The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying is the funniest movie about our society since Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.  Oh yeah, that would be a lie.  I was more excited to see this new Ricky Gervais film than any other film in a long time, but at one point I wanted to walk out because of boredom, and later my date told me she had gone to sleep.  Unfortunately, I’m talking here like the people who live in this fantasy world where lying didn’t exist until Mark Bellison needs to pay his rent.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t see The Invention of Lying, it is quite clever and reasonably funny, but while watching this movie I really wanted it to be another It’s A Wonderful Life, it had that kind of potential.  The setup, of a world untainted by lies, fiction or any other kind of make-believe, including religion, is a brilliant concept, but ultimately, the results feel like a rough draft hacked out by Saturday Night Live writers. 

The weak writing was obvious early on when Ricky Gervais’ character Mark, walked down the street whispering lies to people and changing their lives.  If the writing was great we would have heard the lies he told and admired their brilliance.  Instead we just had to take the smiles on people’s face as our proof.  The best exploitation of the concept was how movies were made in this world without lying – because in this alternative reality people went to see films with a man in a chair reading historical essays – even historical dramas would be lies.  Now that’s very astute when you think about it.  The trouble is the writers didn’t take this bit of speculative vision and stretch it over their entire make-believe world.

I’m sure my God fearing friends will wonder why a world without lying isn’t heaven.  The writers failed when they assumed a lie free world would have the same history as our world.  No, I don’t think honesty would have created a utopian ideal, but the world without lying had no religion until Ricky Bellison invents it – so that timeline would have had fewer wars, or much different wars to shape its history.  Their present was too close to ours to be believable if lies never existed.

This movie’s premise, although, is perfect for exploring philosophical fantasies.  The film left me thinking the writers wanted us to believe that we need lies to make us happy, and thus lying is beneficial, but Mark ultimately won’t lie to achieve his personal desires, such as scoring with Anna McDoogles, played by Jennifer Garner.  Time and again in the show we are told that Mark is fat and has a funny nose and that Anna wants beautiful children.  All Mark had to do was tell her that their genes blended together would produce gorgeous brats and they would have been married, but he didn’t.  Even in a movie about lying, truth is sold as the best policy.

If this movie had been more sophisticated, Mark would have found a funny way to convince everyone that lying was wrong, and undid all the changes he brought to his world.  Which is better, to die happily and calmly with a lie, or face death with the truth?  If you see the movie you can answer that question.  For this movie to achieve the greatness I thought it could have achieved emotionally, only the Ricky Gervais character should have seen the secret of lying and before the end of the film he would have experience a number of lessons to convince him to put lying back in Pandora’s Box.  He should have discovered that telling the truth sometimes takes kindness or empathy, or at least a little tack.

I know I’m sounding like Pollyanna, and I’m just mincing words about a silly little film that will soon be forgotten, but I actually think this flick accidently brings up an important philosophical subject, because if we look at it inversely we realize how many lies we live with in our world.  What would our reality be like without the lie about the man in the sky and all the related ones, like those convincing us about the good place and the bad place we can go to after death.  What if the filmmakers made a movie called The Invention of Honesty.

JWH – 10/9/9

Has the Universe Gotten Too Big for Science Fiction?

District 9 is the much talked about new science fiction movie that was released just days ago.  But I have to ask:  Is District 9 science fiction? Since we get so few new science fiction movies every year why should I even suggest that one isn’t science fiction?  We’re always overwhelmed with comic book movies that are obviously too silly to be science fiction, and ignoring the franchise films, like Star Trek, we were gifted with what many fans would consider two uniquely classic-SF movies this summer:  Moon and District 9.  I enjoyed watching both, but unfortunately I don’t consider either to be science fiction, not by my picky old fart definition of science fiction.

But am I deluded, blowing smoke up my own ass, by worrying too much that science fiction has fallen asleep with alien pods in the room?  I know hordes of old SF fans in their 40s, 50s, and 60s that stopped reading SF after the 1980s, or even earlier, who are all wanking nostalgic for SF from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, living in a retro science fictional paradise.  This new fangled stuff might look like science fiction, it might walk like science fiction, but it doesn’t quack like science fiction.

District 9 uses outer space aliens as a metaphor for a story about immigration xenophobia and racism.  And even though District 9 opens with a magnificent flying saucer orbiting perfectly over Johannesburg, South Africa, with max-gnarly alien aliens, I still don’t consider it science fiction.  Why?  Real science fiction is about exploring the cutting edge of reality, and District 9 uses its aliens like other movies use angels or dragons to tell a fable.  More than that, District 9 models its action after video games rather than modern science fiction magazine stories – but does District 9 model the emerging post-modern SF magazine stories?

Now, I’m not saying that District 9 isn’t a very creative film, I’m just saying it’s not science fiction.  It uses science fiction as a metaphor for human xenophobia, rather than being speculative fiction about first contact with a non-human intelligence.  Sure it’s a fun, gripping movie, with a fascinating storyline and engaging characters, told with stomach churning hand-held camera anxiety.  District 9 is gritty and realistic about human nature, but is totally unscientific, choosing to stay well within the cliché tropes of SF, which are getting moldy-oldie even for me.  Even though the aliens look very different from us, they act just like us, especially at our worse, which I believe was the intention of the film’s storytellers.  District 9 is an allegory about apartheid, and all other political histories where one group of human beings treat another group of human beings with zero empathy.

Then again, am I wrong?  I want to define science fiction by the standards I use in my review of “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.”  I don’t think I’m the only one sniffing out changes in SF.  Read Jason Sanford’s “The noticing of SciFi Strange,” and his story “The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain.”

Then read the gorgeous “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang, which just won the 2009 Hugo Award for short story.  These are cutting edge stories marketed as science fiction, but are they really science fiction?  I’d call them fantasy, but they aren’t even fantasy like Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, J. K. Rowling or Lewis Carroll.

We’re living in a post-modern science fiction world where science fiction has little relationship to science, or reality.  In our age of tremendous science and technology, science fiction has decided to become fantasy.  Why is this?

An old friend Jim called me this weekend to tell me that he and his wife were watching The Universe, a TV series about astronomy and Stacy decided the universe was too big for her mind to handle, which Jim thought was hilarious.  Reality is big, and the old purpose of science fiction used to be producing sense of wonder about the vastness of space and time.  Has the universe gotten to big for science fiction?

And, has the universe gotten too big for our cozy little minds?  Has science fiction pulled back from the event horizon of reality, fearful of facing the black hole of science fact?  As much as I want science fiction to be about science, the story from The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster, that had the greatest emotional impact on me was “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” by Kij Johnson from Asimov’s Science Fiction. 

26 Monkeys is a purely fantasy tale that is a post-modern science fiction story where the universe is too big, and the only way to comprehend it is with allegory.  The story is scientifically fatalistic, in that the characters give up on trying to understand the sense of wonder in their lives. 

This is even more explicitly stated in “The Ray Gun: A Love Story,” by James Alan Gardner, another favorite from the above collection.  Read this story, but substitute the concept “science fiction” whenever you hear “ray-gun” while reading this story.  This story feels like meta-fiction about giving up science fiction, at least the old modern kind.

And what about Moon, the SF film about where humans refuse to go.  When did mankind decide the final frontier was not for them?

Science fiction has always been about the future, it always embraced modernism, showing absolute faith in science with the relentless belief that we will eventually comprehend reality.  Ivy League intellectuals have always considered the SF genre to be a literature for dreamy adolescents, so maybe it’s just taken science fiction a bit longer than the rest of the literary world to grow up and face the post-modern world of uncertainty.

JWH – 8/18/9

LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player Part 2

[Update 12/30/9:  After using my BD390 for six months I wrote a new post about it’s Netflix feature.]

I’ve had my LG Blu-Ray player for ten days now, and I’m learning a lot about this specific player, and Blu-Ray players in general.  I had been waiting for the price of a Blu-Ray machine to fall below $200 before buying, which it had, but I ended up spending $150 more for my player because I wanted Draft-N wireless built in, which only LG was offering.  I wanted a Samsung player, like my TV, but Samsung only offered wireless-G that plugged in as a dongle, which I gave a Bronx cheer to as a buying option.

Networking speed is everything.  For the first six days of owning my LG machine I was totally delighted with the built-in Netflix feature.  I was getting the HD bar on their little connection meter, and content looked fabulous.  Then Memphis was hit by a storm that knocked out the power to 129,000 homes (luckily, not mine this time), and networking hasn’t been the same since.  This isn’t LG’s fault, and I hope Comcast will eventually recover, but this lesson from nature has taught me something significant.  Without a very fast broadband connection, don’t count on those extra features of Blu-Ray players that make them cost more.

There are many factors to networking speed.  First, is the wireless speed between the device and your wireless router.  Draft-N is the fastest, and I think this speed is needed for streaming video well.  Then there’s the speed between your house and the Internet.  With Cable Internet, this varies greatly.  Finally, there is the speed of the video servers.  If those machines are hammered, things will be slow no matter how fast the other two connections.

Each evening since the storm, I’ve selected something from my Netflix menu only to be told that my connection was too slow and the machine asked me if I wanted to try anyway.  After hopefully answering yes on several nights, I’ve learned to just say no.  Movies and TV shows that were once quick to load and beautiful to look at were now almost impossible to load and horrible to watch.  Bummer.

I’m not an early adopter, and after several years of Blu-Ray refinements, I had hoped things would be smooth sailing by now.  Not so.  My wife keeps asking me why I don’t take the LG back.  She complained that her DVDs looked better on the old DVD player.  The Gilmore Girls jittered.  I could see it too.  And I had read on the Amazon reviews many complaints about playing DVDs on the LG player, whereas many reviewers said old DVDs looked great.  I got into the setup and changed the screen resolution to automatic, and Susan’s problems disappeared.  That’s one of the many hassles of digital TV, matching the resolution of the content to the resolution set on the TV.  I had set the LG to 1080p, wanting to get the max out of my Blu-Ray discs.  The TV was set to 4:3 for playing DVD TV shows.

So my advice to people getting into this Blu-Ray game is to expect a learning curve.  They aren’t as easy to use as DVD players with old-style analog TVs.  And I also say “buyer beware” to people wanting those new gee-whiz features.

I really wanted Pandora streaming music, a feature offered on Samsung players.  I even wrote LG to see if they were working on it.  Here’s my plea:  “Will the BD 390 be upgraded to handle Pandora streaming music, and Amazon Unbox video?”  Here is LG’s short answer after editing out the flowery marketing speak:  “Unfortunately this unit does not handle Pandora that is a feature of one of our new home theater systems.”  I would have thought their fancy Blu-Ray player was part of their home theater system.  At least I got my reply within 24 hours.

If I had seen LG’s support page before buying the player, I don’t think I would have bought my player.  It doesn’t offer system updates for downloading, or any information about updates.  The unit itself has a menu option for checking for updates, but that only works if you have  the box networked or if put the update on a USB drive and feed it to your machine directly.  But how do you get those updates if the support page doesn’t offer them?  I was also wanting a user forum on the support page.  A Blu-Ray player is essentially a computer.  It has tremendous potential for expansion.  Many great equipment sites have these kinds of features on their support site.

Forums are especially useful because volunteer tech-wizards will offer hard won discovery tips, and company techs will add inside knowledge.  I get the feeling LG wants people to accept what’s listed on the box as the only features their machine will ever have.  They are missing a marketing advantage by not promoting such goodwill.  The menu on the LD BD390 has 8 icons, with room for 4 more without reducing the size of the current icons.  They could squeeze 20 icons easily onto the screen if needed, offering 20 super features.

These machines are computers, and adding features is like loading software and updating the menu.  LG could offer Pandora, Amazon Unbox, Rhapsody Music,, iTunes,, and many other multimedia networked services.  And maybe they will.  The BD 390 is new.  I’m going to be pissed off though if they sell the same box labeled the BD 490 with those features.  If I see that, I won’t be buying LG anymore.

For now, I’m not going to take my player back.  It does what was advertised on the box, although the box should have had in very big letters, a warning that these features need a very fast Internet connection and without such a fast connection these fancy features will suck.  Many people are going to be disappointed.  Probably only the top cable and DSL speeds will offer pleasing results.   Doesn’t Korea have the best broadband in the world?  Their marketing execs need broadband simulator for the other countries they sell to, so as to get an idea of how their products will perform in different markets.

I hope my very fast Comcast connection comes back.  [Comcast contacted me because of this blog and reset my modem, and I’m  getting 17-20 Mb/s download speeds and the Netflix feature is back to producing excellent results.  Thanks Melissa, I’m happy with my LG again, and impressed with Comcast’s service, let’s hope LG might be reading blogs too.]

But the future development of Blu-Ray players that have networked features is illustrated by my desire to have Rhapsody support.  I have a separate device, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 that supports getting music off my computer that is stored in Windows Media, iTunes and Rhapsody.  The LG BD390 sees the Windows Media, but supports another media server, Nero, and doesn’t see iTunes or Rhapsody.  Roku now makes a Netflix/Amazon Unbox decoder.  Apple makes a AppleTV device.  How many boxes will I need to buy for my den to work with my TV and stereo setup?  How many HDMI connections and combinations of HDMI connections will that take?  How many surround sound connections to my receiver will I need?

The solution is one box.  And the obvious place for that box, is the Blu-Ray player.  I waited out the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray fight for the winner to emerge, but now it seems many other contenders must duke it out.  There are already several online video distributors, and many music services.  Right now it’s like buying a different brand of TV for each TV network you want to watch, and a different radio for each music station you want to play.

If you’re sitting at your computer you can take advantage of all of these offerings.  That’s because a computer is a general purpose device.  We need to think of the box we hook up to our TV as a general purpose device, and a Blu-Ray player is a computer.  They should be upgradable by software, so each quarter, as manufacturers make marketing deals, they can upgrade their players to offer more choices.

Here’s a specific example of my problem.  I discovered a new musical group I like, The Kings of Leon on  I then went to Zune Marketplace and added their album to my Zune to play on my trip to Birmingham, Alabama.  When I got home I wanted to play them on my big stereo in my den.  I have Rhapsody set up to do this, but I had switched the optical fiber audio connector to my LG BD390 player, so my SoundBridge M1001 wasn’t hooked up.  I went to Target to buy the CD so I could rip it and put it on my computer so the BD 390 could see it.  Target was out of the CDs.  I already have rights to play this CD on two paid subscription services, but I was willing to buy it on CD so it would work with my new LG BD 390, but that didn’t work out.  So I shifted the optical fiber cable from the LG to the SoundBridge and played the CD.  When I want to watch a movie, I’ll have to shift the fiber audio cable back.

If the LG supported Rhapsody, Zune or Lala, I could have played it through the Blu-Ray box as it was set up.  By the way, even though my connection isn’t fast enough for streaming video from Netflix, it’s perfectly fine for streaming music.  The Kings of Leon sounded great.  I may still buy the CD to hear them in their best sound quality, but my SACD CD player won’t work if the LG BD 390 is connected because my receiver won’t take 5.1 RCA connection setup from my CD player and optical fiber input by the LG at the same time.  The LG will play a normal CD, but it doesn’t support SACD, an orphan technology that I need to keep the old SACD CD player around to play my handful of SACDs.  The LG could have offered SACD and DVD-Audio support.

Sometimes I want to just give up on technology for five years, and come back and see if the Geeks of Earth have worked everything out.  Man, the Amish must have it easy.

JWH – 6/18/9

Update 6/19/9:  Melissa at Comcast posted a reply to this blog offering help, and my network is working perfectly again.  The Netflix feature is back too, and this has a lot of implications.  I’m on Netflix’s unlimited 1 disc out at a time subscription, but with this new feature I can watch as many TV and movies I want from their Watch Now list.  I’ve converted all my queue to Blu-Ray discs.  I read customer reviews of the Roku Netflix box on Amazon, and many say how streaming Netflix movies and TV shows have changed the way they do things.  One thing they do is to cut their Netflix subscription down to 1 disc out at a time, and many talked about canceling their cable TV.  Streaming Netflix, when it works right is a game-changer.  I know, for the most part, I’ve stopped buying DVDs because of Netflix, and I won’t be buying Blu-Ray discs, because I can get them from Netflix too.  We know Comcast is reading this too.  I wonder if they will change the way they offer content.  Instead of me buying a zillion channels, I’ll pay a few and stream just the shows I want to watch.  Streaming content could mean the end of networks.

LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player

I woke up this morning, got the newspaper, and opened the ads to discover that the 40th Anniversary Edition of Woodstock the music documentary is to be released on Tuesday.  Hot-damn.  Not only that, but a special edition with even more un-shown acts was coming out on the Blu-Ray version.  I’ve been wanting a Blu-Ray player for years, but have been waiting for the price to come down.  I got on Amazon and found out if I ordered my copy of Woodstock from them they’d include a bonus disc with even more un-shown acts from that famous three days of love, happiness and mud, so I ended up buying my first Blu-Ray content before I actually owned a player.

I jumped on Google and started researching players.  I figured I’d want to be at Best Buy by 11am to get one, no use wasting any more time.  But which Blu-Ray player to buy?  I assumed I’d get a Samsung, since I’ve been a Samsung kind of guy for awhile now, but after reading many reviews I decided to give the LG BD390 a try.  It was $150 more than what I wanted to pay for my first Blu-Ray player, but it had wireless draft-N built in, whereas the Samsung used a USB plug-in wireless-G dongle.  The reviews and specs were more favorable to the LG.  Samsung had one thing I really wanted, Pandora streaming, but because of the funky wireless and more complaints, I was pushed to try out LG for the first time in my life.

I decided to pay the extra $150 for the nicer machine because it had wireless-N built in, so I wouldn’t have to run an Ethernet cable across my attic and down two walls.  Because the BD390 had 1gb of flash memory built in, so I didn’t have to buy a USB flash drive that stuck out the back of the player to store configuration data and other digital junk within the Blu-Ray unit.  Because it had a Netflix decoder, so I could stop wanting the $99 Roku Netflix player.  And finally, because it had media player support so I it might replace my SoundBridge 1001 and have a visual interface for looking up music to play on my stereo in the den.

I was at Best Buy by 11:07, and out by 11:27.  I grabbed the BD390 and gazed at the Blu-Ray movie selection, settling on the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Matrix as my test disc.  I got home and detached my Samsung up-converting DVD player/recorder, and attached the BD390 and put in The Matrix.  Total breeze.  Set the player to 1080p – the first time I saw media in this mode on my Samsung HDTV, which had been a buying point two years earlier.

Then I used the menu to tell the BD390 about my wireless system, which worked immediately.  I had remembered my secret security code okay, which made me feel good, since I’m forgetting so much now-a-days.  I then told the new LG player to update itself, which it did.  Again, a breeze.

After the update, I click over to the Netflix menu and the LG told me a 4 digit code to go enter at the Netflix web site.  I went back to my computer room, brought up Netflix, told them I was willing to spend $3 a month extra to add Blu-Ray discs to my queue, put in the code at /activate, added a few Blu-Ray titles to my growing queue and went back to the den to check on the BD390.  All the Play Now movies that were in my queue were now listed on my HDTV screen.  So I played the second episode from Star Trek, the original series, called “Charlie X.”  It was beautiful.  I’m thinking the Netflix streaming episode might have been from the newly re-mastered Blu-Ray episodes, but I don’t know for sure.  Netflix streamed perfectly and the video quality was excellent.

Many reviewers of the BD390 complained of having trouble setting up the media server.  I checked the menu and my Windows Media server was showing up, but it wouldn’t let me access it.  I took the computer install disc that came with the BD390 for Nero MediaHome 4 back to my computer room and installed it on my desktop with all my media files.  After a quick install the program scanned my computer for photos, videos and songs.  I went back to the den and found several folders of media, including 18,000  MP3 songs.  This was under the Nero MediaHome 4 server.  Still couldn’t get into Windows Media server that was also listed – I had two media servers in the menu now.

Went back to my computer room and installed the update to Nero MediaHome 4, which messed up the original setup.  I ran the update again and got the program running for the second time, but had to re-scan the folders for my media again.  Damn, it takes awhile.  Went back to the den.  This time I could see into both media servers, but the Windows Media files loaded far slower, and had interruptions when playing, whereas the Nero MediaHome 4 folders opened faster and played files flawlessly.

Now for my first complaints.  Nero MediaHome 4 is simple, but not elegant, although it plays the files perfectly so far.  But with 629 artists and 18,000 songs, jumping to a particular cut involves a lot of menu clicking.  I quickly discovered that I could search by artist by displaying 5 large folder icons, or 14 medium-sized folder icons, or 40 small folder icons at a time, by cycling through the Display button.  Page down, page down, page down… through 629 artists even at 40 at a time takes awhile.  LG needs to add a A-Z selector.  The media librarian is spartan, but works.  I’d like to see LG add a lot of polish to it, and I hope it can be done through firmware updates.

When you get to an artist’s folder, you’d think you’d see photos of all the albums, and the LG might eventually load them all and show them, but not while I waited.  The album covers get displayed when you open an album folder and then the album art is repeated for each song, so it looks stupid.  There are 14 tiny photos of Blonde on Blonde covers listing the songs to my favorite Dylan album.  Why not show the album covers to each album once in the artist folder?  And then just list the tracks by track number within the album folder?

Selecting music through the LG Blu-Ray menu is far nicer than looking up albums on the tiny LED readout of the SoundBridge 1001, but it’s not as fast.  Using an iPhone app on my touch is even faster managing the SoundBridge, and using a software program on my laptop is even faster still, but keeping those two machines on and charged in the den is a pain.  So is using 4 remotes to get everything turned on and ready for watching a movie or listening to a song. (Cable, TV, LG, Receiver).

The Nero MediaHome 4 also found my the movies I had bought and downloaded from Amazon Unbox, but it wouldn’t play them.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if LG worked with Amazon like it does with Netflix?  The BD390 does show CinemaNow rental movies and free YouTube clips as part of its menu.  The is so much technical potential out there, but it all needs to work together.  One player should be able to be a front-end for many online stores.  Who wants to own a device for all the different online movie outlets, much less all the online music stores.

I’m hoping LG will add Pandora, and even Rhapsody to their firmware via an upgrade, but this is probably wishful thinking.  Maybe ten years into the future I’ll have one TV, one box and one remote, and life will be simple.  I wish my Comcast DVR/cable box had everything built into it, so I didn’t need anything extra.  I fantasize about having a DRV with 2gb of storage, a Blu-Ray player and burner, a built in Surround Sound receiver/amp, a media extender for my computer files, all working perfectly integrated and controlled by a single elegant remote.  Ha-ha, dream on kid, what a fanciful fantasy.

I suppose someday 1080p video will be streamed, and Netflix will offer absolutely everything in streaming mode.  And Rhapsody Music will also stream through the same box.  And I wouldn’t have to worry about owning movies, TV shows or songs.  Just rent everything and select it from a menu.

I decided I couldn’t wait for Netflix to ship me  more Blu-Ray movies, so I went to Target this afternoon and bought Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp for $15, the only movie that I’d wanted to keep that was cheap enough to consider.  Both films look beautiful at 1080p, but not stunning like I’ve seen some Blu-Ray movies look at Best Buy.  I’m used to 1080i and 720p high definition and to be honest I could probably live with that quality of video for the rest of my life.  Blu-Ray is much better than up-scaled DVDs though, and now that special content is coming out for Blu-Ray, I’m happy that I bought a player.  I’m looking forward to re-watching Battlestar Galactica on Blu-Ray, and if Netflix offers that new Neil Young retrospective box set on Blu-Ray, I’m anxious to see it, but I wouldn’t spend the money to own it.  I was happy to spend $48 for Woodstock though, or at least I hope it will live up to my expectations of having a nostalgia summer, because it’s the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, my high school graduation, and Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  Maybe NASA will offer a Blu-Ray retrospective this summer too.

Part 2 of my review…

JWH -6/7/9

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood’s End holds up extremely well in the 55 years since the book first appeared in 1953.  I just finished listening to the new Audible Frontiers audio book edition from, and I was surprised in several ways.  First, I was surprised that a science fiction book from 1950s worked so well as a whole.  I’ve been re-reading a number of classic SF novels from the 1950s this year and many of them are fix-up novels, made by gluing short stories together, stories that were first published in the pulp magazines, and the results feel episodic.  The original idea of Childhood’s End started out as a short story, “Guardian Angel” from a 1950 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, but it works well as a novel even though it’s a series of encounters with different characters over time that could be also criticized as episodic.  It cohered for me perfectly.

childhood's end 2

Second, I was surprised how so much of the story had stuck with me since my last reading in 1985, showing how memorable the story is.  Third, I was surprised by how many classic SF ideas Clarke included in his novel.  Fourth, I was surprised by how many social issues Clarke dealt with that would explode later in the 1960s.  Finally, I was very surprised by Clarke’s belief in the limits of mankind.  Unlike Heinlein, Clarke suggests that man isn’t the toughest alien around, and is unfit to be the alpha creature of the galaxy.

Childhood’s End has to be somewhat inspired by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In the film, Klaatu, a traveler in a flying saucer from a distant alien civilization comes to help the Earth.  In the book, Karellen, the leader and his crew from an advance alien civilization come to help Earth in flying saucers.  Of course, Arthur C. Clarke takes the idea much further than the “Farewell to the Master” story by Harry Bates which inspired the film.  And strangely enough both stories have deep religious undertones, with Klaatu acting out the Christ role, and Karellen and his crew acting out the role of angels, messengers of God, even if they look like Lucifer.

Klaatu came to Earth, preached about our evil ways and told the people of our planet to get their act together or face retribution from a higher power.  Karellen came to Earth and stayed, gently guiding the transformation of human society with miracle powers.  Both the film and book preached that human society is severely flawed, that the human race is a danger to itself, that our governments can’t help and that individuals are full of weak behaviors (the seven deadly sins).  Clarke is very philosophical about the future of mankind, and if you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading here because I’m going to give everything away.

To carry the religious metaphor further, both stories suggest that aliens from the stars will bring salvation to mankind.  Arthur C. Clarke goes even further, and suggests that mankind must be reborn before we can travel to the heavens because our current minds and bodies are too limited to see the wonders of transcendental society of higher beings.

Clarke explores what will happen to people when the aliens solve all of our big problems.  We fall back onto finding meaning in art, music, sports, sex and self education, but that isn’t enough.  Karellen won’t allow people to travel beyond the Moon, and Clarke says without the final frontier our lives will become meaningless.  In other words, life on Earth isn’t the real show, and it’s only until we evolve into a higher being that finally we will really understand our true purpose.  Isn’t that same exact message religion gives to us poor mortals.  Is this message built into our DNA?  Is it some kind of ancestral memory?

When I was young, back in the 1950s when I first saw the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the 1960s when I first read Childhood’s End, I believed in what Clarke was saying.  Science fiction was my substitute for religion.  I’ve been a religious skeptic since I was 12, but it’s taken me much longer to become skeptical of the preaching of science fiction.  Childhood’s End is a wonderful story, but so is the Bible.  I don’t believe either.  Whoever we are as a species, and as individuals of that species, is all we’ll ever be.  Nobody will save us but ourselves, and if we are condemned to oblivion, then we only have ourselves to blame.

We might not be alone in this universe, but for now, we stand alone.  Clarke really must have believed in higher psychic powers and that mankind would evolve into a super-being because the same message was replayed in his 1960s story, 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  ESP was a major theme in 1950s science fiction.  Science fiction writers obviously believed, or wanted to believe, than humans would one day evolve their own miracle powers and become god-like ourselves.  This is one hell of a wish fulfilling fantasy!  Of course this same fantasy appears in both religion and regular fantasy novels.  The same year 2001 came out, shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were hits, and those power fantasies are still just as popular in various forms of entertainment today.

In the year 2008 I think we need to psychoanalyze Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke and his fans, rather than evaluate the novel as science fiction.  It is a metaphysical fantasy that needs to be interpreted.  Do people really believe that we can’t solve our own problems and need God or alien overlords to save us?  Will life on Earth always be meaningless without a purpose delivered from a higher being?  Is frail mortal life so worthless?  Do people really believe that homo superior will be telepathic?  Or that any adaptation of nature to our evolution will include ESP powers?

Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist, so could he have been savvy enough to have written Childhood’s End for the masses, well knowing Marx’s dictate that religion is the opium of the masses and fashioned his SF novel to addict science fiction readers in the same way and sell more books?

This is why back then, I was a disciple of Robert A. Heinlein.  He was “a better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” kind of guy, believing mankind would build it’s own spaceships and the Klaatus and Karellens of the sky better get the fuck out of our way, for we are a jealous people.

JWH 12/30/8

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