“The horizon draws close
with frightening haste
to suffocate us with the weight
of our self-destructive legacy”
In an ideal world, a metal album would be enjoyed on the levels of both music and lyric. Both aspects would reinforce each other, as they frequently did when we occupied somewhat more naive universes, to create a filled-out picture in the mind’s eye. Unfortunately, this becomes an increasingly rare phenomenon over time, mostly because with age we look elsewhere for our literary indulgences, but also because many bands deal in unimaginative, tedious cliche.
Zealotry‘s new album The Last Witness bases its premise on Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction classic from 1953, Childhood’s End. The lyrics contained inside The Last Witness are far from being the most eloquent ever composed, in metal or otherwise, but what they do well is communicate the bittersweet essence of the book even to someone who may have never read it, and, hopefully, pique their interest in exploring the source material. What’s more, they feed off the complicated music that Zealotry play and the music feeds off the words in return, to make a complete package to be pored over by fans of sci fi and metal, a demographic which coincides more often than not (for similarly inclined fans, Manticora‘s power/speed album Hyperion based on the Dan Simmons epic of the same name is worth checking out also).
“The shadow of the Overmind extends across the earth”
Childhood’s End itself has been a staple of the genre for sixty years, and remains a must-read for anyone who wonders about first contact with alien civilizations far superior to ours, the impact it would have on inter-human relations and our perception of our place in the greater scheme of things, whether utopias exist and at what price, what course human evolution will take hundreds of thousands of years in the future, if we make it that far, and, ultimately, what it would be like to stand in the presence of our inevitable demise as a species. Would this shared, impending end coax some vestigial sense of empathy and solidarity out of us at long last, or would we simply slide down into a despairing nihilism, knowing that all we’ve ever amounted to – consciously, on the individual scale, but subconsciously, in awareness of our species’ genetic memory, too – was about to come to naught?
“In this formless place
outside the boundaries of time
we exist without a future or past
intermediate between form and void
at the nexus of all stillborn worlds
where rationality ceases”
In Clarke’s story, the conflicts of the twentieth century have left humanity on the cusp of self-destruction. Into this landscape descend the Overlords, star-faring, extra-terrestrial beings far more advanced than man. Not unkind, but not accepting of the mistakes of his past either, the Overlords insinuate themselves into his consciousness as the Gods of myth now born in flesh. From a distance and with great subtlety, they engage in a form of psychological social engineering which, from all appearances, strives to break man out of the primeval shackles that have constrained him through time, and elevate him to the status of responsible planetary citizen. Behind their surface munificence, however, remain concealed their true motives; surely these great entities would not have crossed the causeways between stars to become surrogate parents to the infantile race of men?
The old traditions break down, religion becomes an embarrassment from the dark ages, nation-states dissolve or remain as convenient placeholders. Economies flourish, poverty, disease, and crime all but disappear, and man begins to know a material fulfillment unparalleled in his history.
But Clarke was intelligent enough to not posit this as an unqualified utopian success story. Until the Overlords arrived, man was the master of the planet and his destiny, free to go along on his stumbling way, as and when he chose. Undoubtedly, the Overlords saved him from inevitable self-annihilation and improved his immediate condition beyond his wildest dreams; with their arrival, however, also dawned an acute realization of his immense inferiority and relegation in the cosmic hierarchy, a realization crippling to his ego and to his powers of creativity. He lapses into a life of idyllic indolence, occupied with the material gewgaws that the Overlords’ have bestowed on him. Clarke inserted a finer subtext to his story, one that was also made by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine; the eradication of internecine warfare is a goal to be worked towards at all times, but does the end of struggle drain all inspiration from human life? Where is the incentive to do anything but simply be once we’ve reached a happy stasis?
“And we silently departed
having left no enduring mark
With the last witness’ passing
No trace of our existence will remain”
Zealotry‘s lyrics mostly elude this part of the story and choose to focus on its tragic denouement, taking some artistic liberties in the process. Images from films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: First Contact, Children Of Men, and *Interstellar, inspired in one way or another by Childhood’s End, flashed by my eyes as I read along to the music. Piece by piece, I attempted to visualize my recollection of events in the novel until the scrambled chronology of my brain gave in and I launched on a weekend reread. Childhood’s End is still a rousing, intensely emotional experience, a page-turner of tremendous scope and imagination, whose prescience is borne out in different ways more than half a century after publication.
*Interstellar is a film I enjoy greatly. While it was panned for its clunky dialogue and Hollywood sentimentality, I find it worthwhile to look past that as par for the course, and instead see it as a sequence of awe-inspiring images and poignant ideas and emotions. But perhaps that’s a post for another day.