Did you see part one of Childhood’s End last night on the SyFy channel? It was, of course, as I had long hoped, the first of a three-part adaptation of the greatest science-fiction novel ever written in English, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953).
“Greatest” in the sense of being the most awe-inspiring in scope. Truly. When I first read Clarke’s novel in the 1980s, I had no idea what I was in for; and to think that a man could deal so fully and so richly with so many complex ideas back in the narrow, constrained, politically-tense years of 1952 and 1953 just blows my mind. While I am aware of the history of science-fiction before and after Clarke, I would still say that the seeds of almost every great idea in the genre since–from space opera to feminism to cyberpunk–may be found in this novel.
The apocalypse has never been handled so deftly as in this book. Human fears and human courage have all been described to a tee; the Overlords’ purpose and their role in the cosmos make perfect sense, despite the vastness of the destiny they have come to help humans fulfill. To read Clarke’s novel is perhaps to feel smaller and less significant as a person, but it is also to feel less provincial, less petty, and more rounded in one’s perspectives about life. A man or woman of any age, reading it for the first time, will truly understand–truly–that our time on this planet is limited; that our possession of it is only a kind of borrowing; and that our impact upon the Earth is no more than one half of one drop of water in the dark ocean around us.
That message was too much for millions to hear in Clarke’s novel, and it will be too much for millions of real people to hear even today; but those who can grasp the message will have become genuine adults, fully conscious of their own abilities and strengths, and no longer willing to hide behind whatever form of therapy or religion or bottled life they have previously used to get them through their days. They will, as a result, become bolder, kinder, and more free than they were, and more willing to see the act of living as the splendid experience it is meant to be.
Whether the truncated TV series can convey the full texture of Clarke’s novel over the next two nights I do not know. Even the “easy” part–the Overlords’ arrival and their swift ending of all human warfare, resource-hoarding, and excuse-making–last night was treated in the shorthand fashion which is the necessary style of television storytelling. Yet, the frame of the story is there; the special effects were good; the choice of Charles Dance as Karellen, leader of the Overloads, was spot-on; and I have hope that something of the fullness and the grandeur of Clarke’s ideas can be conveyed before the series wraps up on Wednesday. At the very least, I hope the series will send people to Childhood’s End itself. Given the thousands upon thousands of books we have written and call wise that reveal all of our whining complaints, our selfish desires, and our squalid nightmares, there remain very few books written by and for mature, thoughtful adults that actually are wise. This is one of them.