Sunday, March 15, 2015
Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke
What prompted me to re-read this book is, of course, my recent obsession with Mahabharata. When I first read it about twenty years ago, I didn't understand most of it, but much of the imagery left a deep impression and seeped into my unconscious memory. In some ways, I could say that this novel, Rendezvous with Rama, and a few of his short stories (eg, "The Star", "Nine Billion Names of God") cultivated a latent taste for mysticism that kind of blew up two decades later, when I happened upon Mahabharata.
The first part of the story is about an alien invasion by "Overlords" (which was later ripped off in Independence Day and other movies) and the subsequent utopia on earth. The second part is about the conversion of the human species into a mysterious and unknowable existence that is eventually absorbed into "Overmind." Indeed there is similarity between the concept of merging with a cosmic consciousness and similar ideas in Buddhism and Hinduism, in which people might, through meditation, yoga, and whatever mind-altering practice, might transcend the limits of individual mind and become one with gods or absorbed into the gods or something to that effect. The novel makes a few direct references to Christianity (references to Jonah and devils), but the central concepts are closer to Buddhism and Hinduism, plus elements of popular mysticism, such as seance, telepathy, inherited racial memory, and UFO sightings. Clarke was clearly having some mash-up fun.
I can't remember who said it --- something about the individualism being not a common or dominant idea in human societies. When I first read "Childhood's End," I had the impression that the loss of human individuality at the end was a tragedy. Mr. S admitted to the same impression (he read it in high school). Clearly the theme is not that palatable to modern people with a western education --- or modern Chinese people, for that matter. Yet Clarke's depiction is ambiguous with a sense of both loss (of humanity as we know it) and marvel (merging into a great collective consciousness).
What left the deepest impression on me the first time is the speculation of time and memory. The Overlords had never been to earth until its arrival in twentieth century, yet their devilish appearance always existed throughout human history, because some minds can access memory in all directions, both forward and backward. Future and past are the same. That is a dazzling idea and, somehow, thematically connected to Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata.
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