Stormgren is amazed that he is planning on undertaking his new scheme, but curiosity has gotten the better of him and he is annoyed Karellen used him as bait. He visits his friend, Pierre Duval, at the Science Bureau. After small talk Stormgren gets to his point; he does not think Karellen can hear him here since it is underground (he found him in the mine due to a tracer).
Duval asks him for all the details he can provide about the room where he meets Karellen, and suggests that the “vision screen” is really only a one-way glass sheet. Stormgren is shocked that he never considered this, and briefly thinks about breaking it before realizing how stupid it would be. Duval says he and his men will get to work and let Stormgren know. They plan to use the briefcase he always carries to his meetings.
At his next meeting with Karellen, Stormgren peruses the document about the proposed World State, awed that it is finally happening. Karellen tells him his bosses have made a decision: they know humans must see them, but are wary of their prejudices; thus, they will reveal themselves in fifty years. Stormgren is a little disappointed. He tries to ask Karellen if there have been other visits in the past. Karellen is unresponsive, but chuckles when Stormgren says he will continue to pester him for his secrets.
Van Ryberg shares some of his theories with Stormgren, such as the Overlords are actually a lot like them and humans wouldn’t want to be ruled by those mostly similar to them. Wainwright interrupts them with a visit, and Stormgren tells him about the fifty years. He says bitterly that the damage will be done, but Stormgren privately thinks that those are empty words and humanity is better off.
Duval gives Stormgren his briefcase and informs him he and his staff figured out there is a large room behind the screen. A blip on their printout reveals Karellen as well; this is the first evidence that Karellen has a physical body. The briefcase contains a massively bright light he can aim at the screen to illuminate Karellen.
Stormgren starts to feel guilty, for Karellen always treated him affectionately and respectfully. However, he had given him warning, he muses.
Karellen and Stormgren meet again. The former tells Stormgren that the plan has proceeded as planned and now he will no longer need to meet with Stormgren; his dealing with Earth will be indirect. Fifty years will see crises, but they will be forgotten. He continues, saying the World State is the first step, and there will then be a period of consolidation as the world prepares for them. The men of that age, unlike those of today will be ready for them.
Stormgren is interested in this contemplative mood of Karellen’s and asks him what the end is, now that he has revealed the means. He asks if they have ever had failures, and if man will ever get to see what they are doing in space.
Before Stormgren can react, Karellen says goodbye and vanishes. The light flashes.
Stormgren, now ninety, lives by a lake. A reporter visits him, deferential in face of his mythical stature. The reporter asks about the apparatus made for him thirty years before, and he chuckles that it did not work. He privately assumes Karellen knew all, but in a display of his affection, allowed Stormgren to see the door closing behind him and catch a small glimpse of him.
His words concerning the Overlords’ own failures still haunt him. Stormgren muses on the future when the two races will meet as friends. One day, even, Karellen may come stand by his grave and call him friend.
Book 2: The Golden Age
The day has arrived. All the silver ships hanging over the city vanish into a mist; they were only reflections of Karellen’s, although supply ships had been real.
Television projects the visitation around the world. An opening is seen, and a gangway extends out. Karellen’s voice is heard, asking for children to come closer. A boy and a girl sit on his arms. People look in astonishment; only a few faint. There are leathery wings, horns, and a barbed tail: “the most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past” (61).
All that is needed to change a world and its people is a sort of social engineering, and a “clear sight of the intended goal--and power” (62). The ships had helped with that. The Overlords are quickly accepted. They rarely come to earth, but when they do they wear a belt with gadgets to regulate their large size and weight and talk to each other. Direct sunlight is painful. Most people never meet one.
It is an age of Utopia, for “ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear had virtually ceased to exist” (64). Cities are rebuilt, men work when they wanted or do not work at all. It was One World. There is practically no crime. There are almost no psychological problems and humanity is saner and more rational. Life is leisurely. There are social changes like relaxed sexual mores, owing to reliable contraceptives and exact DNA testing. People can travel anywhere around the world in air transport. It is completely secular, for the origins of all religions had been revealed and collapsed. A machine can show the world every moment in history. There is a concomitant decline in science for while people are still curious, they know it is a waste of time to look for secrets the Overlords had known ages before. There is also no more art, for creativity declines as strife and conflict end. Only a few philosophers worry; most people are very contented. No one knows the Overlords’ ultimate purpose, and some wonder if it is truly altruistic.
It is the night of Rupert Boyce’s party, and he has people coming from all over the world. Jean Morrell and Gorge Greggson arrive together, critiquing the very modern house in Africa where he lives. Rupert’s booming voice greets them, and they are startled to see a projection of him, 12 feet tall and transparent. He laughs and says for them to come up. Jean wonders how he got one of those devices, and George says wryly that Rupert always gets what he wants.
The new Mrs. Boyce, Maia, a stunning darks-skinned woman greets them. Jean is jealous and George is stricken; she is a remarkably beautiful woman as well as a consummately kind and solicitous hostess.
Before joining the party the two explore the house, arriving at the incredible ad extensive Boyce library, famed for its unprecedented and thorough collection of books on magic, psychic research, divining, telepathy, and paraphysics. A strange smell hits their nostrils, and to their shock, they see an Overlord sitting and reading. It says pleasantly that its name is Rashaverak. Jean giggles nervously when he says he does not want to be unsociable but that the library is hard to escape from. She notes how fast he can read. George starts to wonder what kind of party this is, and just how close Rupert is to the Overlords.
George reflects on Rashaverak’s physiognomy, which is not at all anthropomorphic. He sees why people thought they were like the Devil, but it did not really resemble man or animal. Its wings were folded, its “barb” more like a flat diamond.
Rupert comes in, jollily telling “Rashy” he must join them. He does, and the party continues. Jean and George analyze their situation and how close Rupert was with him.
Later Rupert and Maia sit with Rashaverak, and he is clearly the party’s center of attention. George speculates further with a friend, Benny, as the party heats up. Finally George confronts Rupert and asks how he got the Overlord here. Rupert replies that it is his famous library –the Overlords are interested in human psychology, and asked if Rashaverak could use it. Rupert agreed but said he could not take the books out, so he reads them there. The fancy machine came from a bit of bargaining he conducted with them, owing to his job as a supervet of exotic animals, and the need to approach them in the field to get to know them.
The party continues, and begins to wind down toward sunset. George goes up the roof to see the stars. The view is astonishing, but he does not see the stars he recognizes. He realizes he is not alone up there –a handsome young man is there as well. He introduces himself as Jan Rodricks, Maia’s brother. George companionably says this is the first time he has met an Overlord socially; Jan hesitates for a moment and says he too only saw them on TV.
George realizes Jan wants to be alone and goes back down to the party, frustrated and feeling alone.
This is a science fiction novel, but not one devoid of big philosophical questions. In this section, which includes the start of “The Golden Age,” the second book of the novel, Clarke ponders what the world would be like without strife, national sovereignty, racism, and religion. On one side of the balance sheet, things are excellent. It is a veritable Utopia –no poverty, crime, fear, disease, or even ignorance. Men do not have to toil in their jobs; everyone does what they want and not for very many hours. The concept of a “nation” is no longer in existence. Sexual mores are more relaxed. Travel anywhere is possible and affordable and enjoyable. These are certainly not things to dismiss, but there are deeper issues in this Utopia. There are no mysteries, no faith, and little interest in the unknown. There is a decline in science due to the understanding that the Overlords know everything.
Perhaps what is most disconcerting is the lack of creative art: “there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation. The world was still living on the glories of a past that would never return” (68). Ultimately, this lack of creativity, this lack of tapping into something deeper and profounder results in a feeling that is more oppressive than expected: boredom. Clarke certainly isn’t lauding war or crime or racism, but what he is suggesting is that humans can become stagnant and moribund if there is nothing to piqué their curiosity, engage their creative faculties, or stir their emotions.
Another significant component of this section is the physical description of the Overlords, which resemble the devils of Dante and medieval manuscripts (this is, of course, humorous and ironic because these “devils” are helping make the human race more peaceful and loving than ever before). Large, winged, and with a barbed tail, they seem to be “the most terrible of all legends [that] had come to life, out of the unknown past” (61). It is not an accident, or lack of imagination, that led Clarke to make his Overlords resemble the Devil. He frequently engages with Christianity, weaving its stories and parables and themes into his text. He is NOT a Christian, of course, and his book reveals just how possible it would be for humans to exist without religion. He dissects the notion that religion provides and promotes morality, demonstrating how the world is devoid of conflict, crime, and cruelty at the same time as it is devoid of religion. Further chapters will bring to light more religious themes and allusions, and will be considered in later analyses.
Clarke introduces new characters in this section, a few which will make it to the end chapters and a few that are largely irrelevant. This is certainly something Clarke has been criticized for; scholar David N. Samuelson writes, “As it is practically plotless, the novel is also almost characterless. Against the ambitious theme and tremendous scope, individuals and their merely personal problems are bound to look somewhat insignificant.” The characters’ attitudes are passive, not cast from the heroic mold. Samuelson is very critical of the characters, even the main ones (Jan, George, Stormgren, and Karellen) and sees them as little other than “marionettes”; they are “all males, actively questing for knowledge [and] they all appear confident and rational, unless belief in rationality in the face of the incomprehensible itself is irrational.” Karellen is the most human of all the characters, ironically, for “behind his posturing, lecturing, and deceit, his sense of tragedy makes him the most human of all; his intellectual stubbornness is like that which doomed his prototype, Milton’s Satan, to a similarly tragic and isolated immortality.”