Classic Geek Lit: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End

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I saw around the time of the San Diego Comics Con that the Sy-Fy Channel had produced a mini-series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  Considered a classic novel in the genre, the news generated some excitement and even some confusion how a book of just over 200 pages could somehow produce a TV mini-series.

So, I read it the book for Gabbing Geek.  I’d never read any of Clarke’s work before, so this was something new for me.  Thoughts and potential SPOILERS after the cut.

To start, my exposure to Clarke wasn’t entirely new.  I have seen 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  I knew the movie mostly be reputation prior to actually seeing it, and seeing it  confirmed the reputation is earned:  that last scene makes very little sense.

I also knew from channel surfing that Clarke did a lot of paranormal investigation type TV shows way back when.  He addresses this in the introduction to my edition of Childhood’s End where he basically says his experience with that sort of stuff led him to conclude paranormal stuff was largely a load of hooey, but he didn’t figure that out until well after he finished Childhood’s End, which is why psychic phenomena found itself into the novel.

As it is, Childhood’s End and 2001 have a great deal in common thematically.  Both deal with the evolution of the human race with assistance of benevolent intelligences from another world.  Both involve characters early on that simply disappear from the narrative whether their story seems complete or not.  Both left me wondering if what happened was ultimately a good thing.

Allow me to explain that last part.  At the conclusion of 2001, David Bowman is rapidly aged and transformed into some sort of space fetus.  The movie never really explains what that means, but the novel it was based on apparently suggests Dave is the next step into whatever it is man is meant to be.  But…what is that exactly?  Is it a good thing?  Would he really want to be a space fetus?  I have no idea.

Childhood’s End ends with the human race mostly dead.  The final generation of children are absorbed into some sort of galactic hive mind.  The one man left on Earth witnesses the destruction of the planet as the planet itself is absorbed into the fuel needed to make that final step.  Most if not all life on Earth was already absorbed this way by this last generation of psychic children.  We’re meant to believe that this conclusion is somehow a good thing.

But I’m not so sure.

See, one of the things that seems to happen is the complete lose of personality.  The children waiting for the next step (you know, the end of childhood…it’s in the novel’s title) are completely oblivious to their surroundings, including such things as, you know, their parents.  The Overlords, the alien race that comes to Earth to help this next step of evolution along, seem to think this is a good thing, that the children will be absorbed into the Overmind and join the other races there as…something.  The Overlords themselves are unable to make that leap for reasons even they don’t understand, but they explain it all at the end of the book as how the older generation how they won’t be going anywhere, they will be the last actual generation of human beings, and finally, they should be proud because they did produce the minds that will join the Overmind.

Really, should they?

Should they be proud of a generation that ended all other life on Earth?  The Overlords put in rules against unnecessary animal cruelty, but the next step of humanity doesn’t exactly leave room for anything else coming off this planet.

Should they be proud of children who just plain fail to recognize their own parents?  Or anything else for that matter outside of themselves?

Should they be proud that the next generation doesn’t seem to have distinct personalities for individual members?

That last part seemed the most troublesome.  Considering the novel was written in during the heights of the Cold War, even if it was written by a British novelist, this does seem to me to be a bit…Marxist.  Since the novel ends with the Overlords, was the absorption into the Overmind a good thing if it cost humanity things like individuality and creativity?

That last part should be not be ignored.  One man manages to sneak aboard an Overlord vessel making a supply run, and so thanks to Einstein’s theories he gets to be the last human on Earth when he finally gets back.  He understands then that space was not meant for man (why exactly is that?  I never felt it was adequately explained).  He also sees that the children basically stand around naked and…wait.

That’s it.

If there’s more to their existence, it’s missed.

That lack of individuality, and the death of the arts, to say nothing of the death of religion, occurs well before that when the Overlords show up and “fix” humanity.  Somehow, in another unexplained move, the Overlords’ presence manages to stop war, poverty, disease, racism, and a host of other problems.  I can buy some of those things, but poverty and racism and the like seem to be a bit much.  That most of humanity seems willing to suddenly hold hands, draft a global constitution, and give up the things that are often called the Humanities, things that arguably make life worth living for many people, doesn’t seem all that likely.  How does an alien race stop racism?

For that matter, why wasn’t there any sort of real resistance?  Basic human psychology will tell you that no group of people really likes it when outsiders come in and try to tell them how to live.  It doesn’t matter, really, how benevolent those outsiders’ motives are.  They will be resisted by the natives.  The only resistance seems to come from people who think a well-structured argument will somehow get them to their goals.  Yes, the Overlords do have some very advanced technology, but there’s no sign of any sort of physical resistance.  We’re told one unidentified government shot a missile at them, but nothing really happened.  That’s it?  People just shrug their shoulders and decide to do what they’re told?  That doesn’t sound like any sort of human race I am familiar with.

Questions like these really did not help me to enjoy the novel as much as I might have.  Clarke doesn’t really fill in the blanks too well.  He tells you that things happened, and that’s all.  How aliens stopped war and poverty is immaterial.  They just did.  As such, I’m going to give this novel seven out of ten Overlords.  The book wasn’t bad by any stretch, but the unanswered questions left me too distracted to enjoy it as much as I could have.

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