Monday, September 5, 2016

Thoughts on Childhood's End

One of the laziest tropes in science fiction is the sudden and unexpected arrival of gigantic alien spaceships above the cities of Earth. The most notable example of this sub-genre is the 1990's movie Independence Day where such ships are part of a grand invasion scheme to strip our planet bare of resources. Other than an extreme form of xenophobia that views all other intelligent life as a danger, Independence Day never really explains why these aliens with super engineering skills just don't go around harvesting asteroids, rich in vital strategic metals and frozen water, which are literally floating around in space free for the taking.

A simple cost benefit analysis would show how that instead of attacking and then moving into new planet-side territory, they could easily gobble up what asteroids they need and then head back out into deep space. And if these pesky aliens still felt the need to kill off humanity, all they would have to do is toss a half-dozen ten kilometer asteroids towards Earth and it would be totally game over for us hairless primates. Pretty much all that would be left after such a bombardment would be cockroaches, a few ants, and assorted slime molds and bacteria. Remember, it took just a single ten kilometer asteroid or comet to send the dinosaurs off into eternity.

Honorable mention for this story line has to go to the 1980's television series entitled “V”, where seemingly human looking aliens arrive and proclaim they come in peace and friendship only to once again be after some terrestrial resource, this time it's Earth's water. Never mind that water is abundant all over our solar system, with most of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn being really big snowballs. And I'm not even going to mention the Oort Cloud way out past Pluto which could contain trillions of icy comets, with more than enough water for dozens of thirsty evil alien armadas. Whatever the case, along the way during the “V” series we discover that these aliens are just wearing a human-looking disguise and are in fact quite reptilian in actual appearance.

Unless someone can correct me, the best story involving the sudden arrival of several dozen alien starships above human cities comes from the Arthur C. Clarke book entitled Childhood's End. It would be an awkward but accurate pun to say Clarke's novel leaves both Independence Day and “V” lightyears behind in simple story telling. Which is not hard since this is Arthur C. Clarke I'm talking about, the man was a true visionary. My one problem with him though is that he didn't really look favorably on what he considered science fantasy, (Star Trek, Star Wars) his stories had to have at least some basis in our current understanding of physics and the universe.

Childhood's End was published in 1953 and I read the book probably in the early 1980's. In fact I believe it was quite close to the time Carl Sagan's Cosmos aired on Public Television, and yes, the two did a number on my small brain that I have never really recovered from since.

In the book dozens of alien starships arrive and take up positions above terrestrial cities. But instead of looking to cause death and destruction one of the aliens, named Karellen proclaims to the world they have arrived to prevent humanity from committing suicide and are here to guide us to a more stable, peaceful, and sustainable future. Naturally, humans are suspicious but over the course of a few decades these aliens, called the Overlords, pretty much end human suffering. All during this time, the Overlords don't physically reveal themselves to us humans but hide behind barriers saying that until our species has matured, we would find their form extremely disturbing. Instead they work through one person, the Secretary General of the United Nations, who eventually smuggles a device aboard the alien craft that should allow him to see Karellen's true form. The Secretary General succeeds in his attempt but decides not to tell anyone else what Karellen looks like.

With the aid of the Overlords, humans enter a Golden age but there is a price. First off the Overlords put a stop to human space exploration with the only exception in the book being a manned base on the moon for astronomical research. Secondly, with all the humans on Earth fat and happy not only have all our cultures have become stagnant but technological research has almost stopped completely. I have to chalk that one up to the idea that with the Overlords several thousand years technologically ahead of us there isn't much sense in devoting time to engineering a better coffee maker or television. But things aren't all bad, with everyone getting a decent education no one freaks out when the Overlords finally reveal themselves to the public fifty years after their arrival. Turns out the Overlords look exactly like Christian-themed demons or Satan himself. They are bipedal creatures with cloven hooves for feet along with leathery wings on their backs, long barbed tail, and horns coming out of their heads.

While the Overlords were truthful in that they came to save humankind for our destructive ways, they didn't tell us the entire story. Turns out they are a sort of cosmic midwife for something referred to as the Overmind. See, in the novel we learn that nearly all intelligent species in the universe have to eventually evolve to a higher plane of existence and be adsorbed by the Overmind. An entity that seems to be the Grand Poo-bah of the cosmos. There is simply no choice in the matter, and for humans the first signs of this ascendancy comes from young children who develop telepathic, telekinetic, and a type of collective consciousness that totally freaks out their uncool H. sapien parents. Matters are only made worse when Karellen reveals to the world that because of this change normal humans won't be able to have anymore children. No, the Overlords are not responsible for that side effect, it is either the Overmind being a total dick and preventing conception or just something systemic to the whole process because the kids are on the verge of jumping dimensional planes.

As you can imagine, human civilization falls apart after this with everyone blaming the Overlords for this development. Throw in a human, Jan Rodricks, who stowed away aboard an outbound Overlord starship before the kids got seriously weird and you have the setting for the final act of the novel. By the time Jan comes back from his sightseeing adventure on the Overlord's homeworld normal humans are extinct. The kids are still around but you can't really say their human because they are in the final stages of joining the Overmind.

The Overlord's are cool with Jan permanently staying with them but he declines and offers to go planet-side to record the final moments of the kids linking up with the grand cosmic entity. Jan made this offer mainly because the Overlords occupy an evolutionary dead end and will never be able to make the jump to higher existence like us humans. But they would very much appreciate any information he might be able to discern from the event. But before he departs for Earth's surface, Jan makes an assumption and asks the Overlords about the traumatic encounter they must have had with humanity in the distant past for our species to base our idea of evil on their form. Jan learns from Karellen that the human fear of their form is not based on a past event but a racial premonition that echoed back down through time to the very beginnings of our species.

With Jan planet-side, he radios ups reports of a vast burning column going up into space, which is probably the kids. Afterwards the Earth itself begins to dissolve into transparency, including Jan whose last report mentions a final sense of fulfillment.

Yes, in Childhood's End the author does appear to break his rule about staying as close to real science as possible. Not only that, a reader would have to be pretty low on IQ points not to see the Christian imaginary inherent to the story. It goes beyond the Overlords looking like Satan, and by no fault of their own playing a part in the downfall of Man, and extends to the Overmind standing in for God and the evolved children linking up with it sounds a lot like the Rapture.

Given that I came from a moderately religious family who were regularly exposed to preachers that based their careers on End Times prophecy Childhood's End was an eye opener. Up until that general moment after finishing the book, the ultimate fate of the world and human destiny had been spelled out to me in such exacting details during certain church sermons that in hindsight it almost seems that those preachers were in on the planning of Jesus coming back to Earth. To not only have the creatures standing in for Satan and his fallen angels seem sympathetic along with the Overmind being seemingly less than a benevolent entity was a lot to handle.

As the years have gone by, both the book and the recent miniseries, which is what spurred this post, offer up some intriguing questions about the nature of the universe. For me the first mystery is the nature of the Overmind, I came away both times believing it was neither benevolent nor malevolent, just an inherent function of the universe trying to achieve some sense of itself. All I can say is that if Clarke ever decided to write a prequel to explain the Overmind's “birth” I surely would have bought the book the second I knew of its existence. Secondly, it would have been just as interesting to know the origins of the Overlords and how it was determined they could never evolve to join the Overmind. The Overlords existence also brings up the possibility that there are other species like them in different parts of the universe that occupy similar evolutionary dead ends.

Additionally, I have huge questions as to the nature of the utopia that the Overlords helped us develop here in Earth. Both the book and miniseries strongly suggest that removing all immediate concerns like poverty, hunger, political oppression, and outright fear would not create a culturally dynamic society. That the chief human response to such a condition might be for people to fall into a lowest common denominator situation where everyone just lays around and watches stuff like lowbrow reality shows. Think I might be overstating the case a little? Well, just look here at the good old United States where intelligent and thought-provoking PBS specials only rarely draw any significant attention while such moronic stuff like Duck Dynasty, Real Housewives, and numerous other "reality based" shows are cultural mainstays of popular attention. In short, here in the United States there are numerous ways for a person to develop and enhance themselves both mentally and physically but for Western industrialized societies we are, quite frankly, lazy, fat and embarrassingly ignorant fuckers.

Someone once said that surest way for humans to drive themselves mad and go extinct would be to impose some sort of utopia on us where I every need and desire was met. Unfortunately, I believe that might be the case, which is quite depressing to me since I would prefer to believe we humans might one day mature enough to rid ourselves of the scourges that have held us back since we became self aware.   


I suppose Childhood's End can be summed up as a book, and miniseries, that deals with Homo sapiens' place in the greater scheme of the universe and here on Earth. Are we the creation of some supreme entity or just a random accident of evolution? Ignoring the two possibilities of our origin for a moment I think the greater question we face in real life is what is our ultimate destiny. It actually scares me sometimes when I deal with people who just can't see past their own noses and have the imagination of your average rock. All too often our response to seeing our society and world change under our feet is to pull back in fear. You get enough people to do that and all sorts of human-made hell can easily be unleashed.

While the absolute last thing in this real life universe we have to worry about is gigantic alien spaceships turning up above Earth's cities we do have problems staring our species in the face that many just refuse to acknowledge. How and when we ultimately face the issues that threaten the lives of our children will signify our growth as a species, or truly show that we are indeed just a random accident that nature or a very silent and absent God will eventually wipe out of existence. 


sage said...

I read Childhood End in college--sometime in the late 70s. Your summary reminds me that there was much I'd forgotten, but I remember the children moving on to a higher enlightenment. Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? As for preachers who have the end-times all worked out, they've missed the message of the Bible!

Pixel Peeper said...

I'd never heard of the author or the book. Recent miniseries? I don't watch much TV...where would I find it?

The Bug said...

Ooh, I LOVED Childhood's End! I think I read it for a book review in school (7th grade?). Of course that was a LONG time ago, so I'd forgotten everything except that I loved it. Ha! So thanks for the refresher.

Beach Bum said...

Sage: Yes, the miniseries also reminded me a lot about the book I forgot. As for those End Times preachers, they've made a lot of money playing off the fears of certain people.

Pixel: It originally aired on the SyFy channel, but you can now find it on Amazon Prime. That is is how I was able to see it.

The Bug: I'm probably going to read it again, eventually.

goatman said...

There seems always
to be a threat.

Dalgimar Beserra de Menezes said...

Fortaleza, June 29th, 2019
Hi, how are you all doing?
I read Childhood´s End when I was in Charlottesville, VA, in 1983, at the International House, University Circle, where I also kept in touch with those extraodinary beings, flesh and blood, Jack Manahan and Anna Anderson (Anastasia). I found it a most extraordinary novel; not science fiction, but literature of a high excellence standard, focused on the fate of the human kind as it is today; I got a sort of a shock when the overlords appeared, as under a microscope - scanning magnification - with their cloven hooves, tails and wings, within the whodunit climate of an Agatha Christie´s or Simenon´s novel. Those beings are part of my catholic culture, which developed very early in life into a total or subtotal atheism, for which I am also quite satisfied. The rest is silence.
Best wishes,
dalgimar beserra de menezes,
Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazi