The fears of the past resonate in the present, and it’s no wonder humanity sometimes grasps desperately for answers in response to a frightening and unknowable future. Sometimes these answers come to us through literature and film which may allow us to dispense with the worst of them, given enough time.
The Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End – a classic 1953 science-fiction novel that serves as the basis for a Syfy network miniseries beginning Dec. 14 – turn out to be a very mixed bag for their underling humans. On the one hand, the aliens’ presumed benevolence ushers in a utopian era of peace and prosperity where armed conflict and atomic warfare are effectively abolished, and no person goes hungry or suffers illness long. On the other hand, the Overlords’ munificence generates intellectual sloth and cultural stagnation. To some, abandoning free will and flushing centuries of human accomplishments down the loo poses benefits far outweighing the costs. To others, it means sacrificing all that it really means to be human. Additionally, the Overlord “Supervisor” Karellen issues an edict – similar to the warning given Pandora by Zeus about opening a box – prohibiting humans from exploring space, which places profound limitations on human free-will.
According to Clarke, the trade-off is precursor to the next step of human evolution, rendering corporeal existence and Earth itself moot on the path to attaining a higher plane of being for ensuing generations. Humankind has to persevere, however, through the perils of the Atomic Age first, and the only way to avert a nuclear war is through intervention of the Overlords. However, as Clarke shows us, even the Overlords are devoid of free will after they are eventually revealed as performing the bidding of the next layer of galactic bureaucracy, the Overmind.
Childhood’s End appeals to the fears of political upheaval and nuclear annihilation in the decade immediately following World War II and beyond. Our Age of Anxiety, in the apt title of a work by W.H. Auden, begs for easy answers when even the most complex responses inherently were doomed to fall short. Readers will recall 1953 also marked the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, a novel featuring the debut of 007 Secret Service Agent Bond, James Bond. Today is no different; the latest incarnation of Bond continues to obliterate baddies on movie screens more than 50 years after the demise of Fleming, and cinematic superheroes are boffo box office whether solo or collectively protecting the world from mischief makers. Television presents humanity struggling to survive in numerous dramas depicting various visions of a zombie apocalypse where even the stoic resilience of The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes may not be enough to ensure his own survival much less survival of the human race.
[spoiler alert] Clarke’s novel is divided into three sections: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. The first section details the arrival of the alien Overlords, who hover their gigantic spacecraft over Earth’s cities. It seems the planet, as usual, is in such turmoil that it is perceived necessary to draft a World Constitution, which, presciently enough is scheduled to take place in Paris – coincidentally the city hosting the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference later this month. The Overlords’ presence, however, inaugurates what many think to be a Golden Age, which in reality is a period of cultural decadence albeit one without disease and war. The final section depicts the realization of the Overlords’ purpose, which is to shepherd the human race toward a more enlightened evolutionary phase.
Lest readers unfamiliar with Childhood’s End conclude Clarke was nothing more than an advocate for secular, scientific solutions for the eternal problems confronting humanity, rest assured he understood that culture is based on the religious notion of “cult” from whence derives the best of human endeavors. Unfortunately, the novel depicts the realization of these efforts meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe when it’s revealed the Overlords merely are midwives to the next stage of human development, finally departing Earth while humankind’s last generation drifts away as cosmic snowflakes.
Further, the story goes, the Overlords’ satanic appearance and malignant reputation are merely archetypal misinterpretations imprinted on the memory of the human race. The maturation promised in the book’s title winds up negating such pinnacles of human accomplishment as the Bible, the Sistine Chapel, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, the combined works of Dante and Shakespeare, and the compositions of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles. Resistance to this cosmic puberty is futile as the planet’s last progeny develop telekinetic and telepathic abilities in the manner of the children in Lewis Padgett’s 1943 classic short story “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.” The adults in Clarke’s novel resign themselves to the Void and the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but instead “a soundless concussion of light…. For a little while the gravitational waves crossed and re-crossed the Solar System, disturbing ever so slightly the orbits of the planets.”
Clarke possessed a brilliant scientific mind and a remarkable literary and visionary talent, but lacked insight into human resiliency and resourcefulness. Additionally, he was a bit premature in his negative assessments of the human race. As it turns out, we’ve endured the past 60-some years without help from the extraterrestrial Karellen and fellow Overlords, and we’ve largely avoided catastrophe while exceeding many of Clarke’s predictions for technological advancements, curing diseases and eradicating poverty without centralized supervision and other government schemes.
Most important, humanity retains access to those permanent things reified by the poets T.S. Eliot and David Jones and other Christian Humanists such as Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Russell Kirk and – notably referenced in Childhood’s End – Lord Acton and G.K. Chesterton. Civilization thrives wherever ordered liberty is enjoyed, absolute power abjured and the moral imagination blossoms. Our race may remain children in the opinion of Arthur C. Clarke’s Overlords, but we persist as God’s humble children, flourishing because we implement self-restraint in the exercise of our gift of free will.