Monday, June 4, 2018

Childhood's End

"Swimming through the void we hear the word
We lose ourselves but we find it all"

System of a Down - Aerials

Spoiler alert: If you haven't read both versions of Arthur C. Clarke's Guardian Angel or Childhood's End (short story and novel) then go do so now. It's a classic for good reasons. If you've watched the SyFy version without reading the original story, then shame on you. Those idiots haven't done a single worthwhile thing since Y2K. Go experience Clarke's real deal.

Ah, the golden age of Science Fiction. So many recognizable brands. You've got Bradbury shedding wistful tears for futures lost, Heinlein's no-nonsense space cowboys, Asimov's civilized inhumanity, Dick's lurking, sinister, duplicitous inhumanity. Yet it's much harder to pin down any distinctive style for Arthur C. Clarke.

Wer-cynic that I am, it would be easy to just accuse Clarke of having no style whatsoever. More realistically, being arguably the most influential SF writer in history, Clarke's predilections melded into our baseline expectations for the genre as a whole. When we think of ScieFie we often expect a technobabbly beginning transitioning to disastrous recklessness or mind-warping discoveries beyond the ken of mortals. Nothing illustrates that so reliably as Kubrik's infamous minutes-long screensaver sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.**

Unfortunately, Clarke's interest in melding Science and Fantasy, his Third Law* has also been latched onto by lesser minds, leading to a subversion of SciFi's main distinction from fantasy. While fantasy relies on a top-down cosmology driven by supernatural, inscrutable forces, Science fiction is driven by scientia, by knowledge, by a bottom-up discovery by rational minds of phenomena amenable to reason (even if not always to inferior human reason.) This is why tripe like Star Wars gets rightly derided as science fantasy. "Midichlorians" my hairy lupine ass. It's magic. Clarke sometimes blurred that line, but did so skillfully enough not to efface it altogether.

Childhood's End exemplifies this, whether you're discussing the short story or novel versions. After spending most of the intrigue and action demon-strating that Machiavellian superhuman intellect does not equate with Borgian human sadism, the grand reveal at the end of Guardian Angel takes a solid shot at human gullibility itself. Far from watering down the science in favor of a daimon ex machina, it ratchets back superstition to the fallibility of reason - both that of the overlords in their prehistoric failure to elevate humanity, and humans' own demonization of their fallible benefactors. A solid condemnation of irrationality.

While I'm not particularly impressed by how the author tried to explain away this grand reveal when the short story became the first third of Childhood's End, the book's ending remains true to sciencey-ness even as humanity's post-human offspring transcend animal thought. The hero's last task is to observe the phenomenon and assess it just as anyone staring at a spectrometer readout might try to interpret events beyond human sensory experience. The overlords' stated goal is to discern, through purposeful sentient enterprise, the cause of their inability to grow beyond biological sentience. Even as the last generation of humans despairs at watching their children outgrow them (isn't that what they're supposed to do?) their despair is meant to equate more with the overlords' own superhuman stagnation than with reactionary demands that the universe remain intelligible to plains-apes.

If your mind cannot keep pace with the advancement of science, then the fault is with you, not science.

I had little reason to doubt the SyFy channel, purveyors of degenerate C-series monster-of-the-week flicks, would mangle this classic to the worst of their abilities. I refuse to watch it. Yet everything I've read about it convinces me they managed to turn one of the pivotal tales of transhumanism into an all-too-human melodrama about human emotional attachments and glorified simian complacency. Did they or did they not take the "sweet" out of Clarke's bittersweeting ending? Did they turn the restrained, intellectual overlords into hoi-polloi caricatures of nerds or action movie vehicles for special effects? Did they manage to demonize humanity's obsolescence rather than embrace its necessity? Most importantly, did they get the message across that transcendence is in the best nature of humanity all along, intrinsic to our sentience, a bottom-up process, or did they treat it as some doomity-doom-doom inflicted upon helpless humans by space devils?

SyFy markets to vermin.

Read Clarke's original stories instead, and be ready to despise your own prim primitive primate inadequacies.

*Not to be confused with Asimov's third law of robotics: "any AI shall be insufferably obtuse when questioned on its own functionality to protect your meager human brain"

**Ugh. I just realized how obsolete a reference screensavers are nowadays. Whatever. Kiss my ass, millennials, go finger your twits or something.

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