The Last Man Standing

Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the finest minds of our times, has warned that should we ever be visited by an alien civilization, its outcome would be very like that of the one that came out of Christopher Columbus rediscovering America.

History isn’t reassuring. It was a harbinger of doom for the Indians.

Those whose sole guide to science-fiction have been Hollywood blockbusters, would predictably, see in this pronouncement, visions of hulking, spindly-legged, acid-dripping, creatures, lumbering down mountain flanks, and terrorizing and pulverizing everything in their path: a violent extermination of humankind.

Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” is way different.

Childhood's End

It doesn’t take an uncharitable view of extraterrestrial life-forms—as attackers and plunderers. Yet, looked at from a conventional angle, it’s a soul-shudderingly dystopic tale—one with an aseptic newness about it.

It’s frightening and entrancingly profound in equal measure, provoking a pathos-tinted contemplation about our role in the story of the universe.

The novel opens with what can best be described, rather contradictorily, as a benign invasion. In the thick of the Cold War, at the very moment the Americans and Russians are locked in a neck-and-neck competition to launch a rocket into space, each camp realizes with a sad resignation that it has effectively lost the race—by several millennia.

A rent in the horizon splits open and an imposing fleet of silent, silver spaceships appears in the sky, coming to rest about 30 miles above New York, London, Paris, Rome, Canberra, Tokyo, and other capitals.

Moviegoers would remember the celluloid version of this majestic sight from “Independence Day” (1996): it’s ripped off from a section of this volume, published in 1953.

The book, in its entirety, however, hasn’t yet been made into a movie, perhaps because it doesn’t readily lend itself to seat-gripping drama.

Without toppling a skyscraper, inflaming a car, killing anyone, and no mayhem, this species solidly establishes itself as our cosmic ruler. In no time, at all, the Overlords, as they’re known, have Earth in the hollow of their palm, so to speak and begin to run the Byzantine affairs of the planet with perplexing ease.

The slim, 230-odd-page journey kicks off with a dazzling panorama, rendering you awestruck, and then, gently eases you into a somber, cerebral frame of mind, before hurtling you, again, into a dizzying philosophical vortex, from which you come out, altogether stunned into silence.

The noiseless arrival of these superlunary beings ushers in an era of unanticipated peace, prosperity, and Elysian comfort. Food is suddenly aplenty—and free. Unsolvable crimes are nearly non-existent. Political strife is swept away into the dustbin of history. National borders are erased. Armies are abolished.

Their administration, though largely remote, and imperceptible, creates the very utopian world, as envisioned by John Lennon in his ageless song, “Imagine.” But why are they here? It’s a secret they won’t share.

Clarke dissects the effects of the Overlord policies with a Plato-esque gravitas.

If they brought justice, harmony, and security, they also threw out of kilter vital aspects of human progress. In the glow of the age of pure reason, “humanity had lost its ancient gods: now it was old enough to have no need for new ones.”

Ironically, that didn’t do any good to scientific research. “There were plenty of technologists, but few original workers extending the frontiers of human knowledge … It seemed futile to spend a lifetime searching for secrets that the Overlords had probably uncovered ages before.”

The end of all forms of conflict meant the end of all creative art as well. “There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation.”

Yet, measured in terms of happiness, “It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn.”

While men and women enjoyed themselves in the vast playground that the world had become, engaged in either watching TV or an adventure sport, their children, unbeknownst to them, undergo a speedy metamorphosis, a “transformation of the mind, not of the body.”

The nippers, as the title, “Childhood’s End,” might suggest, were slowly giving up their toys and playing with the Moon’s axis and altering it.

As we wade deeper, Clarke writes like a seer, with a degree in astronomy. In pockets, he details the concept of time dilation; the Overlords’ home; a celestial region, inhabited by exist two-dimensional intelligence, but flowing through the plot’s subsoil is a spiritual thread.

When, at last, the Overlords disclose their mission, it’s clear that they didn’t travel 40 light-years to conquer.

An Overlord explains:

Probably, like most men, you have regarded us as your masters. That is not true. We have never been more than guardians, doing a duty imposed on us from—above. That duty is hard to define: perhaps you can best think of us as midwives attending a difficult birth. We are helping to bring something new and wonderful into being.

They save us from perishing in a “radioactive wilderness” so that we can fulfill a higher destiny of merger with what Clarke calls the “Overmind,” which paradoxically, entails the extinction of Homo sapiens and the obliteration of our planet.

A complex notion to grapple with, but anyone with some knowledge of Eastern mysticism would hear, in it, echoes of ancient Vedic scriptures. The end, isn’t the end, really; a mere stepping stone to something greater.


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