In August of 2011, there was an exchange on the ListServ of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA-L Digest, 13.24) among some heavy hitters in the field — Elizabeth Hull, Eric Rabkin, James Gunn — on the tone and meaning of the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel, Childhood's End. The ending is both somber and sublime and a test — perhaps a kind of Rorschach test — of readers' values and worldview.
In the climactic sequence of the novel, the prepubescent children of Earth come together in a mass with each former child showing "no more emotion or feeling here than in the face of a snake or an insect." The controlling aliens in the novel, "The Overlords themselves were more human than this," but the lead Overlord tells the last human, watching with distress Earth's former children, that he is “searching for something that is no longer there. […T]hey have no more identity than the cells in your own body. But linked together, they are something much greater than you" (ch. 23, [Ballantine 1953: 202-03]).
To that last man and to just about any reader, the transition from children to … this is appalling. In their development, the children at first appear savage and then what we would call subhuman: filthy to start with, and then appallingly destructive, sterilizing the world around them, and finally destroying it. They are on their way free from "the tyranny of matter" (ch. 20, p. 183), but this allows a contempt for the body and for nonhuman life: The adults of Earth have been dead for a while, typically in despair at the loss of posterity and their world, typically by suicide in one sense or other (ch. 20, p, 185; ch. 21, p. 188; ch. 23, pp. 208 & passim).
Finally, what has quickly evolved from the children of Earth absorbs into itself the energies of the planet and leaps like a "great burning column" into the "Overmind": an evolved entity beyond matter and energy, combining as many species as It (I'm going to capitalize the "I") can find for further evolution. Finally, the Children are gone, and the Overmind departs: "They had leeched away the last atom of [… Earth's] substance. It had nourished them, though the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs toward the sun" (ch. 24, pp. 216-17).
Where they are going is foreshadowed by the dreams of the first child to begin the metamorphosis as he moves in his subconscious with increasing fearlessness and enthusiasm "into the universe that was opening up before him," including visions of "Sidereous 4 and the Pillars of the Dawn"; as one of the Overlords says, "and there was awe in his voice. 'He has reached the center of the Universe'" — though perhaps just the local universe, our galaxy — "And," adds the head Overlord, "he has barely begun his journey," envying the leap that will destroy the human species but which his species cannot make (ch. 18, pp. 170-80; ch. 20, p. 185).
With no exception I can recall, my students who spoke up on the end of Childhood's End really disliked it. I would cite to them how the Overlords envy humans for being able to evolve beyond individuality and the material world. I'd read Clarke's pulling out all the figurative stops in a crescendo of prose/poetry to describe the children of Earth's fiery apotheosis. And I'd quote the judgment of the last man — a humanist romantic — on what he had seen of the end of his kind: "Yet it was fitting; it has the sublime inevitability of a great work of art" (ch. 24, p. 205).
Nah. They'd have none of it, at least not those who spoke up. Individuality was too high a price even for immortality and participation in a kind of godhead.
So we moved on to Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as novel and film, where another final man, in a sense, retains his individuality but becomes Star-Child (ch. 47), a god-like entity in communication with the other gods (ch. 32, "Concerning E.T.'s"). I pointed out to my students that the ending of Childhood's End, although indecorously flashy, was in a well-established Eastern tradition of becoming nothing to become All, and that 2001 was in the Western tradition of the Superman/Übermensch, as signalled by Kubrick's use of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra — which makes the transcendent theme pretty damn problematic, given the Nazi horrors Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas on supermen either led or got dragged to.
Now I have problems with the whole set of issues involving apotheosis, transcendence, supermen, separable souls, and the Platonic-Christian-puritanical tradition of asceticism and the denigration of the body.* (Ancient Egyptians, Spartans, and others come in here also, but in complex ways, and also some of the far more recent Cyberpunks, who know better.) Still, I admire Clarke for confronting head-on a problem in what we might call humanist-Romantic- secular-scientific SF: all us geeks who think of ourselves as hard-headed but really, really want SF adventure in galaxies far, far away, or at least our local group.
This issue is handled by that head Overlord, Karellen, in what amounts to a press conference addressing the human species under his supervision. "
"There has been some complaint, among the younger and more romantic elements of your population, because outer space has been closed to you. We had a purpose in doing this; we do not impose bans for the pleasure of it. But have you ever stopped to consider—if you will excuse a slightly unflattering analogy—what a man from your Stone Age would have felt, if he suddenly found himself in a modern city?” “Surely,” protested the Herald Tribune, “there is a fundamental difference. We are accustomed to science. On your world there are doubtless many things which we might not understand — but they wouldn’t seem magic to us.” “Are you quite sure of that?” said Karellen, so softly that it was hard to hear his words. “Only a hundred years lies between the age of electricity and the age of steam, but what would a Victorian engineer have made of a television set or an electronic computer. And how long would he have lived if he started to investigate their workings? The gulf between two biologies can easily become so great that it is — lethal.”
[…] “And there are other reasons why we have restricted the human race to Earth. Watch.” The lights dimmed and vanished. As they faded, a milky opalescence formed in the center of the room. It congealed into a whirlpool of stars—a spiral nebula seen from a point far beyond its outermost sun. “No human eyes have ever seen this sight before,” said Karellen’s voice from the darkness. “You are looking at your own Universe, the island galaxy of which your Sun is a member, from a distance of half a million light-years.” There was a long silence. Then Karellen continued, and now his voice held something that was not quite pity and not precisely scorn. “Your race has shown a notable incapacity for dealing with the problems of its own rather small planet. When we arrived, you were on the point of destroying yourselves with the powers that science had rashly given you. Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness. “Now you have a world at peace, and a united race. Soon you will be sufficiently civilized to run your planet without our assistance. Perhaps you could eventually handle the problems of an entire solar system — say fifty moons and planets. But do you really imagine that you could ever cope with this?” The nebula expanded. Now the individual stars were rushing past, appearing and vanishing as swiftly as sparks from a forge. And each of those transient sparks was a sun, with who knew how many circling worlds ... “In this single galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space. In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world. “Your race, in its present stage of evolution, cannot face that stupendous challenge. One of my duties has been to protect you from the powers and forces that lie among the stars — forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine.” The image of the galaxy’s swirling fire-mists faded; light returned to the sudden silence of the great chamber. Karellen turned to go; the audience was over. At the door he paused and looked back upon the hushed crowd. “It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man." (Part II, ch. 14, [Ballantine 1953: 136-37])
One of those "younger and more romantic elements" (with the unRomantic name of "Jan") becomes the Last Man, and he, too, comes to this conclusion, and does it looking at the extinction of humankind and the leap to the stars of the beyond-human children. After noting "the sublime inevitability" in the passing and surpassing of the human species, the last man sees that "[…] the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears."
At the end of one path were the Overlords. They had preserved their individuality, their independent egos; they possessed self-awareness, and the pronoun “I” had a meaning in their language. They had emotions, some at least of which were shared by humanity. But they were trapped, Jan realized now, in a cul-de-sac from which they could never escape. Their minds were ten — perhaps a hundred — times as powerful as men’s. It made no difference in the final reckoning. They were equally helpless, equally overwhelmed by the unimaginable complexity of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million suns, and a cosmos of a hundred thousand million galaxies" (CE ch. 23, p. 205).
And at the end of the other path is either disillusionment or something godlike. In Clarke's mostly capital-G Godless universe, it had to be something that had, highly improbably, evolved.
The usually hard-headed, often hard-science thinker and author Arthur C. Clarke ran into the hard facts of not just the great barrier of the speed of light but, even if that barrier could be broken, the sheer immensity of the universe. And that was the universe of 1953 and 1968, not the increasingly plausible multiverse of the 21st century.
We could joke back in the 1980s about Carl Sagan's pronunciation of "billions and billions of stars" and the line as many of us remember it that "We are made of starstuff." Neil deGrasse Tyson says the same things, with an additional generation of science behind him, and with a better voice. We joked, but these ideas are literally awe-inspiring, at least if one has a working imagination and sense of awe.
That starstuff and "billions and billions of stars" also should be daunting, since Sagan and Tyson can take us through the universe only through the spaceship of the imagination. As places for Romantic exploration, "The stars are not for man." And "no, nor woman neither," as Hamlet added to a somewhat related comment on human beings as "how like a god!" and "this quintessence of dust" (2.2.300-06).
Clarke's mystic leaps are either audacious or cowardly, depending on how you want to look at them, and the ideas are dangerous (and Eric Rabkin did a penetrating brief critique on Childhood's End in the ListServ exchange). Still, they should be kept in mind every time we see a space opera or any variation on the theme of (actual title in 1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Insofar as we take them seriously, Clarke's mystic leaps are a variety of leaps of faith into the absurd. Any idea of human beings "conquering" the universe or the galaxy or even more than a handful of stars: that is what is ever-so-politely called in scientific and scholarly discourse, "counterfactual." Less politely put, galactic spacefaring is fun fantasy I thoroughly enjoy, but also thoroughly Romantic and fantastic bullshit; and in the Flash Gordon/universal conquest vision, parochial — and delusional. Given the suffering and evils of our world, a comfortable Theist is pretty contemptible and possibly dangerous; given the immensity and indifference of the universe, a comfortable atheistic SF fan hasn't thought things through.
"Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke on Immanence, Transcendence, and Massacres." Extrapolation 28 (Summer 1987): 105-29.