George Greggson and Jean Morrel are now married. George has become dissatisfied with his job as a television set designer, and he wants to join New Athens, a special community set up on an island. The couple, now with two kids, decide to visit the island. The community was founded by a man that feared that the Overlords, in their zeal to bring peace and justice to mankind, were "destroying the soul of man." The concept of New Athens is to build an "independent, stable cultural group with its own artistic traditions." The island is mostly self-sufficient, and every member of the island contributes to the society. The hope is that New Athens will help invigorate the arts again, which have stagnated since conflict ended all over the world. The creators of New Athens believed that there is too much entertainment in the world and that individuality and inspiration are dying out. Everyone is "absorbing but not creating." New Athens, George and Jean are told, is intended to reverse that process. People who wish to be a part of the island must pass a number of psychological tests.
The Greggsons take the test and pass, and they soon join the island community. Jean learns the pleasures of actually cooking in a kitchen, while George learns to design sets for plays rather than television shows. Since the island is so small, there are few cars—the main mode of transportation is the bicycle.
The Greggsons begin to adjust to their new quarters. They buy a golden retriever, who becomes the best friend of their son, Jeffrey. Jeffrey takes to the island fairly quickly, enjoying the freedom to crawl around the cliffs of the island's edge. Their daughter Jennifer is too young to do much other than sleep in her crib. Jean has lost her interest in the paranormal since the incident at the home of Rupert Boyce. George is becoming busy with his present and future plans.
One day, George comes home and finds that Jeffrey is out on another part of the island with friends. At that moment, a siren sounds. Elsewhere, Jeffrey is alone when the ocean water suddenly begins to roll back. A few hours after the tsunami, Jeffrey is found safe and sound on a piece of coral. His story is unbelievable: he tells his parents that as he was watching the waters ebb away when a voice told him to run. He was running when the water hit, and a giant rock blocked his escape route. The voice told him to close his eyes, and suddenly the rock was gone. The Greggsons are concerned, and they have Jeffrey checked by a psychologist. He seems to think that there's nothing too unusual about the story—just a result of a young boy's imagination. Jean is relieved, but George secretly thinks the Overlords were involved—and wonders why.
New Athens represents a last-ditch effort by humanity to stave off the boredom and stagnation that is already beginning to set in. Without space to strive for, now forbidden by the Overlords, mankind is becoming lost in its entertainment. While the individual may work all his or her life to improve him or herself, there seems to be little that can be done to advance the entire race now. However, there seems to be a few flaws in the argument of New Athens's founders. They argue that everyone is absorbing entertainment, but not creating. However, someone must be creating the entertainment; the narrator tells us earlier in the novel that the films of the 2050s are "incomparably highbrow" when compared to those of the 1950s. The proponents of New Athens offer a better explanation when they make the claim that there is nothing left to struggle for. When all the necessities of life are free, and exploration of the final frontier—space—is forbidden, there is indeed nothing to strive for, which might squelch the artistic temperament. Yet New Athens is still a model of peace and prosperity. Its inhabitants are only choosing to live a slightly less convenient lifestyle than the rest of the world. In truth, living on the island is more like choosing to go camping than creating a genuine struggle. At any time, the members of the community are free to leave the island. This is what makes the New Athens community so tragic. However, the island does draw a high concentration of gifted artists, ironically making it the most likely place for the breakthrough that the Overlords are waiting for.
That breakthrough is apparently Jeffrey. While it is unclear exactly who rescued Jeffrey, he has some sort of guardian angel watching over him, whether it be the Overlords or someone (or something) else. However, this is another place where the novel becomes bogged down in rather irrelevant details. The incident with the tsunami does not reveal anything in particular other than the fact that Jeffrey is somehow special. The previous chapter, where New Athens, its history and development was described in such painstaking detail, was also a digression from the main plot: the mysterious agenda of the Overlords and whatever they are waiting for mankind to become.
The digressions, or tangents, in the novel are mostly the result of Clarke's desire to put down as many ideas as he can. He sees the creation of a desperate simplified community like New Athens as an inevitable part of a utopia. This is in line with Clarke's belief (held by many philosophers) that a utopia would inevitably begin to decline, as any well established and content civilization tends to do. This is what many historians argue happened to both the original Athens and the Roman Empire. A content society becomes complacent, which eventually breeds discontent and, ultimately, violent social upheaval. The problem, in the world of Clarke's imagination, is that there is an artificial barrier preventing the overthrow of the social order: the Overlords. Therefore, since it can neither reinvent itself nor extend itself into the stars, human society has no choice but to slowly stagnate and decline into a bunch of mindless, television-watching drones.