More years ago than I care to calculate, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This was during a time when I was attempting to branch out beyond my initial interests in science-fiction writing and my fascination for writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to see what other value was out there. Much as Mr. Clarke is regarded as one of the great classic masters of the genre, I must beg to differ. I could comment on how sterile and lifeless his characters were or the lack of wonder in the arcs of his stories, but in this particular opus, Mr. Clarke manages not only to insult his audience but a large portion of humanity – no small task, to be sure.

The reason why I mention this is because the SyFy Channel, for reasons I cannot pretend to fathom, has chosen to make a mini-series of this novel. Superficially, it’s a story of humankind’s reclamation, wherein an extraterrestrial power, christened “The Overlords” by an overzealous newspaper publisher, intervenes at a most desperate point in our history, conveniently set in near-present day. Their apparent purpose is to save us from our own foolishness and to enable us to become “the better angels of our nature,” et cetera, et cetera. Almost immediately, a “whole new world” ensues, a utopic vision made possible and real by these cosmic overseers, where war becomes extinct, poverty, pollution and climate change are resolved and humanity is given the chance to live without threat. My readers may take it from my last statement that I take said statement as something less than forthcoming, and of course, this is the case, but it’s far worse than that. There is a grand new destiny, initially unknown to any Terran, which essentially amounts to the proverbial “end of life as we know it,” and indeed, the end not just of our civilization, but our world.

The initial point and focus of those end times are Earth’s children. After a march of decades of peace, which oddly includes a devolution of scientific curiosity, a generation of children are born with markedly unusual abilities, including telekinesis and telepathy. We learn from the Overlords that these children are the last generation of human life on this planet, that they will leave it to join something called Overmind, the collective consciousness of the universe. The parents cannot join in this transformation but must look on helplessly as this process winds to an end, which it does, witnessed by a modern-day Ishmael, who alone survives to tell the tale before he himself perishes, along with the planet.

The problems with this story are numerous and blatant. The Overlords arrive on Earth with an obvious and unambiguous advantage. Their technology is clearly insuperable, yet they hide both themselves and their intentions, not just from those who would not be able to withstand such a revelation but those who would. They wait until humans are supposedly “ready” to accept their appearance and their purpose, yet when these are finally uncovered, the resulting trauma is much as it would have been had they not hesitated. This pattern nauseatingly repeats throughout the drama.

The imagery employed in Childhood’s End is absurd to the point of caricature, beginning with the character of Karellen: a prototypical devil, complete with massive horns, ruddy skin, bat-like wings and pointed tail. Exposition attempts an explanation for the history behind them, and it is sadly no more credible than any portion of the rest of the story. The gathering into Overmind is handled no better: children rising into the sky by the thousands, arms outstretched in a ludicrous imitation of Christ on the cross. A more ridiculous image, I seriously doubt I can imagine.

As regards the novel, I can think of nothing redeeming about it or the concepts it promotes. According to Clarke, human beings are not the masters of their fate or the authors of their actions but the tools of a hidden power, to be tapped and harvested when the time is ripe. This supposedly ubiquitous power, concealed for millennia, is only revealed at the end, variations on Armageddon, when the young wheat is separated from the aged chaff, with no explanation justifying that differentiation. And during the interregnum before the endgame, their curiosity and scientific pursuits must be blunted, because they might endanger Overmind’s cataclysmic final solution. Only Yahweh’s quixotic choice of saved and damned at the end of days could be as callous. Nothing inspiring or uplifting is to be found here, just an implacable inevitability.

One not quite saving grace, absent in the book, shows itself at the very end of the television presentation. Milo Rodricks, an astrophysicist who has struggled from the beginning to discern the secrets Karellen & Co. are keeping from their charges and, because of his efforts, becomes that witness to the end of our kind, makes a last request of the Overlords: that they not forget who we were, that they choose something of our culture to save, to maintain as a token of what we had been. Doubtless there are uncountable creations of Homo sapiens which might have qualified. Here, that choice was Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ transcendently beautiful “The Lark Ascending.”

That one choice does not save the overall, but considering the quality and content (or lack) of the rest of this production, they could have done a whole lot worse.

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Comment by Loren Miller on December 27, 2015 at 3:38pm

Čenek, I could not agree more.  Heinlein had a joie de vivre that engaged me, practically from the first book of his I read.  He celebrates what he thinks humankind is capable of, even if some of his hypotheses are more than a little optimistic.  By comparison, Clarke has no such opinion and as a result, leaves me flat.  And now that I think about it, I think I notice more than a little resemblance between stuff like Childhood's End and HBO's current hallucination, The Leftovers.

Thanks, but NO, thanks.

Comment by Čenek Sekavec on December 27, 2015 at 2:37pm

"If Childhood's End is meant to be allegory, then I'd love to know: allegory to WHAT?"

My opinion?  The impotence of man.

I've read everything by Clarke and found it all anti-human in varying degrees.  To continue your comparison with Heinlein, whereas Heinlein basic premise is "the basic nature of humanity is goodness" Clarke holds the opposite premise.

Comment by Michael Penn on December 27, 2015 at 1:41pm

I've always wanted to see a lavish movie production about the "end times" with Star Wars like action where beings show up to whisk mankind away, supposedly to save us from the destruction of our world. Then a second set of beings show up to do the same thing. Through a drawn out process we learn that the first set of beings are imposters and our real "saviors" are in the second set of beings. We had believed the first beings to show up because of what was written in the Bible.

I think it would be a great movie but Christians would whine and moan like hell. So much so that this film could never be made!

Comment by tom sarbeck on December 27, 2015 at 11:59am

Call me obtuse if you wish,....

Allegory, metaphor, simile, and such are taught in English courses.

Knowledge of them is a prerequisite in literature courses.

They are foreign to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses.

STEM students aren't obtuse; we don't want to drive taxicabs.

Comment by tom sarbeck on December 27, 2015 at 11:40am

I had a comment here and it went POOF!

Probably because your little pinkie was closer to the CTRL key than to the SHIFT key.

I'm not sure that contact is necessary.

Comment by Loren Miller on December 27, 2015 at 11:16am

WTF?!?  I had a comment here and it went POOF!  [sigh] Okay, let's try again:

If Childhood's End is meant to be allegory, then I'd love to know: allegory to WHAT? Then, too, I'm not a big one for hidden meanings. Call me obtuse if you wish, but if you can't be bothered to say what you mean in clear language, you're going to lose your audience in me before the first chapter is complete.

I suppose that Clarke could have been referring to humankind's materialism with Karellen's devilish appearance, but the whole concept of Overmind and its concealment up to the end of human existence has no justification for me, nor does it make much sense.  Granted, I could say the same thing of Heinlein's Martians from Stranger in a Strange Land, but at least in that case, his story entertained me and made me think.

In Clarke's case, not so much.

Comment by Loren Miller on December 27, 2015 at 9:38am

If Childhood's End is meant to be allegory, then I'd love to know: allegory to WHAT? Then, too, I'm not a big one for hidden meanings. Call me obtuse if you wish, but if you can't be bothered to say what you mean in clear language, most times you'll lose your audience with me before the first chapter is complete.

I suppose Clarke could have been making some comment regarding human materialism with Karellen's devilish appearance, but the whole business of Overmind and its concealment right up to the end of human existence makes neither sense or any kind of source of inspiration for me. I find such suppositions unfounded and without credibility. I suppose I could say the same thing about Heinlein's Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land as well, but at least that book entertained me and made me think.

Clarke's work? Not so much.

Comment by jay H on December 27, 2015 at 8:02am

I think it's more meant allegory than a literally believable story.

Comment by Loren Miller on December 24, 2015 at 8:01am

The thing is, Tom, some writers have a better imagination than others, and that reflects in the interest they garner from their readers.  Authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg and Tom Clancy engaged me with their ideas and the credibility of the plot lines they created.  Clarke failed for me and more than once, which is why he (or now, his estate) doesn't profit any further from any expenditure I may make for books.  Obviously, Clarke was able to engage others, for the simple reason that not everyone has my tastes in literature.  Or, to put it another way:

That is why there is chocolate and vanilla.
-- Lieutenant Howard Hunter, Hill Street District

Comment by tom sarbeck on December 24, 2015 at 7:53am

Loren, the flaw I see in fiction is that it's limited to its writer's imagination. With some writers this is a serious flaw. In eighty-plus years I've read three full-length novels.

Non-fiction has no known limits and I read maybe a book a week.

I don't see fiction's being escapist as a flaw. Most of us need an occasional escape from reality.

I seem to have an need to stay closer to reality.

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