Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Childhood's End" - Great Sci Fi But Not For Everyone (Spoilers!)

Charles Dance as Karellan in 'Childhood's End'
Overlord Karellan emerges for first time from his ship with two Earth kids in tow.

Question: How badly, to what degree, will humanity shit bricks if the first ever aliens to visit Earth - indeed, subdue it, look like the spitting image of Satan? My guess is that half the planet will go batshit nuts and probably off themselves and the other half will run to gun stores to purchase the biggest weapons legally available. Of course, neither choice will make much difference because the Overlords featured in the Syfy channel's miniseries - Childhood's End - will have their way anyway.

In Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 science fiction novel, Childhood's End, an armada of benevolent alien Overlords arrives at Earth and cultivates the growth - maturity of humanity. They are not here as "invaders"- the first reaction of the military minds - but rather as "enablers" to help us reach our destiny in evolving beyond the state of lizard-brained greedheads, congenital assholes and warmongers.

Only very late in the novel do the Overlords finally reveal their physiognomy - looking just like assorted depictions of "Satan" through antiquity. Of course, it helped that the Overlords waited 15 years for their Earth supervisor Karellan to reveal himself. It took that long for humans to mature enough psychologically to see his Satanic frame without passing out from fright or going into shock.

But one wonders what would have transpired if the visiting aliens  foolishly revealed themselves first. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to project all the human armies of the world would likely have attacked the invaders but the results would have been radically different from 'Independence Day'. The  scenario provides a definite cautionary tales on how humans may have to process any future alien landings.

The Syfy adaptation of the book was fine as far as it goes, though more or less a modern interpretation  - also with some twists. For example, the Overlords chose their earthly emissary as an ordinary Missouri farmer (Ricky Stromgren) not the UN representative and dignitary in the book. After all, no one would respect a UN honcho today - what with all the conspiracy theories circulating about UN "black helicopters", the "New World Order" and  being in bed with a hidden Earth power to take over the U.S. We can surely thank Alex Jones and his InfoWars site or most of that!

Clearly, once Karellan reveals himself there are all kinds of repercussions and Earth religions - especially evangelicalism - fear their faith is under siege even if indirectly. (After all, Karellan and the Overlords can provide at a technological 'touch' all that humans have been praying for since the year dot, e.g. world peace, good health, financial security etc.)

 The religious resistance is embodied in the person of one hyper-Christian woman who firmly believes Karellan has only come to deceive and sow evil, never mind how humans have thrived. I mean, the whole planet and all its inhabitant are finally on an even keel  - helped by the fact all earthly armies have had their weapons neutralized.

But for many the utopia that emerges is too boring so they have to eventually establish their own little chaotic city in "New Athens" where losers can still commit crimes, money rules, poverty abounds - but hey - art and literature are blossoming again!  It appears all the nasty stuff is necessary for those to thrive - or so the "mayor" of the place claims.

The religious zealot, meanwhile, is not happy given no one is taking her seriously even when she digs up ancient images of Satan from assorted books. "Looka the bat wings! The horns! The goat's hoof feet! What more y'all want?" Well, most humans want to keep enjoying the bounty of the Overlords and not rock the boat!

Of course, while the little "counselor", as she calls herself, may have studied lots of religion it appears she didn't do much evolutionary biology during her school days. Hence, she was unaware of how a planetary environment might shape a species to appear the way Karellan does.

Indeed, in one scene in Ricky's barn it is proven once and for all that Karellan is not a spirit being (like Lucifer is alleged to be by the religious) but an ordinary flesh and blood mortal. Unable to convince Ricky that Karellan is deceiving him and his wife she grabs a shotgun and fires into Karellan's midsection. He falls to the ground in a heap gasping,  and it's clear he will soon die but Ricky injects him with an Overlord prepared medicinal (intended for him, dying of a fatal disease). Karellan comes back and faces down his would be killer who shouts at him:

"You are destroying our faith! You have deceived us!"

TO which the Overlord replies: "NO, you have deceived yourselves."

 A point he later reinforces when he also adds that humanity has been far too prone to believing and not sufficiently invested in knowing. Another point constantly made is that Karellan is not acting unilaterally or as his own agent for his own agenda. He is a "servant" doing the bidding of an "over Force" or "Over mind". (Think of The Force in Star Wars as an ultimate linked consciousness that drives unity or unification of all sentient beings, as opposed to divisions.  The physical counterpart also comes fairly close to what I described as "Being" in my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God')

My favorite character, apart from Karellan (who some reviews erroneously refer to as a "villain" - maybe because he resembles Satan),  is Milo. He's a black astrophysicist frustrated because with the reams of knowledge the Overlords have delivered - including of quantum physics, general relativity and astrophysics -  scientific inquiry has become redundant. So, in order to satisfy more of his curiosity Milo decides he must stow away on an Overlord ship and check out their home world in the constellation Carina. (It is the "sixth planet in the Carina system")

Suffice it to say I was glad the book didn't divert too much from Clarke's central plot and that included not allowing a fringe story to manifest, i.e. that Karellan really was a Satanic being and the "counselor" and her religious gang were going to triumph.

Again, this series will not be for everyone,  particularly those of a highly religious mold who will have difficulty reconciling Karellan with any kind of benign entity. I am reminded of Dorothy Rabinowitz' recent review in the WSJ,  actually making comparisons of the Overlords to the Nazis, i.e. when they occupied France in 1940. But given her Jewish background this is perhaps understandable. Other people of religious bent will likely also see into the series what they will, but they ought to realize that - as an atheist- Arthur C. Clarke had no use for "evil" - he believed we humans were its only authors.

Nonetheless, it is at once entertaining and enlightening to behold th extent to which Arthur C. had woven metaphysics (of a sort) into his work with the "Overmind"- which seems an awful lot like the "Universal Mind" of mystics or the Holomovement of physicist David Bohm, described in his 'Wholeness and the Implicate Order'.

The end of the story can best be described as hurling the characters and the planet into the "Implicate Order". Anyway, I won't reveal the end part because that is what the whole story pivots on: the future of homo sapiens and planet Earth as facilitated by Karellan and the Overlords.

1 comment:

Kyle Winward said...

Your review is the most thoughtful and well-composed review I have read. I finished the book shortly before I finished the series, and I agree 100% with the sentiments in your review.

If you haven't already read it, I think that you will enjoy the book "Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics (Science and Fiction)" by Russell Blackford, 2017.