Saving Humans From Themselves

Why the Overlords kill science in Childhood’s End.

Syfy’s Childhood’s End.

Photo by Ben King/Syfy

This article contains spoilers about the miniseries Childhood’s End.

“The stars are not for man,” says Karellen, the ambassador for the alien overlords that descend upon Earth in Syfy’s remake of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, a miniseries that starts Dec. 14. With that simple declaration, a door slams on humanity. Behind that door lie galaxies, stars, and planets forever roped off from prospective human visitors. The Overlords’ presence also eliminates scientific inquiry, a pursuit that has defined humanity since hominins became bipedal. It’s a strange message for a work of science fiction to send, but ultimately, destroying science serves two purposes: It ensures that Homo sapiens will survive long enough for the Overlords to enact their grand plan, and it ensures that humanity will lose a fundamental aspect of its identity, which makes them evolutionarily malleable.

Like gentle but firm parents, the Overlords steer humanity away from pitfalls. Their quiet show of power—their ships hovering over Earth’s major cities, their eclipse of the sun, their flicking away a missile as though it were a mosquito—is enough to usher in a golden age. Within months, war, disease, and starvation no longer exist. The Overlords end the energy crisis and climate change. Even after they solve the world’s problems, including the possibility that humans will self-destruct, the Overlords maintain their moratorium on science. Humans can fiddle around with plants, animals, and telescopes, but only for fun. Perhaps there’s no real need for the hard sciences, but what’s the harm? The humans can’t match the Overlords, so scientific inquiry can’t produce a threat.

The Overlords’ superior knowledge is one reason for the end of science—pursuing something the Overlords have already figured out seems pointless. Given that the Overlords fix all problems, it seems understandable that humans, who now have an excess of leisure time, let science fall into obsolescence. But the real reason the Overlords end scientific inquiry is the same reason they come to Earth in the first place: Humankind is “on the verge of discovering interstellar travel.”

Prohibiting space research allows the Overlords to guard their secrets; even after they reveal their appearance (which takes 15 years in the miniseries and 50 in the book), they don’t answer any questions about their origin or agenda. They rely on the death of science to ensure that no one will uncover the answers. The Overlords understand the relationship between scientific inquiry and curiosity, and extinguishing one snuffs out the other. “[S]cientific curiosity has led [humans] dangerously close to forces [they] can never control,” says Karellen. “They would have destroyed you.” The Overlords customarily deal in such vagaries because no one can demand answers. That’s where the irrepressibly curious character comes in—Milo Rodricks (based on the novel’s Jan Rodricks), who remains in the “Dodo profession of astrophysics.” Milo becomes determined to learn about the Overlords and their home world when they outlaw space research, even though he admits the Overlords may have legitimate reasons “for keeping [humans] in the nursery.” Earth is at once a prison and a nursery; while imprisonment seems permanent, the word nursery suggests the opposite. Perhaps if humans can learn and evolve, they can break from the prison and roam the cosmos. The question is what, exactly, humans have to do to earn that right.

In the book, the Overlords assert that humans would have no idea what to make of space. “What [would] a man from your Stone Age have felt, if he suddenly found himself in a modern city?” Karellen asks. Even though humans are no longer in the Stone Age and understand something of science, Karellen says, “The gulf between two technologies can easily become so great that it is—lethal.” Advanced technology can kill someone who doesn’t understand it, but Karellen is really talking about the realization that humans are utterly outmatched. 

Being human means being the top of the food chain; humanity’s position there is both the cause and the effect of advanced technology. But in Childhood’s End, humans learn that they can’t even see the top of the hierarchy, much less occupy it. It’s tempting for humans to try to close the gap with science and technology, but the type of science specifically prohibited by the Overlords—space travel—would lead to more questions, not answers. When it comes to space, the more humans know, the more they realize they don’t know. Or more likely, the more they don’t know they don’t know. The knowledge that humanity is a cog in a wheel shatters, rather than shifts, humans’ egotistical paradigm. For humans, understanding the universe would “be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world.”

But is Clarke really suggesting that humans shouldn’t explore space? Given that he published a nonfiction work called The Exploration of Space just two years before Childhood’s End and was an active member of the British Interplanetary Society, the message that humans can’t or shouldn’t explore the cosmos seems confusing and contradictory. Clarke earned degrees in physics, math, and astronomy; he wrote about geosynchronous satellites back in 1945 and inspired scientists such as Carl Sagan with his work on interplanetary flight and astronautics. He always hoped to witness what he depicts in Childhood’s End: a meeting of terrestrial and extraterrestrial intelligent life forms—provided, he once said, that “there is true intelligence on earth.”

Clarke’s works assume that humans are not the only or the most intelligent life forms in the cosmos. He often makes humans the underdogs, not in an attempt to rouse the audience to cheer for David in the fight against Goliath, but to underscore how small humans really are. Clarke knew that understanding space isn’t about mastering astrophysics or orbital trajectories. It takes humility and the ability to wrap one’s brain around the enormity of the universe—something Carl Sagan refers to as the “cosmic perspective.”

Clarke’s first law of prediction is “when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Yet figuring out how to make something possible is different than being spiritually, emotionally, or even intellectually ready for it. In Childhood’s End, Homo sapiens don’t reach the stars—but their evolutionary descendants do. Clarke depicts precisely what Sagan describes: “By the time we’re ready to settle even the nearest of other planetary systems, we will have changed. … It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses. … For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” We just may need a little guidance along the way.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.