Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke When I was in 8th grade, I wrote a story about humans evolving and becoming “luminous beings” (similar, I suppose, to those Yoda mentions in The Empire Strikes Back), and I was reminded of this when I read the ending to Childhood’s End. Humanity’s last generation joins a vast collective intelligence that has been assimilating civilizations for countless eons, and in the process consumes the Earth and all other life on it. (As I recall, my process wasn’t quite so genocidal; in fact, it took place around a dinner table in the specific scene that I wrote about.)

The above doesn’t have all that much to do with my impressions upon (finally) reading this SF classic, but I thought I’d mention it as evidence that I was a far-sighted and prescient prodigy :-)

But as to the book under review. This is another case of not knowing whether to give it two stars or three. In favor of the former, there is the fact that it’s not a terribly well written novel. There’s precious little character development, the prose is serviceable at best, and there are cringe-worthy moments that date the book, e.g., “Before the discussion could get acrimonious, they were accosted by the Shoenbergers and fission rapidly occurred. The girls went off in one direction to discuss Mrs. Boyce; the men went in another and did exactly the same thing, though from a different viewpoint.” (p. 89, emphasis mine)

In favor of the latter, there is the fact that Clarke is a writer you read neither to explore the complexities of personal relationships nor to lose yourself in the purple prose of exotic lands. Indeed background is superfluous in Clarke’s prose, sparingly described when described at all; and his characters are there to articulate the many ideas that are struggling to get out of the author’s mind. It’s the ideas, of course, that you want to learn about and wrestle with. In this case, it’s the fate of humanity, and while I didn’t like Clarke’s interpretation, he succeeded in getting me to think about it and formulate some interpretations of my own.

For those who may not have read the book, one day the Overlords’ immense spaceships appear in the sky over the major cities of Earth and proceed to enforce a benevolent dictatorship that creates a world government, eliminates poverty and ends the means to wage war – a golden age for humanity. But the aliens refuse to reveal themselves and they don’t explain why they’ve come to Earth. That’s part one. Part two is set about a century later when the Overlords reveal themselves, and explain that part of their purpose on Earth is to protect humanity from the “powers and forces that lie among the stars – forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine…. ‘It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.’” (p. 146) Part three takes place ten years later when the children of Earth begin having strange dreams and withdrawing from contact with their parents. Eventually, they fall into catatonia, and the Overlords explain what’s happening to the bewildered humans – They’ve been shepherding humanity into its next stage of development. They are the servants of the Overmind, an intelligence they only dimly understand or perceive, but which directs their actions, and which has determined that humans are ready to join it. (In what, I suppose, is meant to be tragically ironic, the Overlords themselves are unable to transcend and can only watch as their charges become something greater.) The cost, however, is that humanity as such has reached the end of its existence; the entity that the Overmind has fostered is no more human than the australopithecines that preceded our species. Once this new species is ready to join the Overmind, Earth will be consumed in the process:

In a soundless concussion of light, Earth’s core gave up its hoarded energies. For a little while the gravitational waves crossed and re-crossed the solar system….

There was nothing left of Earth:
They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the sun. (p. 236)

Concurrent with reading Childhood’s End, I read a collection of Clarke’s essays – Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds – and in both the author refuses to accept that humans are the endpoint of evolution. Rather it is “intelligence” in some form that will go out to conquer the universe (and in several essays he uses that very word). The stars may not be for Man but we are a stage on the road that leads to them.

I happen to agree with Clarke that evolution is not a progressive process, and that humans are accidents of many improbable mutations. Turning back the clock 65 million years and letting it run again will not result in us. I also agree with him that if something leaves this solar system, it won’t be human, though it may claim us as an ancestor. The discomfort my brain suffers when I read Clarke comes from a philosophical difference. Perhaps “philosophical” is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s more a matter of perspective: Where he is a relentless optimist who sees a great and glorious future in intelligence united with technology, I can’t bring myself to believe that both aren’t rapidly becoming evolutionary dead ends. Derek Jensen’s Endgame severely shook my belief in the near-term viability of civilization; and the increasingly alarming trends in climate change and our response to them are eroding my confidence in the viability of the species.

Even should we manage to overcome and create a sustainable culture on a still-inhabitable planet, who’s to say that our destiny is in the stars? Or just the planets, for that matter? For 60,000 years – give or take a few millennia – humans existed in complex, vibrant cultures and spread to nearly every corner of the globe without doing too much permanent damage to the planet. Even after the Agricultural Revolution (a big mistake in Jensen’s view), ecological overreach was localized and biotas could recover given time. Now, however, we’re at a point where our appetites have far outstripped the planet’s capacity to feed them, and there’s precious little evidence that we’re willing to curb them or even recognize the need to do so.

My point is that there’s no “final destination” for humanity, and that I don’t think everyone would be on board for any single one. I wouldn’t want to live in Clarke’s “golden age” presented in this book, for example.

Clarke’s mistake is to assume that there’s a stasis toward which we’re evolving, but no situation is permanent. We create ideals and set and strive for particular goals but each generation must reassess them in light of its own experience. Oddly enough, I am reminded of the scene in Simone Beauvoir’s All Men Are Mortal where a character explains to the protagonist:

“‘I don’t believe in the future,’ I said.

“‘There will be a future, that at least is certain.’

“‘But all of you speak of it as if it were going to be a paradise. There won’t be any paradises, and that’s equally certain.’

“‘Of course not.’ He studied me, seemed to be searching my face to find the words that might win me over. ‘Paradise for us is simply the moment when the dreams we dream today are finally realized. We’re well aware that after that other men will have new needs, new desires, will make new demands.’…

“‘I’ve had a little smattering of history. You’re not teaching me anything. Everything that’s ever done finally ends by being undone. I realize that. And from the hour you’re born you begin to die. But between birth and death there’s life.’…

“‘In my opinion, we should concern ourselves only with that part of the future on which we have a hold. But we should try our best to enlarge our hold on it as much as possible.’…

“‘You admit,’ I said after a short silence, ‘that you’re working for only a limited future.’

“‘A limited future, a limited life – that’s our lot as men. And it’s enough,’ he said. ‘If I knew that in fifty years it would be against the law to employ children in factories, against the law for men to work more than ten hours a day, if I knew that the people would choose their own representatives, that the press would be free, I would be completely satisfied.’ Again his eyes fell upon me. ‘You find the workers’ conditions abominable. Well, think of those workers you know personally, only of them. Don’t you want to help change their lot in life?’”
(All Men Are Mortal, pp. 327-28)

A final rumination directly related to the novel: Clarke puts a positive spin on the Overmind and on humanity’s fate. As Karellen explains to his protégés:

It is my hope that humanity will go it its rest in peace, knowing that it has not lived in vain.

For what you will have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires or hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys – yet it is something wonderful, and you will have created it.
(p. 201)

But what is the evidence for this? The Overlords’ explanation? They freely admit they have only a limited comprehension of the Overmind and its objectives. And what they do comprehend suggests an entity bent on eliminating any rival:

I cannot explain the full nature of the threat you represented. It would not have been a threat to us, and therefore we do not comprehend it. Let us say that you might have become a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds. (p. 198)

From a certain point of view, this sounds like the Borg from Star Trek: Assimilate or be destroyed.

At the end, I’m giving this three stars. My mind has been exercised for a week now trying to (however inadequately) put into coherent form the thoughts it’s engendered, and any book that can do that deserves a “like” at the very least.