Childhood’s End

The titular book, by Arthur C. Clarke, is a very good book; it’s considered a classic of the genre, by one of the great early authors of the first days of science fiction, and it has stood the test of time remarkably well. Before I go any farther, let me warn you I’m about to spoil a good deal of it, so if you haven’t read it already, go do so now.

Done, or at least prepared? Okay.

One of the central conceits of the book is the existence of an alien race called “Overlords”, a title that turns out to be quite ironic. At a glance, the Overlords are the ideal of transhumanist sentiment: they are apparently immortal, astoundingly intelligent, and generally better than humans in every meaningful way that was widely conceivable when the book was written. They can’t stand Earth’s bright sun, and seem weirdly unwilling to alter themselves physically to change that fact, and there’s hardly a mention of computers, but that’s about the grand total of their weaknesses for most of the book. One must keep in mind that this was published in 1953, some 14 years before the world’s first successful heart transplant and only 17 years after Turing proposed his famous Turing Machine. Clarke was astoundingly ahead of his time in his predictions of Posthumans of any degree.

Even today, the change the Overlords wreak on humanity are familiar staples of utopian visions, and even show some remarkable parallels with the real world’s present. While we may not have brought in an age of no more war and crime, we do regularly converse with people across the globe and enjoy entertainment more interactive than anything imagined at the time of publication.

Now come the big spoilers, last warning!

The Overlords are presented in a tragic light, always shepherding other races to something they can never have: a kind of psychic ascension into a superorganism called the “Overmind” to which individual humans are as cells in a human body. Now, this may seem at first glance as a total non-sequitur, but the book actually does a good job of foreshadowing this while still keeping it an unexpected twist.

In a way, this part of the story is almost a meditation on the human inability to predict the future – no one sees the Ascension coming except the inscrutable Overlords, and yet it seems quite inevitable in retrospect, once you know the whole story. Real history is full of similar events, where everyone was taken by surprise by something later obvious as an inevitability. A truism of predicting the future is that something unexpected is going to happen; it always does.

It’s a poignant lesson, but that’s not what really got to me about the book. What really got to me is that everything that’s not Ascension gets depicted as a dead end, a tragic failure. After the human children depart and ascend, we’re meant to believe that most adult humans just give up and commit suicide. Of those that survive, they’re all desperately unhappy, with extreme risk-taking behavior, and not a single one of them tries to have another child and find out if the human race might be able to continue after all. The species bows to extinction with a whimper. The Overlords, demonstrably immortal or at least exceedingly long-lived, are not asked to look into helping the remaining humans survive, nor do they offer to do so.

If all of those children left and ascended, then all of humanity might as well throw it’s hands into the air and wait to die, it seems. And the Overlords – well, they’ll never even have ascending children. Despite all appearances that the Overlords live happy, fulfilling lives in a basically perfect society, they’re presented as deeply tragic figures. They control the entire galaxy, at least under the Overmind, they study life from all across the stars, they have technology humans can’t even fathom. But none of that matters at all, compared to the one thing they can’t have, Ascension.

The Overlords and remaining humans don’t, and it seems can’t, appreciate what they have, because they’d rather have something out of reach. And to me, that is a real tragedy. I see it in the real world all the time – people so busy lusting for the stars that they can’t be happy. To strive is good, very good, but don’t lose sight of the wonders that already surround you. Find a balance, so that you can enjoy the journey even while looking forward to the destination, and you’ll have taken control of your own mindset as a transhumanist should.

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