Overlords and Freedom

I hope every science fiction fan has the same affection for the classics as I do. The good ones provide a window into what was on the minds of authors of that era. The great ones offer a timeless window into ourselves.

One book that I think does both isĀ Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. After only a few chapters the book has made quite clear the horror many felt in the 1950s toward the recently-concluded war, and the terrifying invention that punctuated the bloodshed: nuclear weapons. Arthur C. Clarke’s contemporaries experienced the Second World War directly and personally. The image of a mushroom cloud was new, alien, the scale of its destructiveness should still boggle the mind. Suddenly, Man had crossed a threshold where one false step could end our species in a flash. Hitler was not just a fresh memory, but a recent experience, and tyrannical communist regimes and revolutions had cut a bloody path through Asia. Under those conditions, such a false step was a credible fear. It must have indeed felt as if humanity’s “childhood” ended with the close of World War II, and a dangerous adolescence had begun.

Childhood’s End begins with the arrival of a seemingly all-powerful race calling themselves the Overlords. From their city-sized flying saucers parked over Earth’s major cities, they govern and guide humanity from this tense post-war period into an age of peace and enlightenment. Religion slowly recedes to be “replaced” by science. Society flourishes thanks to the careful engineering of the Overlords, who issue orders to the world’s governments, with the implication that resistance means instant death.

Right from the beginning, I can tell I am ideologically incompatible with this book.

“All political problems,” says the chief Overlord in the book, “can be solved by the correct application of power.”

I suppose in a way that is true, since government exists on a foundation of force in the first place, but the message is broader than that. The character then explains that humanity had so many political problems because political power was never great enough, and humans lacked the wisdom to apply it wisely.

If his storytelling is indicative of his worldview, Clarke seems to believe that an all-powerful state might solve our problems, if only it was wielded wisely. Libertarians reading this will immediately recognize the circular logic. If men are evil, why give any man arbitrary power in a state? Of course, Clarke gets around that question by making the rulers otherworldly supermen. As for me, I believe that both goodness and evil exist in all human beings. A peaceful world is possible without overlords. Even if it isn’t, an all-powerful dictatorship is certainly not the way to achieve it.

While the Overlords cultivate humanity into a race of empiricists living in seemingly limitless luxury, there is a simultaneous waning of the culture. Imagination comes to a standstill. I find Clarke’s assumption here flawed. Compared to the 1950s, we live today in a world with many of the luxuries then thought of as science fiction. We carry devices that can entertain us in myriad ways, diversions are almost infinite. Yet because of this, culture is flourishing. Certainly there are many who are entertaining themselves with very poor-quality works, but the information age has brought us a world in which new and constantly improving content appears at a breakneck pace, and almost all of it is free. Clarke seems to believe that struggle and hardship drive human creativity, and that technological advancement reduces those inputs to creativity. Creativity may indeed come from struggle and loss, but because we will never be free from scarcity, there will always be something more to strain and strive for.

Contrary to what Clarke believed about humanity, we find that neither peace nor great technological advancement dull our imagination. If anything, it only extends our reach and expands our minds.

All that said, in technical terms it is a masterfully composed science fiction novel. Typical of Clarke, you are tantalized with an intriguing extraterrestrial mystery, with glimpses of the full picture gradually revealed. If you can stomach the worldview, give it a shot. Just know that while Clarke had his finger ever on the pulse of scientific curiosity, he had a lot to learn about the fires of the human spirit.