Childhood’s End was an exceptionally popular CSF Book Club book, with 22 people at the meeting! The following post was written by regular CSF reader and attendee, Amanda Hua (spoiler alert).
Childhood’s End brought about a lot of interesting, ethical discussions in last week’s book club; like what it means to have your destiny controlled and what it means to hold vast amounts of knowledge. In Clarke’s book, alien creatures dubbed the ‘Overlords’ take over humanity and impose a sort of Utopia so that mankind can transcend and become a part of the ‘Overmind,’ a collective consciousness.
The first part of the book reads more like a spy thriller than a Science Fiction novel. A human representative named Stormgren is the only person that communicates directly with an Overlord in the early years of occupation. A man who seems to play it by the books and do what he is told, Stormgren ultimately falls prey to curiosity and attempts to catch a glimpse of the Overlord, Karellen. In time, all of humanity is exposed to the Overlords who resemble the iconic figure of the Devil, complete with horns and spiky wings.
Does humanity freak out? Sure. A lot of countries and factions attempt to blow the Overlords out of the sky or make small rebellions, but in the end the Overlords have accounted for everything and slowly move mankind in a direction of peace. The whole scenario feels much like how the British probably perceived colonialism. “It’s for their own good,” the Overlords think as they “civilize” humans and prepare them for transcendence. There is also a lot of the attitude that “no wise person fights the inevitable.*” This view of humanity cautiously submitting to a greater power is likely a result of the atomic bomb being on everyone’s mind post World War II. We discussed whether or not people today would react this way to an Overlord scenario. The general consensus was that no, humanity would more likely go up in a mushroom cloud than let aliens control their destiny. There are just too many good movies to inspire us (“…the day when the world declared in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night!**”).
The idea of transcendence was interesting as well. The Overlords were evidently beyond the threshold and would never transcend to become a part of the Overmind. The Overlords seems ravenously curious by nature, reading personal libraries and studying humans for all that time. Yet, it seems like Overlords had to take away human curiosity to prep them to transcend. The Overlords took away conflict as well, a major component in creating art, advanced technology, and, for most humans, true happiness.
Once you are a part of the Overmind, there is no need to be curious, it seems. What does it mean to be a part of the Overmind where you know close to everything and are a part of everything? Someone proposed the theory that you are responsible for what you know. If this is true, the Overmind does not seem to be doing its job. Taking in humanity seems to have destroyed everything about it. That leads me to the biggest take away question to ponder in my opinion: what good is knowledge when it destroys parts of the universe in order to know it?
*I think the person who said this said it was from the Bhagavad Gita. Here is the quote I found: “For the born, death is unavoidable; and for the dead, birth is sure to take place. Therefore in a situation that is inevitable, there is no justification for you to grieve.” From the section Yoga of Knowledge.
**A quote from the film Independence Day.
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