Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is a fable for our time, an allegory that aligns and comingles our secular and religious traditions and deceptions, our hopes and fears, our illusive dream of utopia and peace, and the darker truths that such peace always comes with a price. The price of utopia is total control, a peace without freedom; a world governed by total awareness and transparency. No where to hide, only total acceptance of superior strength and technology. In this fable alien peace comes at the price of human enslavement without power or change, a sterile peace without honor or dignity only the neoliberal vision of a surveillance world where the masters hold all the keys to the future.
I don’t have time to go over every detail, so will just highlight my impressions of SciFi Channels remake of this classic science fiction novel, which I’ve watched over the past three nights. What struck me most was its adaptation of a secular allegory inclusive of both a posthuman evolution and religious disenchantment bringing with it a modern update of the ancient Gnostic mythos.
The Gnostics of Alexandria were the heirs of both Platonic allegory and Jewish myths and sayings. They developed an exegesis of the Genesis books or scrolls of the ancient biblical texts presenting the God of Genesis as the Evil One incarnate and the Serpent in the Garden as a prefiguration of Christ-as-Savior. So in the SyFy adaptation of Clarke’s famed novel the vision of Kerellen becomes the gnostic vision of the serpent in the garden returning to awaken the children from their sleep in time. But this time there will be no salvation for humanity, for the parents, but only of the children who will become alien, become other, transformed into something godlike and empowered with abilities and dispositions unheard of on planet earth before or since. But as we will see the portrayal of the gnostic mythos in the movie is more of a parody than an enactment of its themes.
In the beginning we are presented with the alien arrival of city size spacecraft that hover over all the major cities of the known world. An alien being, Karellen, Overlord and Supervisor, presents himself as the messenger and benefactor of human kind’s golden age; and is presented not as a strange and unusual personage, but rather as resembling in uncanny detail a creature out of our religious myths and nightmares, the Devil incarnate. Yet, he is not revealed all at once, but rather veils himself using a human messenger and prophet to deliver his good news. Kerellen’s soothing voice and presence disarms both national defense systems and the populace. The aliens have the ability to ground all flight, to disarm those who do violent acts with weapons, bend time or slow it down, etc. Ricky (the Blue-collar prophet) is summoned to meet with the Supervisor on his vessel, and is brought to a memory machine where he is provided a safe haven and a glimpse of his now dead lover. Ricky troubled by her suicide deals with his past and present lover all while listening and arguing with Kerellen over the future of humanity.
But even as the earth is transformed into an enforced paradise under the auspices of the Overlords we discover not is all well, and that many humans are not happy with this enforced peace. A Freedom League is formed by a media Moghul, Wainwright with millions of disgruntled dissidents wanting the aliens to abandon planet earth. In a scene that shows the world beyond doubt the power of the aliens to quell all forms of violence we see Rick, the golden-boy prophet kidnapped by Wainwright’s organization and taken into a deep underground enclave where he is offered a chance to renounce Kerellen and join them. Instead he refuses and is summarily to be executed on world-wide television. But just as the hired assassins shoot to kill the aliens step in and stop time and motion in this area allowing the world to see Kerellen’s power over violence. Ricky escapes and is returned to his home.
I want go over each episode here. One can see it on SyFy.com. What did interest me was its incorporation of two facets of a secular allegory: the religious disenchantment conveyed throughout the series as it provided the clichéd secular liberal stance against religion, and especially Christianity; and, at the same time of the posthuman evolution of humanity into some form of inhuman metamorphosis or transcendence. Several stories, families, and sequences of events and struggles is portrayed over the three-part series. Around the religious theme of disenchantment is the character of Paretta, a young woman whose mother committed suicide after losing her faith when the aliens arrived instead of God. The story surrounding Paretta is one of a slow progress from faith to despair as if the writers had purposely chose to use this character to portray the secular liberal vision of Enlightenment disenchantment into atheistic despair. (I’ll leave it there, and come back at some time and expand on this.)
The second theme of the posthuman transformation takes us into the Gnostic mythos. The Overlords homeworld is the site of – shall we say, God or Overmind? One of the side stories is the slow decay and actual closing off of scientific, cultural, artistic, and other forms of curiosity and inquiry. Two realms are created on the planet, the realm of cities where humans can still be creative and enjoy all the old ways – freezones outside the control of the aliens. But with a price, in this freezones the aliens provide no assistance, no medical cures, no help whatsoever. While in the areas controlled by the aliens humans are without disease, hunger, strife, etc. The typical clichéd allegory of 19th Century utopian bliss, etc. A throwback to agrarian golden ages. But to cut to the chase nothing really matters where you live for the truth is simple: humans as a species, and earth as its home are in their last stages of existence. Humans will go the way of dinosaurs, extinct. So the aliens as part of the Overminds grand plan are going under a unique and singular transformation in their evolution, and the children they are giving birth to in this last generation will become their bright successors becoming other or more-than-human. Ultimately after the Overlord has saved the remnants of every other species providing an arc or safety net on their Homeworld where a menagerie is being constructed to house all insect and animal, plant and other forms of life, only humans will vanish, go extinct along with their planet, earth.
We learn that the Overlords are carrying out the plan of what they call the Overmind, and that they have done this over and over on many planets before earth. The Overlords who look like devils are both impersonal and without unique personalities, as if they represented the ancient Archons – or star powers of the ancient gnositcs. And the Overmind reminds one not so much of God as it does the demiurge, a blind and almost artificial intelligence that seems to carry out its initiatives in an impersonal and inhuman form that lacks all meaning and context. One of the side character, the “boy genius” Milo Rodricks, who throughout the series represents scientific and creative curiosity finds a way through his girlfriend to go to the aliens homeworld and is offered a linkage to the Overmind. He seems to realize that the Overmind is more a machine than some God out of mythology. Even the alien archons tell him that they are mere servants of this impersonal power, that they long ago had run the gamut of their own evolution and come to the end of their own abilities to advance further on the evolutionary scale. They know they are but minor servants and bit players in a cosmic scheme they neither control nor even benefit from in any significant manner. In fact they envy the children that are our successors. For it is the children of these last humans that will evolve into something greater than anything the universe has ever known or might they tell Milo. This plays into the whole transcendence theme that has been with us for millennia, so that the Platonic tradition with its roots in Shamanism; along with the Jewish Christian motif of end times and human transformation play out in our posthuman ideologies and mythologies of gnostic metamorphosis.
Ultimately its a fable about the extinction of earth and humanity, a tale about ends and beginnings; about the death of one species and the rise of its successor, about the truth of life in the universe as presented in the neoliberal secular vision of cosmic horror. The Overlords are that force beyond human control, the inhuman truth of power that does not need us, and seeks nothing but to attain its own goals whether we are a part of those goals are not. A power that will lie and manipulate to secure its own mission. It’s about humans will-to-believe in something greater, and the despair when those beliefs are stripped of their poetry and mythic significance and reduced to the bare truth of pure unjustified power.
The Overlords like the archons or daemons of ancient gnosticsm are that impersonal force of things that is neutral and without or beyond moral persuasion or dictate. They are the carriers only of the necessity of the Overmind’s (Demiurges) plan, the messengers and enforces of the dictates of the blind algorithms running the system of the world, time and space. Yet, unlike Gnosticism there is no ultimate revelation, no contact with the alien one outside time and space; only the confrontation with the machinic Overmind that is at once impersonal and oblivious to our human struggles, wants, and needs; our feelings, and our secret desires. The Overlords and the Overmind are the pure truth of Necessity in all its deadly imposture without mercy or justice, just the goal of its own impenetrable plan.
At the end of the movie the children of earth who have been born during this stage of the plan have awakened to certain powers and dispositions toward one specific young girl, Jennifer. She seems to be not a savior figure, but more of a first-born of the next stage in our evolution. She is the manifestation of some aspect of the Overmind become incarnate, but unlike the messiah figure of Jesus or Buddha she does not come baring a message for the parents. Her message is for the other children alone. Communication among these young ones is total and telepathic, without boundaries of space or time. She seems to draw her power directly from the earth toward the end which ultimately transforms her into something else even as earth is destroyed. It’s as if she were the Gnostic Sophia incarnated to weave a new path forward. Of course in the old myths of gnostics Sophia was the mother and bride of the Demiurge. In this instance the Overmind. Even as the earth is dying the last human, Riki descends to earth to witness and communicate to the Overlords what he sees and feels. He leaves one last request, that something be saved out of all that humanity once was. The Overlords save a symphony (? need to discover this score?) which they leave in the vastation left after earth explodes and Jennifer is transformed beyond. The Overlord Kelleren tells his subordinate: “Leave the music as a reminder to those who may come across this emptiness.”
That’s all I have time for now… I’ll need to come back, polish this up, add in more details and observations at some future time.