Childhood’s End, the book and the miniseries

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel CHILDHOOD’S END was still a big-name SF novel when I read it in the early 1970s — the kind that stands out for being about big, cosmic ideas. After watching the SyFy miniseries for Alien Visitors, I figured I’d reread the book for comparison.

The book opens in the 1970s, as a rocket expert contemplates how close we’re coming to putting a man into space. Clark reminds us in the intro that this was published four years before Sputnik launched and nobody imagined we’d have a man in space by 1961. Then spaceships descend into Earth’s atmosphere and the scientist realizes his dreams are dead: alien first contact makes all our efforts to develop space flight obsolete.

Working through the UN, the Overlord Karellen (the most fun character in the book, with a pronounced sense of humor) eliminates hunger, disease and want, stops wars and smoothly takes over administration of all the world’s nations. Nation states fade away; crime dies out, as everyone’s needs are now met. The small resistance movement against the Overlords goes down easily. Earth enters into a golden age of peace and plenty, but with a lotus-eating quality to it. Lots of amateur scientists but nobody doing groundbreaking research (I wonder if Raymond Jones’ “The Unlearned” was a counter-argument to this book); lots of amateur artists but nobody with the drive to create great works. Jan, a black scientist, contrives to visit the Overlord home planet and makes the depressing discovery that space is too overwhelming, too vast for human beings. We have no place there.

Finally we learn the real reason the Overlords came. The next generation of human children are born psionic, developing a hive mind like The Midwich Cuckoos. They ultimately destroy the Earth — Jan, the last normal human, stays to record events for the Overlords — and move on, ultimately to join the Overmind. This is the cosmic intellect that commands the Overlords; it has uplifted countless races this way and brought them into its greater hive mind. Humanity is dead and our offspring have gone far beyond us. It is truly … childhood’s end.

All I remembered of the book from first reading was the fate of humanity and the shock when Karellen reveals himself: Overlords look like Satan so they hold back from the big reveal until their control is secure. I can see why that’s all that stuck with me. This is primarily a setting story, a look at the last years of Earth. There are few standout characters — Karellan, Jan and Stormgren, the UN Secretary General who serves as central character for the first part (most of his scenes are quite engaging). There’s no real plot or conflict; everything’s very sedate. And there’s way too much exposition about how the Overlords run Earth, the nature of the Overmind, Jan’s trip into space (we don’t see it, we get it recapped later).

The exposition also skims over a lot of stuff that’s worth telling. At the time, maybe it was plausible that if something like this happened, nations wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; I’ve read other stories from that era that assumed the UN was just the first step to some sort of United Earth. As Fred Clark points out writing about the Left Behind books (which assume the UN Secretary General has some kind of dictatorial power), people don’t let go of their old ways that easily. Karellen does discuss his methods for dealing with resistance at one point; showing that in action would have helped.

The age of the book shows in some of its politics too. Karellen describes himself as a benevolent colonial administrator, something that probably sounded acceptable back when the British Empire was still a going concern. Not so much today. At one point Clarke mentions that with racial hatred faded (another hand-wave I’m unconvinced by), people casually use the n-word for blacks without any racial intent. I presume Clarke meant this as an unsettling demonstration how different this future is but I’d rather he just didn’t say it.

The 2015 SyFy Channel miniseries makes a variety of changes. Stormgren (Mike Vogel) is now a Midwestern farmer, picked as alien envoy for no discernible reason (I’m guessing it’s because so many right-wingers think the UN is some kind of global tyranny — though I don’t know they’d be watching this anyway). Karellan is much more humorless, and doesn’t look that Satanic to me (in fairness, trying to make him plausible and Satanic is a challenge — it was much easier when my imagination did the work).

There’s a lot of added material, such as a subplot in which Stormgren and his wife learn Karellen sterilized them so their hearts wouldn’t be broken by what’s going to happen to the children. I could have done without it.

Overall, it was a solid adaptation, but it suffers from some of the same flaws as the book — the takeover’s just too easy, presumably the reason for the added drama. A bigger problem is that this just isn’t as fresh as it was in 1953 — 2001 covered some of the same themes, for instance.

Still, I’ll give SyFy credit for bringing a major classic of the genre to the screen.

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