Arthur C. Clarke resides in the pantheon of science fiction gods. That might seem like a melodramatic thing to say, but it’s absolutely true. The guy was utterly amazing. Not only did he give us 2001: A Space Odyssey(among a slew of other books), he dreamed up the GPS system and discovered ruins of an underwater temple—and that’s just for starters. While 2001 is his most famous work, my favorite has always been Childhood’s End, which I’ve both read and taught a number of times. So I’m both excited and nervous to hear that SyFy has picked up the book as a miniseries. I sure hope it’s better than Helix.
Childhood’s End was published in 1953, before humans went to space or even sent satellites beyond our atmosphere. The book opens with an arresting premise: Earth is suddenly visited by alien ships who take residence over the planet’s major metropolises. The mysterious aliens, Overlords, keep their agenda a secret, but they start influencing humanity, largely in positive ways. They eradicate cruelty to animals with a high-pitched scream in the ears of would-be abusers, and they generally introduce a utopian age without poverty and crime. But of course, they can’t be entirely benevolent, or else the story would be pretty dull. When the humans figure out what the Overlords are after, there’s not a whole lot they can do. Clarke sets up a David vs. Goliath theme, but twists it in unexpected ways. I have long discussions in class about the ending—not only does it support multiple interpretations, but it strikes some people as unbearably sad and others as gloriously uplifting.
It’s the kind of nuanced story that needs the right treatment to be made into a compelling miniseries. The crew SyFy has onboard may be up to the task. Michael De Luca, producer of The Social Network, and Akiva Goldsman, writer of A Beautiful Mind, are slated to executive produce. Doctor Who’s Nick Hurran and Matthew Graham will handle the writing and directing, which inspires some confidence.
Still, Childhood’s End needs a deft touch. It inspired the TV serial V, which originally aired in the mid-80s and was recently resurrected. Still, V only uses a chapter or two of the book, and its lizard aliens aren’t anything like the Overlords. Originally, Clarke was set to collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on an adaptation of Childhood’s End, but we all know where that project went.
I’m particularly curious about how SyFy will handle the paranormal and spiritual aspects of the book. Clarke revised the prologue and first chapter decades later, removing opening references to the space race and inserting some about JFK’s moonshot promise. He also points out that when he first wrote it, he was particularly interested in the paranormal, but that he “would be greatly distressed if this book contributed still further to the seduction of the gullible, now cynically exploited by all the media…polluted with mind-rotting bilge about UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, pyramid energies, ‘channeling,’ you name it….”
It’s always interesting when an author comments on something he wrote decades earlier with the benefit of hindsight. Which intention, if any, will inform the new series? I have no idea. I only know that Childhood’s End is a favorite of mine, as well as other sci-fi readers and scientists, and SyFy has its work cut out for it to do the story justice.