Sunday, August 26, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "Guardian Angel": Prelude to "Childhood's End"

While I wasn't impressed with Childhood's End, I picked this up because an earlier shorter versions is sometimes better than the longer ones.

And that is the case here, except for last couple of paragraphs. This is nearly the same text as the first part of Childhood's End, but with far fewer words.

I still don't quite find it among the great first contact stories, though I have read worse. At best, it's a mundane story. Or may be I am biased against stories that depict humans as hapless primitives to be quickly colonized. I mean, may be we would be helpless against aliens, but a story should be suggesting a way around it!

Story summary.
On an unspecified day in near future, a "sudden shadow had fallen across a score of the world's greatest cities." Twenty huge alien ships, just floating there silently for 7 days! "And on the eighth day, Karellen, Supervisor for Earth, made himself known to the world; in perfect English." Colonization of earth is complete!

Five years later, about the only thing known about the aliens is that Karellen "was a professor of astropolitics on a world he calls Skyrondel", & that "there's something thousands of years ahead of him which he seems to fear". Humans don't even know how the aliens look like, & dub them Overlords.

Overlords had made Stormgren (aka Rikki), the UN Secretary General, in charge of earth; he was the sole individual Karellen directly communicated with. While old countries retained some independence, for all practical purposes, the idea of a nation was dead.

Freedom League is a political organization, primarily fighting to retain independence of European countries in the form of a proposed European Federation. Overlords are not interested. League is led by Alexander Wainwright, a moderate. League also has a militant faction, as we will learn through the story.

In the first meeting between Alexander & Stormgren, we hear arguments about why this colonization is good that I find totally insane. Being from a country that has seen colonization, I can see the ugliness behind the welfare arguments presented; your mileage might vary.

Both Alexander & Stormgren agree the colonization is a good thing, but Alexander has basically two misgivings: integration into a World State should be a choice of local bodies & happen more slowly, but much more importantly, aliens should reveal themselves. Not knowing anything about the Overlords bossing over you gives people creeps. And how can we trust someone means well when he is so secretive?

Next we meet the militants of the League. Stormgren wakes up one fine day, & finds that he has been kidnapped, & is being kept deep in the bowels of earth in some mine; militants apparently figured out a way pick him up under the nose of Karellen.

A few days later, some robots of Karellen rescue him; apparently he had an idea of hostage's location all along, but waited for militant leaders to arrive. Now Karellen knows their identity & can neutralize them.

During his captivity, Stormgren was presented with an idea to learn about aliens. He puts this into operation later. In collaboration with Pierre Duval, "chief of the Science Bureau", Stormgren's briefcase will be outfitted with small devices using which he will eventually manage a glimpse of Karellen's backside: "the long black tail disappearing behind" a swiftly turning door. "A very famous & unexpectedly beautiful tail... A barbed tail."

In the meantime, aliens agree to meet a demand of league, at least partially. "In fifty years - two generations from now - we shall come down from our ships and humanity will at last see us as we are."

This quote from introduction to this story in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke" provides some information: "originally written in 1946, ... After several more rejections my agent, Scott Meredith, asked James Blish to rewrite the story, which he did, adding a new ending, after which the story was sold to Famous Fantastic Mysteries... Later, in 1952, 'Guardian Angel' was expanded to become Part 1, 'Earth and the Overlords', of Childhood's End."

Fact sheet.
Guardian Angel, short story, review
First published: Famous Fantastic Mysteries, April 1950
Rating: B

This story appears in the following collections.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "The Sentinel"


Adam Foster-Fahy said...

I really didnt understant the significance of the tail at the end. Why is it so famous and familiar to Stormgren? I don't undertand which is a real pity, becasue I was really enjoying the story.

Tinkoo said...

Adam: It gets clearer in "Childhood's End". That tail has a special look - the look of devil's tail, as devil is depicted in popular illustrations in the West.

"Childhood's End" tells us that Western ideas of devil are some sort of precognition - these aliens that look like devil are going to see to the end of humanity as we know it. But they themselves serve a higher purpose of -- of what can only be called god.