Saturday, December 08, 2012

Variations on a Theme: Mankind's Further Evolution

I've recently read Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End followed immediately by Michael Shaara's The Herald (Michael Shaara was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Killer Angels adapted for the movie Gettysburg (my post on that movie is linked).

Childhood's End and The Herald can be classed as apocalyptic/dystopian/science fiction novels. Science fiction was right in Arthur C. Clarke's wheelhouse, and though Michael Shaara's most famous book was historical (other end of the scale) he did write some other sci-fi stories and at least one other sci-fi novel - strange combination, history and science fiction!

I enjoy apocalyptic/dystopian novels and some sci-fi, though not all. Enjoying tales of dystopia is perverse of me I guess. I've tried to work out why, but can't quite unravel it. These stories don't scare me at all, or give me bad dreams as reading horror tales of zombies, werewolves or blood-sucking vampires might. The novels sell well, many from decades past have come to be called classics (think:Fahrenheit 451, 1984 The Handmaid's Tale).

I wasn't aware of it when I started reading, but Childhood's End and The Herald have loosely similar themes (apart from straightforward dystopia) : the improvement and further evolution of man, albeit by different means.


The Herald (1981) was later re-titled The Noah Conspiracy and had a revised ending (I don't yet know how it differs from the original, but can hazard a guess). Storyline: a scientist plans to create an improved version of the human race, which will involve killing millions of people. The tale unfolds gradually, starting with the pilot of a private aircraft flying into a small US airport and finding it deserted. The reader is left, for much of the book, with the pilot attempting to find out exactly what's going on. We discover, eventually, a genetic scientist’s plan to create a "better" human race, eliminating negative traits which threaten, over time, to cause the death of the whole species. His plan will involve the mass killing of many millions of people, but will ensure survival of the race.

I found the novel a very easy read and a book I could not put down. I read most of it in one sitting (unusual for me), only stopped because it was dinner time.

The original title of the novel The Herald refers to words of
Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, poet etc. An extract from his Thus Spoke Zarathustra by explanation:

Zarathustra’s Prologue:
When Zarathustra arrived at the edge of the forest, he came upon a town. Many people had gathered there in the marketplace to see a tightrope walker who had promised a performance. The crowd, believing that Zarathustra was the ringmaster come to introduce the tightrope walker, gathered around to listen. And Zarathustra spoke to the people:

I teach you the Overman! Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome mankind?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and revert back to the beast rather than overcome mankind? What is the ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just so shall a man be to the Overman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.

Even the wisest among you is only a confusion and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I ask you to become phantoms or plants?

Behold, I teach you the Overman! The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beg of you my brothers, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them! ........................................
Lo, I am a herald of the lightning, and a heavy drop out of the cloud: the lightning, however, is the Overman!"

Childhood's End first published in 1953 wasn't such an easy read, but still enjoyable. I balked a bit when the author changed his cast of characters a third of the way through the novel.

The story is told in three parts, spanning the period roughly mid-20th century to 2075. The author could have been echoing or projecting, via analogy, the troubled situation around the time of the story's conception: cold war, segregation, possibility of nuclear annihilation, uneasy years when the horrors of World War 2 were still fresh in memory.

Standard sci-fi ingredients begin the novel: huge space ships positioned over the world's major cities, ships populated by a race known as The Overlords, who never show themselves to humans, but communicate with human representatives. The Overlords were not here to take over the planet for our gold or other reserves, or to enslave the human race. Instead they seemed to be intent on saving us from ourselves. Over time they solve our major troubles: war, famine, segregation, crime and poverty become things of the past. Any resistance is quashed by direct application of CIA-style "soft power". Utopia is born. Whether that was a Good Thing is a matter for philosophical perusal - maybe a bit of astrological perusal also. Would it be possible to erase our natural instincts of aggression, greed, lust (drawn from the planetary position of Earth)? And would it be A Good Thing to deny us the ability to choose for ourselves, to choose wrong decisions, create destructive items, wreak havoc, jump to mistaken conclusions, but also to attempt to create solutions to overcome what our weaknesses had wrought?

We begin to see the outcome in the remaining two phases of the story, set in the following 100 or so years. The Overlords revealed themselves. Humans were horrified to find the alien beings looked incredibly like illustrations encountered somewhere long ago, in a far less benign role! They tell humans that their purpose is to protect them from "powers and forces that lie among the stars – forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine…. ‘It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man."

During the story's final phase, ten years later, Earth's children discover paranormal skills, fall into catatonia after strange dreams, and eventually withdraw from contact with parents. Overlords reveal that their job as servants of The Overmind, is to shepherd humanity into its next stage of development, though The Overlords, for unexplained reasons, cannot progress. Humanity in its current form has reached the end of its existence; the newly cultivated species will join The Overmind, Earth will be no more.

I was particularly taken by a very clever twist - the explanation of the Overlord's physical appearance.

The book can be read as a straightforward sci-fi tale, or can also be seen as a network of analogies, some more obvious than others, and, it must be remembered, seen from the viewpoint of the author in the early 1950s.

The huge spaceships forever hovering over all major cities = a world state fostering social justice. Add some prescience on the part of Arthur C. Clarke and translate them as super-sized corporations, enforcing sterility via their own opaque motivations. Interwoven, too is the ancient vision of of angels/demons hovering over mankind.

Astrologers believe that our individuality is defined, in part, by the position of the Sun, Moon and planets at the exact time and in the exact place where we were born. Whether that individuality could be so easily stripped from us, as a race, by benign means, is something this book might be asking us to consider. What did Arthur C. Clarke think of astrology? Not a lot, it seems. And that's a pity. See HERE

As far as I know, early sci-fi authors, while envisioning flying cars, alien beings and inter-galactic flight, didn't ever mention something as wildly unbelievable as The Internet, smart phones, i-pods, Facebook, Twitter. Already I'm beginning to feel that today's young generation belong to a subtly different race from the one to which I belong myself. This type of feeling can only spread, even to those many years my junior, in coming years. Perhaps this is the "shift in consciousness" some seem to expect....beginning with the end of the current cycle in the Mayan calendar?


mike said...

We are all participants in something, that's for sure. We can take it purely at face-value or abstract our individual and collective experience to have a defined, purposeful end-point. I entertain the notion started by Isaac Asimov in "Foundation's Edge", the fourth in the Foundation series. We, meaning all sentient beings on Earth, are individual cells of the greater consiousness of Earth, called Gaia.

There are similarities to the spiritual notions of some religious faiths that we are all one, or that we are all the eyes of God. The new physics supports a view that nothing is separate and everything is just a part of the whole...fractals, holographic, quantum-string theories, etc.

I do hope that at some point I am allowed to view the big reveal. But, what if there isn't one? Saw a film a decade ago called "Waking Life", about a man continually going to sleep and waking to a new life...I think there is a book with the same theme, too. Existentialism!

mike (again) said...

Also..."The Selfish Gene", by Richard Dawkins, purports that living creatures on Earth are nothing more than suitcases for our genetic DNA...DNA is the real stuff...we are just the self-important fluff that carries it forward.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ The idea of our being individual cells of the greater consciousness of Gaia is (minus the Gaia aspect) more or less how Childhood's End finishes. consiousness of all the children of Earth is absorbed into the great Overmind which then helps to bring along evolution of other species elsewhere in the universe.

Will we see any "reveal" - I don't know, but hope so too.

Richard Dawkins is not a writer or speaker I admire. But he does well to describe himself as "self-important fluff" for he must be if he's human, according to his theory - he especially fits the self-important" bit!!! ;-)

Anonymous said...

A dystopian novel with a feminist slant is "The Gate to Women's Country" by Sheri Tepper, an old favorite of mine. Ursula le Guin wrote a short story "She Unnames Them" wherein Eve undoes Eden. Not sure if that would qualify as dystopia. :) Then there's "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (Miller) which questions whether humanity is inherently flawed to such an extent that it is doomed to repeat and repeat its horrendous mistakes. Tepper's story speculates an answer to that.

Long time lurker, Twilight. I enjoy your wide range of interests and unique take on astrology.— the interesting discussions in the comments are nearly as good as your postings! Thank you for your blog.

Wisewebwoman said...

I am in Mike's camp when it comes to Gaia, we are all part of the whole.

The concept of Reveal intrigues me but I somehow don't feel there's going to be one. We are too insignificant for that.

Very interesting reading you're on there, T. Must explore your recommendations!


Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~ Hi there! I'm glad of lurkers - it's good to know there's at least one! :-) I'm pleased to know you enjoy the blog contents - and the comments - thanks for letting me know that.

I shall add the Sheri Tepper to my list of books to seek out - looked at the Wiki description - it sounds almost as scary as Handmaid's Tale, but reversed, gender-wise.
I enjoy some Ursula Le Guin - will look for that story.

I read Canticle for Liebowitz earlier this year. I enjoyed the first part a lot, 2nd part not much at all, final part a bit better. The story relied too much on Roman Catholicism for my taste, and didn't, as a whole, live up to its early promise. But I'm glad I read it.

Earth Abides"by George R. Stewart is another very good dystopian novel. Also a little known one which first got me into the genre long ago: Down to a Sunless Sea by David Graham.

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~~ I like the idea of Gaia, it helps make sense of things - sometimes. I had a quote at the bottom of the blog page recently which I like, it's by Alan Wilson Watts:

You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.

By "reveal" I took Mike to mean a hope that we'll find out when we eventually shuffle off the mortal coil what it was all about - rather than just descend into nothingness.
Maybe you took it more as the biblical Revelation? I don't think that's going to happen at all.

James Higham said...

Zarathustra, of course, batted for the other side.

Chomp said...

Oh ol’ Mister Nietzsche... Thank you for the thought. Allow me to express my opinion about sci-fi/distopia topic (well knowing that today world is a sort of distopia, the “Distopia Realized” as I call it...) and say that sometimes the distopia sub-genre of science fiction reaches some peaks of interest, by my own point of view...

What to say of P. Dick’s “Man in High Catle” or of R. Harris’ “Fatherland” or, perhaps far less known and surely far rougher but not less interesting and/or intriguing, N. Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream” ...

So let me say, that it may be that in Distopias that science fiction sometimes reached its peak of interest and/or focus...

Twilight said...

James Higham ~~ "Other side" - what other side is that? Because he was Persian? I don't see that as "the other side" - much of our civilisation arose from that direction, they were way ahead of us long, long ago.

But anyway, James, he's mentioned in the post in relation to the theme of a novel about a scientist's scheme to bring forth a better version of mankind, an idea possibly inspired by a German philosopher's insights. So sides aren't relevant.

Twilight said...

Chomp ~~~ Oh - you've given me some more books/stories to seek out! Thank you! Those are all new titles to me.

Yes, I think dystopian stories have a more authentic "feel" than much science fiction nowadays. Science fiction proper must be tricky to write successfully now.

Isn't it strange that there are so few stories set in a utopian future, and so many in a dystopian one? We must be a pessimistic species at our core! Still, some dystopian tales do have happy-ish endings. The struggle to overcome obstacles and the drawing out of courage is key, I guess.