What a weird book Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) is. Alien ships arrive suddenly and take up positions over Earth’s major cities. The “Overlords” demand that humans desist from prejudice, war, and development of complex technologies like nuclear weapons and spaceships. They offer a passel of improvements to human lives in exchange, spreading universal cures for all kinds of sickness and offering abundant food for all.
Sounds suspicious, right? The aliens are not what they seem—but they’re also probably not what you’re thinking. Published in a Cold War decade, Childhood’s End seasons an alien-invasion story with classic concerns of the 1950s: skepticism about totalitarianism, fear of conformity, worry about loss of creativity in a mass society that seemed ever more reliant on material comforts. But Clarke’s book is also not convinced that the jump forward in human evolution that the arrival of the Overlords heralds has to be an entirely evil thing.
The Childhood’s End miniseries, on Syfy starting Dec. 14, takes a deeply ambiguous book and saps it of its strangeness. One big change doesn’t necessarily explain this shift but exemplifies it: Mike Vogel, who played hero Dale Barbara on the really bad TV show Under the Dome, has the role of Ricky Stormgren, the ambassador between Earth and the Overlords. In the Clarke book, Rikki Stormgren is the U.N. secretary general; here, his name has been Americanized, and he’s been transformed into a plucky, handsome Missouri farmer.
On Syfy’s End, human utopia, represented as a montage of sunny shots of people laughing at a farmer’s market, leaves no room for creativity, art, technology, or struggle, so it is bad. We know this because characters we trust tell us this repeatedly. It’s bad to be too happy; nothing truly human can be so comfortable. The show’s token resisters, who call themselves the Freedom League, release anti-Overlords ads onto the Internet. The videos compare the complacency of Earthlings in the face of alien invasion with the meekness of Europeans who allowed Nazis to take over their governments without protesting; they are hashtagged #freedomleague. We know from years of watching shows like V, which feature aliens who offer friendship with one hand and a knife in the back with the other, that the #freedomleague is probably in the right.
This is too bad. The best paternalistic alien fiction ever is Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series (later collected as Lilith’s Brood), which she published between 1987 and 1989, in the last years of the Cold War. In these books, tri-gendered aliens called oankali witness a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and decide to save the survivors and heal Earth. They have one inflexible condition for their assistance: They will combine their genes with the remaining humans and create strong hybrids, while breeding the need for advanced human technologies (and several other inconvenient traits, like vulnerability to cancer) out of the race. The end result will be human-oankali hybrids capable of living on the new Earth without killing one another. Some humans find themselves unable to bear the idea of submitting to this process, while others come to see the rightness of the step forward—or, at least, to accept the inevitability of the concept.
The most interesting parts of both Childhood’s End and the Xenogenesis books have to do with the way the humans who have been suddenly rendered childlike in relationship to a greater power incorporate new limitations into their lives— or refuse to do so, depending on their mindsets. Another “aliens changed everything” book that explores this well is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, from 2006 (also on tap to become a Syfy series). The Spin aliens, known as “the Hypotheticals,” impose a black membrane around the Earth, slowing it down so that time passes much slower on the planet than in the rest of the universe. The Hypotheticals don’t communicate with Earth, leaving humans to guess at their intentions, but the change seems disastrous—children now living will witness the death of the sun. The protagonists variously try to find a solution through science and technology, indulge in rage at the future dying of the light, or decide to dedicate their lives to hedonistic religions. The Hypotheticals, distant parents to the end, offer no comment.
I won’t spoil the end of Spin, and I’m not sure it matters; the point of the novel is to explore the human response to seemingly arbitrary and intractable limitations. Of course, alien paternalism is a stand-in for God, or fate. The rage, the solutioneering, and the partying are all responses people in our nonfictional world have when we think too much about the inexorability of our own mortality. The new Childhood’s End leaves no place for that kind of speculation, and it’s a real waste of a trope.