. This is not altogether surprising given its age, but is disappointing to read nonetheless. The book remains an interesting story, but I feel it is important to accept the truth of what it is, which is that it is flawed based on where it came from in a certain context that no longer exists. I like classic science-fiction just as much as the next geek, but it deserves to be said: This is sexist.


Anonymous said...

Feminists see sexism everywhere. You are reading more into the novel than there is. Besides, frankly, I've never met a truly creative intelligent woman who wasn't mannish. Ultimately, you'll have to accept that. You can women or you can be men, but you can't be both, humans are a sexually dimorphic species. But nevertheless, it isn't my task to teach reality to itinerant humans.

Good luck.

mysie said...

I wish you'd said more about the "fair amount of sexism". The marginalization of women in the story was definitely there, but I can't recall outright "sexism". Could be all the Heinlein I've been reading has desensitized me to it though. Oh well. But I have to ask you, are you really convinced the Overlords are male? Couldn't they be asexual? As to anonymous's comment... Why do anonymous trolls bother to go places they aren't wanted and post offending commentary no one cares about? And this one goes beyond the usual sociopath by implying he's not human. WTF dude?

Anonymous said...

I agree that the female roles are not active enough in the novel, even if the "modernized" version at least gives us a female commander of the Mars mission. That irked me, too.

But I don't see why you are so sure the Overlords are male, they might be perceived as male by the humans but that does not mean they are really male.