The Shocking Similarities Between CHILDHOOD’S END and Today (PART I)
by Tal Brooke
After 63 years in print, Childhood’s End has finally come to the screen—indeed flat-screen television—not as a major motion picture, but as a three-part miniseries on the SyFy cable channel, starting in late December 2015. By definition, this TV version could only be shallow compared to the book. It would have taken someone of Stanley Kubrick’s genius to do it right using an IMAX and the most cutting-edge computer effects. The TV version was, if nothing else, a cultural indicator that a postmodern and post-Christian public, whose minds have been fully tenderized, might be ready to consider Lucifer as liberator.
The TV series has played repeatedly over the US TV cable SyFy channel and then repeatedly in New Zealand, where I saw it again, on the Zone cable channel. Director Nick Hurran (who’s recently directed episodes of Minority Report and Doctor Who) doesn’t give the material any sort of elegant or magisterial vision, with SyFy’s need for commercial interruptions, requiring the story to be segmented into mini-twists and cliffhangers. Consequently, this media version perpetuates suspense that it’s not very thought-provoking. The series was exactly what I expected and the book still stands alone for power. We’re not there yet.
When I was in Sri Lanka, in the late winter of 2004, to start my first novel and look for an Asian branch-office for SCP, a friend of mine offered to introduce me to Sir Arthur C. Clarke. I was staying briefly at one of grand hotels of the British Colonial era (now 3-stars), the Galle Face Hotel, where a prominent statue of Clarke stood in the lobby near a Who’s Who of world notables who had stayed there, from heads of state to Nobel Prize winners. Clarke, of course, was prominent on the list.
This friend had been a member of Sri Lanka’s chess team and still played Clarke occasionally to keep the famed British author/scientist entertained. I had met the chess player, Tony Seniwiratne, during an earlier visit to Sri Lanka when I stayed with Richard Brohier, a senior staff member of Sri Lanka’s Youth For Christ. It was a vital ministry then, as it is now, full of passion and purity, under the direction of my good friend Ajith Fernando (a frequent speaker at Urbana whom I interviewed in an earlier SCP Newsletter when he stayed with me in Berkeley). I spent lots of time with the chess whiz then, as I did again this last visit.
But I declined my friend’s offer to meet the famous author. By 2004, Clarke had grown quite old and reclusive. Beyond that, certain rumors had caught up with him and were the subject of escalating news bits about his homosexuality and preference for native Sri Lankan boys. My friend acknowledged that these stories appeared to be well documented and that “almost everybody in Sri Lanka knew it.” This dark side of Clarke provided an important clue in helping to explain a lot—from his futurism to his passion for alternative spiritualities, as well as his desire to leave his native England in the 1950s, when the stigma for his sexual bent was still high.
There’s little doubt that, in Clarke’s case, his predilections are reflected in his views of reality. He has painted a cosmos with a form of spiritual meaning, but without God. And herein is where Clarke’s seduction of modern audiences lies. He has acted as a grand autobahn between the mystical worldview and a perplexed Western culture undergoing rapid change and speeding into a technological promised land, having jettisoned God and the biblical worldview in the process. He was post-Christian all the way.
Clarke’s projections into the future have shown a prescience that often has been disarming. This is no accident. He is also a scientist. As the conceptual pioneer of the Telstar Telecommunications Satellite, more than just a speculative author, Arthur C. Clarke can be placed among the world’s leading scientific minds of his generation. He has been a futurist both in predicting and prescribing the world’s future course.
If you isolate trends and realities that Clarke sees sixty years beyond his writings in the 1950s, and if you remove the fictional element, you are left with a handbook on how to change culture, society, and the future. As such, Clarke becomes an agent for future change, calling for a world of the type we are seeing unfold in our time. These ideas have been especially powerful in two of his most important fictional works.
I have long felt that Arthur C. Clarke’s most profound and radical fictional work was not 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Childhood’s End. Like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, this visually demanding cosmic epic has been waiting for giant leaps in digital technology before it could ever be a film. Tolkein’s epic finally crossed that divide with Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning rendition using revolutionary digital effects and breathtaking panoramas.
Childhood’s End has been looming in the shadows, waiting to emerge on the big screen. Barnes & Noble was featuring it as a book in Manhattan in the spring of 2008.
I got my most recent copy of Childhood’s End while recently traveling in New Zealand, the winter of 2008. I decided to return to it after a considerable gap. It had shaped my life in powerful ways at an especially vulnerable time when I was in junior high school and living overseas. My father was at the American Embassy in Beirut during a period in my life when I was on a constant search for meaning. Moving to the Middle East deepened the issue as I was thrust out of London’s comfortable world of the familiar into a radically different Arab world of language, custom, dress and religion.
Clarke seemed to open a kind of cosmic portal for me at a period in my life when I was often bored and frustrated. I would play hooky from junior high and wander the corniche along the water’s edge of the Mediterranean or rent a small motorcycle, play hookie, and drive aimlessly around Beirut. Thus began a path of restless wandering that followed me from London, to Beirut, through my years at the University of Virginia, and beyond, to India. The mystic thread entered me on some very deep level, holding great promise in my quest for truth, till my conversion in South India, when I finally reached the end of the long journey, now seeing Christ at the center of history.
Within a day of my finishing Childhood’s End this time around, Arthur C. Clarke died. I stared at my computer monitor, feeling the strangeness in the timing. I had read the last page at an outdoor table in Maui’s Wailea Mall. It left me looking off in thought. An Internet headline earlier that morning stated the famous author had died in Sri Lanka, March 18, 2008. I was en route back to Berkeley from Auckland via Hawaii.
At times, Clarke seems to be looking through a crystal ball as he outlines human progress—the future—against a compelling fictional backdrop. Its outrageousness gets our attention immediately, which most likely put its earlier 1950s readers into overload.
Appearance of the Overlords
Well into the 21st century, vast mother ships appear above the earth’s major cities, filling the sky (we learn later that all but one of them are illusions).
Signaling diversity before his time, Clarke depicts an Indian crew commander and a woman astronaut trainee looking up to witness the event: “Mohan watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in overwhelming majesty … the human race was no longer alone.” (Clarke, Arthur C., Childhood’s End, Del Rey Books, Random House, NY, 1953, p. 4)
The novel immediately leaps into the first year of alien occupation, in which the sole earthly liaison between the human race and the invading Overlords is the Secretary General of the United Nations. A true believer in the alien cause, the U.N. has prepared him well.
With most of the human race accepting and docile, resistance begins in small pockets.
Responding to the charge from a high-ranking representative of the Freedom League that “they have taken our Liberty,” the Secretary General replies, “What freedoms have we lost compared with that which the Overlords have given us for the first time in human history” (9).
The Secretary General then summons an age-old argument: “Can you deny that the Overlords have brought security, peace, and prosperity to the world?”
The man from the Freedom League replies: “We have many objections to the Overlords—but above all we detest their secretiveness. You are the only human being who has ever spoken to Karellen [the chief Overlord], and even you have never seen him” (9).
Almost from the start, Clarke has inserted a gnawing issue: The aliens have not shown themselves, and the adults know they will be long dead when the aliens decide to emerge from their vast ships and finally appear. Even the Secretary General “dared to admit that the Overlord’s secretiveness was beginning to obsess him” (21).
The aliens have revealed that due to certain aspects of their physical appearance and its effect on deeply ingrained human beliefs, the human race is not ready to see them. With re-education, their progeny may be ready if certain myths and superstitious beliefs can be removed.
The Overlords finally give a timeline: “In fifty years—two generations from now—we will come down from our ships and humanity will at last see us as we are.” (46)
The head of the Freedom League responds to the timeline, “In fifty years the damage will be done. Those who remembered our independence will be dead; humanity will have forgotten its heritage” (48).
This is a point made by Marxist planners a century back. Capture the minds of two generations, and it will do the job. No one will remember or care, a lesson for America and Europe in 2016.
Indeed, Marxists had long-term plans to abolish, on a vast cultural scale, all traces of belief in God, family, traditional values and other signs of “the capitalist petite bourgeoisie” mentality by using various forms of behavior modification (brainwashing) and “reeducation.”
Even then, the Bolshevik elite determined that there were those who could never be reeducated because of prior indoctrination irreversibly set in their characters. So millions of “resistant” middle class, mostly Christian “bourgeoisie,” were slaughtered in vast pogroms, up to 60 million under Stalin. But even Clarke’s aliens aren’t this drastic.
For what purpose have the Overlords come?
Ostensibly (and we learn the real purpose at the end), to preempt the human tendency to self-destruct as narrow, nationalistic ambitions trump common sense—as terrible weapons are invoked that can end history at the press of a button. Beyond that, to prevent the human race from going into space prematurely and spreading its contagion of consciousness. Ergo, the earth needs supervision since its inhabitants are too primitive to manage scientific innovations they have produced (an insight in the 1956 movie classic The Day The Earth Stood Still).
The iron hand of peace is what the human race requires: “With the arrival of the Overlords, nations knew that they need no longer fear each other … that their existing weapons were certainly impotent against a civilization that could bridge the stars” (19).
As part of the supervision of the planet, its citizens quickly learned to accept surveillance as a necessary evil. But even the prescient Arthur C. Clarke, writing in 1953, did not fully foresee the kinds of surveillance technology that we are seeing in our day—implantable biochips, radio-frequency chips and GPS (global positioning satellite) tracking devices of all sorts. That people would gladly trade their freedoms for security—most people, that is. Here Clarke saw in a glimpse what we are seeing in the docile acceptance of the Patriot Act and other “anti-terror” legislation.
Challenged by the Freedom League that the Overlords were interlopers whose help was never asked for, the U.N. chief cites a litany of improvements and comes to the point: “I can understand your fear that the traditions and cultures of little countries will be overwhelmed when the world state arrives … but even before the Overlords came to earth the sovereign state was dying” (36).
One can see Clarke writing of this inevitability-of-world-government argument in a wink to fellow futurists at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. World Government is an important milestone in Clarke’s projection into the future as it has been with many of his peers, from H.G. Wells (The Open Conspiracy) on.
The supervisor of the Overlords, Karellen, reveals some important points to the U.N. Secretary General on their final day of communication, since the latter was being retired. The era of the Overlords needing a human go-between had ended.
“You have asked me about our long-term plans. The foundation of the World State is, of course, only the first step. You will live to see its completion—but the change will be so imperceptible that few will notice it when it comes. After that there will be a period of slow consolidation while your race becomes prepared for us. And then will come the day which we have promised. I am sorry you will not be there.” (52) The Overlord had lamented their own failures in the far past but left it at that.
The Supervisor of the Overlords uttered a swift and unexpected “Good-bye, Rikki,” foiling the plans of the curious Secretary General, both devotee and friend of the alien, who had smuggled in a device to photograph the alien behind the glass.
Clarke suggests Karellen had long foreseen this: “Why else had the enormous chair been already empty when the circle of light blazed upon it? In the same moment he had started to swing the beam, fearing that he was too late. The metal door, twice as high as a man, was closing swiftly when he first caught sight of it—closing swiftly, yet not quite swiftly enough.” (55)
Keeping this secret of Karellen’s form to himself, years later, the retired Secretary General mulled over the tiny scrap of evidence, asking Karellen in his mind a question of cosmic proportions:
“… and were you the one that failed, before the dawn of human history? … for its echoes roll down all the ages, to haunt the childhood of every race of man. Even in fifty years, could you overcome the power of all myths and legends of the world?”
The last liaison concludes that it would be different this time because, “When the two races met again, the Overlords would have won the trust and friendship of mankind, and not even the shock of recognition could undo that work. They would go together into the future, and the unknown tragedy that must have darkened the past would be lost forever down the dim corridors of prehistoric time. (55)
What the Secretary General had finally suspected and seen in part, the whole earth would finally see in full.
The Shock of Recognition
“This is the day!” whispered the radios in a hundred tongues.
Before a vast crowd, Karellen, chief of the Overlords, who had been overseeing the world since the time of their arrival, calls for two children to come up the gigantic ramp as he waits in the shadows of the hold.
Clarke describes the moment the world has been waiting for:
Karellen came forth into the sunlight. The boy was sitting on his left arm, the girl on his right. They were both too busy playing with Karellen’s wings to take any notice of the watching multitude.
It was a tribute to the Overlords’ psychology, and to their careful years of preparation, that only a few people fainted. …
There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail—all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight still gleaming upon its tremendous body, and with a human child resting trustfully on either arm. (61)
A description of a surprise encounter with an Overlord fills in the picture. Two people, exploring the upstairs sections of a mansion, wander into a private library and bump into an Overlord, speed reading stacks of books on psychic phenomena. The host is having a party downstairs, celebrating his most recent open marriage with a black woman:
Sitting on the floor, the Overlord was already head height with the six-foot man, the ratio of a full-grown man sitting on the floor with a four-year-old standing at the same height. “Rashaverak’s wings were folded so [the man] could not see them clearly, but his tail, looking like a piece of armored pipe, lay neatly curled under him. The famous barb was not so much an arrowhead as a large, flat diamond” (75). Getting up, the massive Overlord had to bend in half under the ceiling, and was at least 11 feet tall.
The chief Overlord, Karellen, shared a key insight with his human liaison about cultural change:
“Fifty years is ample time in which to change a world and its people almost beyond recognition. All that is required for the task are a sound knowledge of social engineering, a clear sight of the intended goal—and power.” (62)
Karellen had earlier lectured the U.N. Secretary General that all political problems can be solved by the correct application of power. And that preferable to an endless array of atomic weapons, all that was necessary was “as much power as a small radio transmitter” (62). For it is the application of the power that matters.
The power of the media in shifting mass opinion illustrates the lesson in the decades since Clarke wrote this novel, providing a revelation of the method, tucked neatly into a fictional work.
Editor’s note: Tal Brooke is the President & Chairman of SCP. A member of the Society of the Cincinnati, he has authored ten books and his work has been recognized in Marquis Who’s Who in the World and Who’s Who in America as well as The International Who’s Who of Authors. He has won three first-place EPA awards in the nationwide contest. A graduate of the University of Virginia and Princeton, Tal Brooke has spoken at Cambridge (8 times), Oxford (4 times), Princeton, Sorbonne, Berkeley, the University of Virginia, and the University of Edinburgh. He was converted in India.
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