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BioSci Fi: Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953

About a year ago, this blog started a series on “bioscience” fiction:  series  intro.  That series has, thus far, comprised one post, on Robert Heinlein’s short story, Jerry Was a Man (here).  There has been no second.  Until now.

One night earlier this month I just couldn’t face the philosophy book I was trying to use as bedtime reading and wandered over to my science fiction bookcase for something lighter.  My eye fell on Childhood’s End.  My Ballantine Book’s paperback copy (which cost me 75 big cents at the time) is from the 15th printing, in 1970.  I probably hadn’t read the book since then, but I’ve remembered it warmly – really interesting plot and one great line.  Forty-some years later – and 60 years after it was first published – it stands up well, although not entirely as I remember it.

The basic story line is simple.  Its prologue is set around the late 1970s ­– we only know that it is more than 30 years after 1945.  Two former Nazi rocket men from Peenemunde are leading fiercely competitive U.S. and Soviet efforts for manned spaceflight.  (Note that for something written in 1953, this is a pretty good prediction, although not perfect – not just the slight timing error, but his moon rockets are nuclear powered.)  It is only weeks before the Soviets and the Americans are about to launch ships to the Moon.  Suddenly giant alien ships appear over all the main cities of the world.  Soon, the mysterious “Overlords” are in control of the world, working indirectly, and without ever been seen, through the United Nations.  Their overwhelming powers and their apparent altruism prevent any effective opposition.  Fifty-five years later (roughly 2035) the Overlords reveal themselves, with a surprise I won’t spoil.  Sometime unclear time later – not earlier than about 15 years and probably about 40 – all human children begin a mysterious change that transforms them, ultimately, into a single non-corporeal mental creature, which leaves Earth to join the galactic “Overmind.”

Unlike Jerry Was a Man, Childhood’s End does not revolve around biology. I would say that, if anything, it focuses more on the psychology, anthropology, and sociology of its imagined human/alien contact.  I want to discuss four things about this novel:  the world Clarke predicts, the cultural and psychological changes he sees as a result, his focus on a now discredited aspect of bioscience, and a deeply biological (though unrealistic) underlying analogy.

Predictions – The Society

One interesting biological point – like most science fiction authors of the era, Clarke grossly underestimates likely human population size.  He puts it, in about 1985, at about 2.5 billion, roughly what it was after World War II and actually about 200 million below what it was when he wrote in 1953.  The world population in 1985 was actually about 4.85 billion – and today it is nearly 7.2 billion.  The population explosion apparently wasn’t popularly expected, perhaps because the Depression and wars of the previous 20 years had repressed population growth.

This small population was, in his time line, probably too early to have been a result of the one clearly bioscience prediction he made, described in the world more than fifty years later:

In particular, the pattern of sexual mores – insofar as there had ever been one pattern –had altered radically. It had been virtually shattered by two inventions, which were, ironically enough, of purely human invention, owing nothing to the Overlords.

The first was a completely reliable oral contraceptive: the second was an equally infallible method – as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very detailed analysis of the blood – of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions on human society could only be described as devastating, and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration.

What else did he foresee?

It was One World.  The old names of the old countries were still used, but they were no more than convenient post divisions. There was no one on Earth who could no speak English, who could not read, who was not within range of a television set, who could not visit the other side of the planet within 24 hours.

Crime had almost vanished.  Education had become a more spread out and varied endeavor.  If people chose to work, they did so for luxuries.  Sports and entertainment took up much time and attention.  (At least that part sounds familiar!)

Nearly a quarter of the human race’s total activity, it had been calculated, was expended on sports of various kinds, ranging from such sedentary occupations as chess to lethal pursuits such as ski-gliding across mountain valleys.  One unexpected result of this was the extinction of the professional sportsman.  There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.

Next to sport, entertainment, in all its branches, was the greatest single industry.

One character, speaking perhaps fifteen years later, says

“Do you realize that every day something like 500 hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! . . . Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day?”

That is such a huge understatement that it sounds like Dr Evil’s plan to extort “one million dollars!”  Average viewing time in the U.S. is now estimated at just under five hours a day for every person over two years of age. And I can’t begin to count the hours of television programming alone that are available at my house on cable, even before thinking about the Internet.  All this without peace, prosperity, and 20 hour a week jobs!

On the other hand, as to the content of the entertainment, Clarke says “it was safe to say that most of 2050’s would have seemed incomprehensibly high brow to 1950.”  Granted, we still have over 35 years to 2050, but this part of his entertainment prediction does not seem to be on course. See, e.g., Hoarders.

Two other missed predictions.  Like his peers, Clarke displays no inkling of the coming computer revolution, though he does foresee an age of universal rapid mobility based on personal air cars – alas, still far off.

Predictions – The Culture

More interesting than the details of this society is his discussion of the cultural – and psychological – changes the Overlord’s rule had brought to human society.

“Profounder things had also passed. It was a completely secular age. . . [O]nly a form of purified Buddhist – perhaps the most austere of all religions – survived.” And, “[t]hough few realized it as yet, the fall of religion had been paralleled by a decline in science. . . . It seemed futile to spend a lifetime searching for secrets the Overlords had probably uncovered ages before.”

Humans are (largely) happy with the peace and prosperity the Overlords brought, but in some respects profoundly demoralized.

“They felt, with good reason, much like a cultured Indian of the nineteenth century must have done as he contemplated the British Raj. The invaders had brought peace and prosperity to Earth – but who knew what the cost might be? History was not reassuring: even the most peaceable contacts between races of very different cultural levels had often resulted in the obliteration of the more backward society. Nations, as well as individuals, could lose their spirit when confronted by a challenge they could not meet.”

Clarke comes back to the British Raj, which had ended just a handful of years earlier.  He has one of the Overlords describe their mission by reference to it.

“[P]erhaps a better analogy can be found in the history of your colonial powers. The Roman and British Empires, for that reason, have always been of considerable interest to us. The case of India is particularly instructive. The main difference between us and the British in India is that they had no real motives for going there – no conscious objectives, that is, except such trivial and temporary ones as trade or hostility to other European powers.  They found themselves possessors of an empire before they knew what to do with it, and were never really happy until they had gotten rid of it again.”

The leading Overlord, Karellen, makes one other oblique comparison to the Raj:   “I wish people would stop thinking of me as a dictator, and remember I’m only a civil servant trying to administer a colonial policy in whose shaping I had no hand.”[1]

The Bioscience Path That Failed

Parapsychology and other forms of mysticism play a key role in Childhood’s End.  Two crucial plot twists turn on a séance with a mechanically improved Ouija board   And eventually the Overlords reveal that the timing of their arrival on Earth was not driven by human’s increasingly self-destructive armaments or their incipient space travel, but instead by their research into the paranormal, research that might ultimately harm the “Overmind.”

Yet Clarke, like his contemporaries Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, wrote science fiction that was “hard,” not fantastic. They strove to make their plots and their worlds scientifically plausible.  (At least Heinlein and Clarke also wrote some out and out fantasies, but separately from their science fiction.)   Yet Clarke and Heinlein both wrote about various paranormal powers, sometimes in fantasies but sometimes in otherwise “hard” science fiction. Why would “hard” scifi writers take such nonsense seriously?

I think because, hard as it is for us to imagine, there was legitimate scientific interest in parapsychology in those days.  In particular, the parapsychology laboratory of Dr. J.B. Rhine at Duke was widely viewed as having done serious research in the 1930s and 1940s on “extra-sensory perception,” showing that some people might really have paranormal powers. It was extremely speculative science, but not yet clearly “non-science,” let alone “anti-science.”

The Deep Biological Analogy

The core of the book, though, revolves around what is either a speciation event or a species-wide metamorphosis.  By a process akin to contagion from a young man’s “first contact” with the Overmind, all the world’s children exhibit psychic powers and withdraw totally from the adult world – eventually geographically, with the Overlords’ help, by isolation on a cleared continent.

Is this like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, a tadpole a frog, but simultaneously by all individuals (at least, all young individuals) in a species? Or is it better seen as a saltational evolutionary “jump”, as one species gives birth to a new one?  Neither approach has any great real biological analogies.  Maybe the least bad analogy is the near simultaneous emergence and transformation of North American cicadas.  After living, in some cohorts, for seventeen years as nymphs sucking the roots of plants, billions of cicadas crawl to the surface, become transformed into flying insects, and fly away (at least temporarily) from their earthy homes to mate, and to die. But the cicadas start the cycle over again; their matings lead to eggs that lead to nymphs that lead to flying insects that lead to eggs, in saecula saeculorum.  The new species born from humanity does not return.

Karellen, the Overlord leader, talks of what happens not as evolution but as a transformation:

“All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic – instantaneous. . . As to the nature of the change, we can tell you very little.”

Whatever it is, is not very akin to biological evolution.  Among other things, once the speciation event has started, the older species becomes a “zombie species” – not yet dead, but not truly living, a species that has no possibility of continuation, as it can no longer have children . . . its children all become the new species.[2] Is this more like a cultural “phase change” – like an immediate change from ice to water but from hunter-gatherers to farmers or from one culture to another?

Maybe a closer comparison is to indigenous cultures with far less power than that of India, cultures that, on meeting a more powerful intruder, not only became culturally demoralized – by not only the apparent obsolescence of their old ways, but also the conquering Europeans’ alcohol – but also literally had their children taken from them, not only culturally but sometimes physically through their removal to European-style boarding schools. I suspect Clarke did not intend Childhood’s End to be a version of the tragic effects of European contact on some American, Australian, and other indigenous peoples, but it may provide a more generalized version of their pain.

From another perspective, though,  humans are not really the subjects of this book’s tragedy. The Overlords are. And, personally, I think the most sympathetic, and saddest, character in the book is not a human, but the Overlord, Karellen.

A Few Closing Thoughts

My edition has an autobiographical afterword written by Clarke and dated November 1966. I find two things particularly interesting in it. I had known that Clarke had eventually moved to Sri Lanka – at the time of his move, still Ceylon (and no longer Serendip).  In spite of the interest shown in the book toward India and Buddhism in the few references I have quoted, he apparently did not visit the island until after 1955, several years after he wrote the book.

And when he did move there, he did so with “my partner Mike Wilson,” mentioning him several times in ways that, though not blatant, seem clearly to indicate that the relationship was one that was very far from acceptable in 1966.  I had not known that Arthur C. Clarke – author, scientist, and inventor of the geosynchronous communications satellite – had also been, in a way, a gay pioneer.  I can guarantee I did not notice that when I first read the book around 1970.  I did not even have the vocabulary to understand the term.

Oh, and the book’s great line?  He ends a chapter with “And the island rose to meet the dawn.”  I had remembered it as coming at the end of the book (and the end of many other things) and as referring to the departure from Earth of our incorporeal successor species, but, in fact, it comes earlier and, I think, much more sadly – but not less powerfully.

But on re-reading the book, not as a teenaged student but as an aging adult, with 22- and 25-year old children, a different line struck me more powerfully.  The father of the two children to make “first contact” with the Overmind says to one of the Overlords, just as the contact is beginning:

“’I’ve only one more question,’ he said.  ‘What shall we do about our children?’

‘Enjoy them while you may,’ answered Rashaverak gently.  ‘They will not be yours for long.’

It was advice that might have been given to any parent in any age . . . .”

Indeed.

Childhood’s End.

In one last irony, awfully good advice to come from a childless man.

If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it recently, re-read it.  It’s worth it.

Hank Greely


[1] Clarke makes at least one other British-centered prediction.  Late in the story a character talks of a project costing billions of British “decimal pounds.”  He foresaw the end of 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound over a decade before the change was adopted.

[2] Real “zombie species” can and do exist; species with living individuals but, say, none of reproductive age or without both sexes. The last passenger pigeon, the last thylacine, the last of any sexually reproducing species is always part of (all of) such a zombie species.

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