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.