Any science fiction connoisseur should not pass up reading the greats and Arthur C. Clarke is indeed one of those greats—however, Cradle is not exactly one of his great works. As science fiction, this book represents an almost experimental try at building a story that approaches character development as a primary source of prose standing on the background of a vast technological discovery. There’s definitely a worthwhile story about modern-day humanity to be told here and it’s an archetypical science fiction trope so if you’re currently on a Clarke kick, this is one you will stumble onto.
The book is set in the near-future of humanity with some technological gimmicks that we’re already seeing today including extremely efficient video broadcast technology, video phones, and other telecommunication advances. So we could see this book as being essentially about modern-day Earth.
In the beginning, the US Marines lose a test missile. It just vanishes off their screens somewhere around the Miami area. A journalist by the name of Carol Dawson discovers that the whales in the area are behaving strangely—she connects this behavior to the missing US military missile and launches an investigation. This investigation uncovers a large, sunken object of unknown origins and essentially percolates the plot down to the readers as all the various parties seeking the missile (and now the strange object) begin to collide.
As the title might suggest, the supertechnology in Cradle is an arkship—essentially a hypertech starship designed to carry lifeforms (often in embryonic or nascent forms) across galactic space for the purposes of preserving them. This vessel is discovered at the very beginning of the book beneath the waves of the Antlantic Ocean by a few modern humans where it lies damaged and has been repairing itself. Aboard the cradle-ship are numerous automated hypertechnoligcal systems, including intelligent robots tasked with protecting the arkship’s contents and repairing it so that it can continue on its journey.
In this book, we get a glimpse into the daily humdrum lives of all the characters from the journalist Carol, a contractor she hires, Nick Williams, to help her find the missile and his friend Jefferson Troy. Together they uncover the cradle and its staff of robots before the military locates them. There is one character from the military in the story but he doesn’t do very much except expand on other world events missed by the characters the story follows.
One of the major criticisms of this book is that the personal lives of the characters unrelated to the story are greatly expanded upon at the detriment to the plot—which itself is somewhat relaxed and without much substance. I discovered this to be true; in fact for all the development of the characters it reads a lot more like a biography of the characters than a story about the cradle. Instead the hypertechnological wonder at the bottom of the ocean takes a back seat to the drama and petty lives of the modern day humans who found it.
With that in mind, the story itself does bring to light some extremely common science fiction questions about the nature of humanity. The presence of the cradle and its mission also means that it took stock of ancient humans—now also added to its vast passenger list—but it also modified them to create a potential race of superhumans to be seeded at its final destination. One of the decisions that the characters who discover and aid the cradle in its mission must make is: “Do we take the offer of the superhuman genetic seed to help humanity step out of their current cloak of disease and frailty or simply let the cradle go on its way and get there ourselves?”
Since only Carol, Nick, and Troy have direct contact with the cradle, this question comes down to them—and all their petty lives, drama, and otherwise modern-day sensibilities.
In the end, the question is indeed profound and the exposition of the characters as everyday people helps to drive the point home. However, the book probably could have done without much of it and still gotten that point across. I found myself skimming these sections more often than reading them in order to get to the meat of the story.
While this is indeed an Arthur C. Clarke story at its core, it does have numerous flaws as a novel; however none of them were bad enough to make me want to put it down. If you are looking for a science fiction novel to take you away, this will do the trick—but if you’re still working your way through the classics and the greats, you might just want to save this one for a rainy day.