Geocentric aliens arrive during the Cold War, frustrate the space programs of the US and the USSR, and legislate an alien utopia (altertopia?), wherein human societies have abolished "ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear" as well as even the "memory of war" (71). The "face of the world was remade" (id.); robot factories make everything--people "worked for the sake of luxuries they desired; or they did not work at all" (72). Crime disappears, literacy is universal, nationalities federate into a world state, sexual liberty is increased, world travel becomes easy & common, and religion more or less fades away.
We are told that "the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stock-brokers, and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another" (112). Additionally, "the abolition of armed forces had at once almost doubled the world's effective wealth" (id.).
It's therefore the vision with which leftists flatter themselves when they predict distant future results of their present policy preferences.
And yet the novel takes the time to chronicle the complainers, knowing full well that "no utopia can give satisfaction to everyone, all the time" (90). Some of the complainers are principled, i.e., religious (16), but some are just douchey: "the supreme enemy of all utopias--boredom" (75) or when they "abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure" (93). It's nietzschean mysticism, the requirement of strife for the advancement of knowledge and art (75).
One group of complainers is the countertopia of New Athens, founded by an Israeli social psychologist, built as an "insurance policy" against the failure of the altertopia (145), adopting many of the altertopia's advancements, but maintaining cultural and artistic independence. This risk management point was taken up expressly by Octavia Butler in Lilith's Brood
None of it matters in the end, because everyone dies, or turns into a borg-like collective intelligence. No shit.
There's some nice observations along the way, such as how "every day something like 500 hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels," which forms part of the countertopians' complaint that "there's nothing left to struggle for, and there are too many distractions" (140-41). TV is otherwise "a device for hindering communication between artist and audience" 139). The countertopians nevertheless envision the final stage, wherein "the audience would forget it was an audience, and become part of the action" (148)--prescient descriptions all of early 21st century mass culture, based on several hundred 24-hour channels that merely pump out insipid reality programs, the ultimate in kitschy excess, and, "indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself" (id.). The countertopians don't get there, of course, because, as noted, everyone dies.
Manifestly a major source for R. Scott Bakker's Kellhus books--aliens who look like demons (68) and whose object is the destruction of the resident species of the planet, along with some pregnant descriptions of the aliens' boss, which recalls RSB's no-god (198-200 & 214-17). Sure, the "psychological discontinuity" (61) at novel's end is not as morbid as Bakker's womb-plague--but the result is basically the same. Clarke captures the pathos of these moments very persuasively.
Recommended for those whose judgment is clouded by extreme conservatism, the best second-raters in the world, and latter day Gibbons.