Friday, February 4, 2011

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

Jesus is recorded as saying that little children are "such as" the Kingdom of Heaven. Children also figure heavily in some of the signature fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, as symbols of how far humanity has to intellectually travel to confront the stars, or how little we know, or how the promise of humanity is like that of a child, with an entire lifetime ahead.
"Childhood's End," though, shares some of the other characteristics of his fiction. Like the more well-known "2001: A Space Odyssey," this novel has the human race encountering a much more advanced alien species, known here as the Overlords. The images of "Childhood's End" are familiar to anyone paying attention to popular science fiction movies of the past 50-plus years: Ships, appearing over major cities, with alien races putting humanity "in its place" through technology and superior intellect.
I was surprised at how many times Clarke reverts to Biblical quotations and allusions in telling his story. Early on, it is the figure Van Ryberg who quotes the Bible, that man cannot live only by the bread the Overlords provide. Clarke uses this to illustrate that the conflict against the Overlords, at first, has its roots in humanity's dependence on religion.
Clarke wisely (and humorously) decides to introduce the Overlords with a mystery - what do they look like? It is several generations after their arrival before they finally allow humanity to see them, and Clarke tells us they decided this was necessary since it would take that long for the religious impulses to die away and humanity to grow accustomed to them. When the Overlords reveal themselves, we see why - they resemble the medieval conception of the devil, with horns, tail and wings. When the Overlord's planet is finally revealed, it resembles the ancient idea of Hell. (His explanation: Mankind was seeing it's far distant future, not remembering an idea from the past.) What is interesting is that Clarke opts in this Overlord-created utopia on earth to never actually mention Christianity, though the absence draws attention to itself. His fiction actually aims for a kind of synthetic Buddhism - a nonthreatening mysticism that he presumes will allow for an open mind. There are less demands upon us, presumably.
It is this curiosity about the Overlords that leads one human - Jan - to stowaway on one of their craft. Clarke's humor is satisfied again when he places Jan inside a model of a whale, recreating the story of Jonah, who also tried to thwart an almighty will.
Clarke uses several human characters to tell the story - the Secretary General of the UN, Jan, and a couple, the Greggsons. Though we still don't know, deep into the novel, what the Overlords want, we are intrigued when one of them takes an interest in psychic phenomena. It is the use of an Ouija board - and it's answer about where the Overlords live - that brings about the solution of the mystery of why they came at all.
"Childhood's End," inevitably, is about the end of the human race, and it is the most human voice that belongs to Karellen, the Overlord who supervises Earth. He reveals, at the end, that the Overlords came to Earth to witness and safeguard the next step in the human race's evolution - into a group mind with immense intellectual gifts. Fittingly, these gifts make them seem primitive to us, but that too is part of Clarke's imagination: Hope is couched in the simple, with the idea that it masks a much deeper complexity than is apparant to the unenlightened eye.
The novel has, as one would expect, a lingering Cold War sensibility, since the Overlords pride themselves on saving humanity from nuclear destruction. War actually gave birth to the novel, as it is filled with images from World War II - the exodus of children to the British countryside, the evacuation from Dunkirk, and even the Overlords' ships, which were inspired by the barrage ballons that floated over London during the Blitz.
When the secret is finally revealed, Karellen tells humanity that science is the only real religion of mankind, but it is not the only story. Clarke tells us that religion shares with science an understanding that there is more to life than is apparent to the eye, and that understanding is possible, but Clarke has the Overlords state that religion can only give an incomplete picture:
"Yet your mystics, though they were lost in their own delusions, had seen part of the truth. There are powers of the mind, and powers beyond the mind, which your science could never have brought within its framework without shattering it entirely."
The child image - that mankind must put away its childish things and grow up - comes off as condescending. He aims to trade Jehovah for his own created Overlords, though in the end, they also serve an even higher power. But Clarke is not engaging in his own mysticism, for a higher power would seem godlike to a less intelligent species, regardless of whether that power was divine or not.
Clarke insisted on the rational, which is why the novel in its first printing carried the odd disclaimer that events in the book did not reflect the views of the author. In his utopia, religion is swept away easily, but so is scientific investigation, and so we arrive at a problem. Humanity that does not quest after something ceases to be human, which is why this particular vision feels unreal. Mankind without the heart of a child - the curiosity, the sometimes blind faith, the willingness and openness, the neediness - would not be worth saving.
Which brings us back to Jesus, who said that we could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we possessed the faith of a child. Clarke's fiction would have us also place a childlike faith, but instead of the hand that fashioned the stars, we are asked to believe in ourselves, with the stars remaining as a goal. It is hardly a rational trade.
We wonder at the motivation of a mind which rejects the mind of God, especially when one of Clarke's characters declares, "No one of intelligence resents the inevitable."
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2 comments:

  1. Very interesting review. I haven't read the book, but I might do so now. I love sci-fi. You have a great point that without a "quest" or something to look forward to, then we cease to be human.

    I have a question though. Doesn't your criticism of perfected evolution as being hollow, mimic heaven? As far as I know, heaven is supposed to be the summit of all things. There isn't anything better. So, isn't that the same thing?

    Perhaps hope itself is merely an illusion.

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  2. I would say it this way -

    Heaven isn't something we evolve to. It is a perfection that we cannot arrive at on our own. For example, the theory of evolution as I understand it doesn't mean that a species that survives and thrives is necessarily superior to one that did not - the survival is based on chance and adaptability. The dirty secret of evolution is that while it is a grand design, it is a design to no purpose, no resolution, no perfection, except survival. That's what leaves you hollow. Human intelligence longs for a purpose. If you look at life through the theory of evolution, then hope is an illusion, because the hope we are longing for is something that gets us a little further down the road to the inevitable.

    Heaven is seen as perfection, but we cannot arrive at it without the agency of God. And Heaven is only a perfect place because of God's presence there. He is what makes it worth aiming for. And without Him -without Christ - there is no purpose. When that's the case, do you have any choice but to worship Him?

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