While all Utopias have setbacks, this one is pretty good, especially for Jan, whose dark skin would have been problematic in earlier eras. His father, a magician, is deceased; his mother is a professor at Edinburgh University. Jan is twenty-seven and very educated, planning on attaining his doctorate in engineering physics with astronomy as a second subject. While comfortable, he is not happy. He has romantic problems, and is very frustrated that Man’s journeys into space have halted. Man is a “prisoner on his own planet” and the Overlords have “abolished adventure” (85).
That night at the party Jan watches hopefully to see if one of the Overlord ships will take off; he lucks out and one does, impressing him with its speed. The shining path of the ship will never fade from his mind.
When he returns to the party, almost all the guests are gone. One drunken poet is asleep on the lawn. George and Jean remain, although the former wanted to go home. George considers Jean and Rupert childish in their interest in the realm of the spiritual.
Clearly something is going to happen now, because Rupert is talking about a circular table with ball bearings packed under its top. He pulls a disc up and places it on top. There are numbers and letters on the table and the words “YES” and “NO.” George is skeptical.
Rupert invites Rashaverak to join them but the Overlord politely declines. Everyone sits down, which includes Rupert, Maia, Jan, Jean, George, and Benny. Ruth, Benny’s wife, sits off to the side with a notebook. George feels foolish but everyone else looks calm, and Jean even looks flushed and excited.
Rupert begins, and asks if someone is there. The answer is YES. When asked who they are, the answer is IAMALL. Rupert says this is common, that it may just be them, collectively. When asked if it has a message for someone, it says NO. A few people’s favorite colors are guessed. Over time more complicated questions are asked and replies taken down. George starts to get the impression “of being in contact with some purposeful, independent mind” (92) but the replies still seem trivial and ambiguous. Only some are slightly profound.
People start looking sleepy. Everyone has asked something except for Jan. The young man is pensive but bursts out without hesitation, “Which star is the Overlord’ sun?” (93.) Rashaverak leans forward to look. The answer comes –“NGS 549672.” Jean faints.
Karellen asks Rashaverak to tell him everything he knows about Boyce. Rashaverak complies, and explains that in the library he only found evidence of eleven clear cases of breakthrough and twenty-seven probable. He does not think Boyce suspects anything other than academic in terms of his interest. The girl, Jean, is clearly the channel through which the information came but is too old to be a Prime Contact. She will need to be transferred to Category Purple because she may be the most important human alive. The situation with Jan will have to be evaluated too.
The party over, Rupert feels a little annoyed and guilty but decides to forget the whole matter. The notebook paper with the sun’s name is gone. For his part, George realizes he is more in love with Jean after seeing her faint.
Jan is in London, a student attending the meeting of the International Astronomical Union. London is no longer a great port and its population is diminished, but it is still a center for learning, art, and culture.
Jan sneaks away from a session and visits the Royal Astronomical Society. It is quiet and empty and he finally finds the catalogue he needs. He locates the sun in the heart of the constellation Carina and is stunned. No one could have known this info at the party. Even though there is no real scientific method here, Jan feels deep down that he is right--here is where the Overlords come from. He could do the calculations necessary to find out how far it was from Earth.
Humanity settles into its peace. Sure, the newspapers are dull because there are no mysteries or wild crimes. People work about twenty hours a week or not at all, but use their brains as much as they could. Travel is frequent. People have the time and the money to go wherever they wanted. Some people are lazy, but most are productive and useful members of society. Hollywood is still a huge industry. Some people, though, still wonder where the human race goes from here.
Jan visits Rupert, who is preparing a taxidermied elephant to send to the Overlords; he has sent many animals over the years. Jan asks Rupert what he thinks Rashaverak was looking for, and Rupert replies that he was simply an anthropologist interested in their culture. He then laughs at his colleague Professor Sullivan who is getting ready to send a sperm whale and a giant squid up into the stars. At that moment Jan gets a wild idea.
Jan takes a submarine deep into the bowels of the ocean, where he meets with Professor Sullivan. Jan probes the man a bit, and then decides he can ask him what he wants. Sullivan guesses at it before Jan can even state it outright, and asks why he ought to help. Jan tells him his plan to stow away on the supply ship.
Sullivan is intelligent and brave, and although a brilliant scientist, has not had the sort of fame one might expect. Now, though, his help to Jan might be it, although he knows he would do it anyway.
Jan is growing nervous. He writes Maia a goodbye letter. In it he explains how he came to this decision and what he wants to find out. He tells her the sobering fact that based on his calculations when he returns he will be aged only a small amount but everyone else will be very old or dead.
Most of this section concerns the small-scale, intimate human interactions between characters, although there is a brief extension of the summary of mankind’s utopian society with its high standard of living but lack of any struggle or dreams or other motivating factors. The bulk of it, though, is the party’s Ouija Board event, and Jan’s theorizing, research, and planning to carry out his mission to go to the Overlords’ home base.
Jan is one of the few protagonists of the novel. He is fleshed-out in a more believable way than others. He is highly educated but still manages to obsess over a failed love affair (although mention of this women only occurs once). He is an introvert, not particularly close to his accomplished family, and thus the perfect person to head into the lonely wilds of space and leave human relations behind (although he does believe he will be coming back to the human. Scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull writes of Jan that he “makes the ideal observer for the Overlords to view the end of the Earth and report to them the way the final moments look to a member of humanity, a species capable of art, which the Overlords are not.” His isolation serves the Overlords well, as his lack of deep connections to other humans means the Overlords will have little regret over Jan’s ultimate fate.
A character that often comes under fire for being stereotypically drawn and generally devoid of substance is Jean Morrel; for all of Clarke’s progressive attitudes towards race and religion, his female character (and yes, there is only one with any real presence) is not very impressive. Hull notes that Clarke “took few pains to draw a believable Jean Morrel,” who is “characterized chiefly by her cattiness about Rupert’s many marriages and her feelings about the nuisance created by the fundamental polygamous nature of men.”
One of the themes of the novel is technology and progress. Clearly, readers even up to this point can see that technology is depicted as being useful for humanity, and capable of improving human lives. However, as John Huntington writes in his insightful article on the novel, Clarke endeavors to overcome the myth of progress and its “intrinsic duality and create a unified work which does justice to the complexity of the issue by expressing the exhilaration of progress and at the same time giving full recognition to the limits of mere human aspiration and to the tragic sacrifice involved in transcending the human.” In this novel, progress is both technological and transcendent –two stages. The transcendent follows the technological, and is a new mode of being and perception; it does not subsume the technological but obliterates it. As readers will see, as the human race evolves—or, to be clearer, as the Children evolve—the Earth is destroyed in order to promote the Children’s ascendance. Furthermore, there is a difference between normal technological progression and the evolutionary leap; Huntington notes, “the leap from human to Overmind is achieved by grace, not by man’s own works.” This means that “technological progress is not true progress, merely a test of man’s moral and intellectual energies.”
Huntington views the leap to the transcendent in an optimistic capacity, explaining that “it opens new prospects and, importantly, conserves past achievement; the final destruction of the Earth, while it calls up tragic emotions, also represents a continuation of the human spirit.” The Overlords seem like they are at the pinnacle of technological achievement, but they are actually the dead end. They have mastery over things, but are servants of the Overmind. They are admirable for their stoic resignation, and for understanding how rebellion is futile. Clarke also juxtaposes images of destruction with those of progress, and it is “thus thematically important that man’s potential for self-destruction should be the mark of his potential for transcendence.” These are contradictory ideas, but ones that Clarke unifies for the sake of his narrative.