Eternals, Sci-Fi, and Arthur C. Clarke: What Is Humanity’s Place in the Universe?
After my first watch of Eternals, a book was floated online as being a good parallel read: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I ended up finishing the book as I got to rewatch the film, and not only did it enrich both experiences, but it made me appreciate Chloé Zhao’s artistic vision even more.
Arthur C. Clarke is best known for cowriting one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In addition that, Clarke was a prolific science fiction writer and considered, with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to be one of the “Big Three” of science fiction.
One of the books he felt was one of his best was the 1953 work Childhood’s End. The novel tells about a group of technically advanced aliens who become dubbed “the Overlords,” who arrive on Earth and slowly transform it into a Utopia. Why? Well, that is a spoiler. All this to say that part of the question the novel asks is “What does humanity look like without conflict?” What could humanity become if it had erased all crime, all inequality?
In Eternals, that is something our alien heroes discuss. They are told that they are not meant to interfere with humanity’s wars unless it is to protect them from the Deviants. Still, they are tasked with helping human development along—just at a slower pace than other advanced alien species.
**Spoilers for Eternals follow.**
As the twist in Eternals reveals that Earth is essentially hosting the life of a Celestial, and that the planet will be destroyed in order for life to continue on across other galaxies, it asks a question about what humanity place is in the grander scheme of things.
This was a large part of Clarke’s own fiction and present in Childhood’s End. Okay, time to really get to the spoilers for this novel, so if you wanna skip them, just scroll down past the second gif below.
In Childhood’s End, it is revealed that the reason why the Overlords came is that they are working for something called the Overmind. The Overmind is a vast cosmic intelligence that was created from a blending of civilizations that have transcended beyond material existence. The Overmind sent the Overlords there to ensure that humanity did not destroy itself before it evolved to the next stages of humanity: the birth of psychic children, separate from humanity and joined together in one mind.
They eventually are called up to the Overmind, and the Earth dies, transformed into energy that joins the Overmind and feeds a new, different kind of life.
End of book spoilers
Having finished this section right after watching Eternals, the questions the film raised about whether humanity was worth protecting/sacrificing for the lives of billions and billions of others reminded me of why I love Jack Kiby’s work in the first place.
It is the great question of science fiction as to what place humanity has in the universe—not just Earth, but the legacy of what it means to be a human. How do we help each other to grow?
In many ways, Eternals feels like, if wants to live up to Clarke’s quote from Rama II: “In my life, I have found two things of priceless worth—learning and loving. Nothing else—not fame, not power, not achievement for its own sake—can possibly have the same lasting value. For when your life is over, if you can say ‘I have learned’ and ‘I have loved,’ you will also be able to say ‘I have been happy.’”
Eternals is a science fiction born from that essence. That is something we don’t see a lot of in alien movies anymore, but it is something that continues to ask us questions about what it means to be human and how love, art, and freedom play a role in all of that.
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