I just finished rereading Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 apocalyptic science fiction novel, Childhood’s End. I also reread it a few years ago after a few decades away. Clarke had been a favourite of my teen years, so I really can’t say how many times I’ve read the thing. Through what I now realize is a fortunate coincidence, relatively recently I also reread John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). That reread was spurred by the very enjoyable web comic FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, which is a dark riff on Wyndham’s dark novel.
And I realize as I write this that the theme of extraterrestrially mediated human evolution common to Childhood’s End and The Midwich Cuckoos (and FreakAngels) owe more than a little to H.G. Wells’ 1937 novel Star Begotten. Wells writes of a group of friends who begin to suspect an alien force is manipulating humanity: “Suppose that for the last few thousand years they have been experimenting in human genetics” suggests Wells’ protagonist Joseph Davis.
Sixteen years later Clarke wrote of Overlords who manipulate human society in aid of the Overmind who causes a global generation of human children to transcend genetics and take a giant evolutionary step (destroying their parents and the entire Earth as a bit of collateral damage). And then, four years later, Wyndham narrowed the focus to the children of just the small English village of Midwich. The new human children in Midwich are destroyed by means of an explosive device and humanity is, unlike in Childhood’s End, saved from its own future evolution.
Did Wyndham know Childhood’s End? Did he and/or Clarke know Star Begotten? I don’t know how tight the British science fiction community was mid-century and, for the moment, I’m not going to research that question. I do, however, find it intriguing that such similar science fiction treatments of eugenics appeared in the two decades from 1937 to 1957. And there is something very interesting in the difference between 1937 and the 1950s.
“Starry changelings both,” Joseph Davis says hopefully at the end of Star Begotten, “And not afraid — even of the uttermost change.” Where Joseph Davis strides bravely into the new, inhuman future, Clarke’s new humanity, while transcendent, is utterly alien, utterly indifferent, and utterly destructive. Jan Rodricks, Clarke’s Last Man, while apparently unafraid as the future destroys him, is helpless and impotent. And Wyndham’s Cuckoos are terrifying, a menace which must be destroyed.
It is hard not to conclude that public knowledge of Nazi eugenics programmes culminating in the death camps and the Holocaust would be fresh in the minds of Clarke and Wyndham and their readers in 1950s Britain. While Clarke tries to slip in some hope, first with the middle, Golden Age section and later with the transcendence of the new humanity, the vision of this eugenic future is wholy dark for humanity as we know it. And Wyndham allows little room for coexistence between Man and Superman.
Between 1937 and 1953 eugenic utopia had been discredited, at least as a science fiction theme. Of course, Huxley in Brave New World (1932) had responded to Well’s utopian tendencies and Orwell, before the horrors of the death camps were fully realized, had worried about future social trends, but neither Brave New World nor 1984 deal with the terrors of directed evolution — eugenics by a longer name. Galton’s vision of improving humanity through selective breeding was perhaps forever made horrible by the version brutally implemented by Hitler.
Eugenics, an idea which had been for half a century a subject of respectable conversation and debate had instantly become a horror. This moral shift can be seen clearly in the three novels I’ve been touching on, three novels with very similar themes written by three very British novelists. But the three novels draw quite interestingly different conclusions about those themes.
If you are feeling like reading a bit of vintage British science fiction, a session devoted to consecutive readings of Star Begotten by H. G. Wells, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham would, I think, be very rewarding.
Odd. I actually sat down thinking I was going to just write a little review of Childhood’s End, and look where I ended up! Well, unintended consequences, I guess . . .