Review of Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/30/05
Childhood’s End is 1 of the earliest novels in the oeuvre of Arthur C. Clarke, & 1 of his best. 1 of the interesting things about reviewing very successful works long after their debut is how their very success can sometimes make the work seem less than it originally was. This is because the success of its themes, images, or narrative become so copied that they become clichéd. Such is the case with CE’s opening. Giant spaceships arrive at earth, hover over the major cities of the world & issue ultimata. Is it the film Independence Day? Is it the tv miniseries V? No, but now you know where they got their openings.
Aliens appear in the sky during the mid-20th Century, & within a year the world is under their thrall. Yet, life improves, as mankind submits to the far more advanced weaponry of the Overlords, as the invaders become known. Yet, they’re not really invaders- more benevolent dictators, what some have labeled the best possible form of government. In the 1st year of their suzerainty no human has ever seen an Overlord- & only 1 voice has spoken to them- Karellan. There is sporadic human resistance, in the form of guerilla movements, but with most of humanity well fed & happy, few join. While the Overlords do not interfere in human affairs, as wars, & crime, their omnipresence makes such increasingly rare. The only edict they issue is that humans must not be wantonly cruel to animals. It turns out humanity will have to wait 50 years until the Overlords will reveal themselves. The reason for it all spawns many theories as to why. Some believe the Overlords are monsters, whose visage would repulse humans. Others reason they are very human-like & hide the fact because humans have always resented domination by 1 another, but so willingly gave in to apparently superior forces they imagine as vastly alien. The only human who has direct contact with Karellan is UN Secretary General Stormgren- albeit through a 2-way mirror.
Karellan claims that the reason for the 50 year wait is so that humanity can become used to the Overlords’ presence. By the end of that time many of the older generation will have faded & the younger generation will regard them as a normal part of life. 50 years after their arrival the Overlords’ do reveal themselves- they resemble the classic portrayals of demons- dark skin, leathery wings, pointed tails. Just as predicted, their shocking appearance is not a big deal to the accustomed younger generation. They reveal that it will be another 50 year wait until their true purpose can be revealed- they are pawns of a being of pure energy called the Overmind. Their purpose on earth is to guide humanity’s evolution to a higher plane of existence, to merge with the Overmind. The fact they look like devils, thought of as proof that they’d visited earth in the dim parts of human history, is in fact a reverse racial memory- we premonitored their coming would foretell the end of our species.
Near the end of the 100 years the earth’s children start displaying remarkable telepathic & telekinetic powers, & are quarantined on Australia by the Overlords. This segregation is designed to- ala the Stockholm Syndrome- foster allegiance to the Overmind, rather than the rest of humanity, which ages & dies off. The only man alive to witness the Earth’s final days is Jan Rodricks- who stowed away on an Overlord ship as it traveled to their homeworld. Due to the relativism of space travel he far outlived all the non-ESPer humans. As he returns from the Overlords’ homeworld he witnesses the assumption of the children into the Overmind, & even the dissipation of the planet, itself. Only the moon is left where the earth once orbited the sun. The book ends with the lonely Karellan, having completed his mission, on his ship as it heads away from the solar system. The Overlords are merely shepherds- they lack the vitae humanity did. They will forever be material beings.
Unlike such tales as Damon Knight’s To Serve Man the Overlords genuinely do have good motives for improving Mankind’s fate. Yet, there is no doubt that their rule is a dictatorship, & there has been just criticism about the way which humanity rolled over. To be fair, the passivity displayed by denizens of Communist nations freed from their chains points to the fact that it may be a reasonable thing to think humanity would roll over, confronted by vastly superior means. ACC poses some deep questions in a rather hamhanded way. Is doing what is right a positive thing if there is no choice to do wrong? Yet, as in most ACC works, his prose poetry lies in the handling of grand concepts, not in a particularly filigreed prose, nor great characterizations. Karellan’s lack of fleshing out serves the purpose of the tale, but even Stormgren & Rodricks, the putative human ‘stars’ of the tale, are merely vehicles to push along the concepts. ACC is the ultimate ‘big picture’ guy. The book’s ending definitely foreshadows 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet because it’s a bit more tidily wrapped up & explained there is less of the ‘shock & awe’ that book delivers. I would have preferred a more detailed sketch of Karellan, especially toward the end, where he becomes lost once the psychic human children emerge.
What does work is the description of the Overlords’ homeworld. ACC knows better than to try to use hard science to detail it, so relies on metaphors & subjectivity from the points of view of Rodricks & omniscience. On a higher level there is the notion that what ACC propunds in this book is sharply contradicted by his own later stated beliefs- such as the tragedy he sees as being the hijacking of morality by organized religion. ACC seems to embrace psi phenomena, as well his repudiation of irrational religion. The original editions of this book featured a disclaimer from ACC stating he did not necessarily endorse the book’s views- i.e.- that the irrational is a seductive force that will ultimately save (or doom?) mankind. Despite the seeming happy ending the destruction of homo sapiens, the fact that it was not allowed its natural evolution, simply to appease some super-powerful entity, is not what all would see as a positive. In a sense, the book can be seen as a Cold War fable (1st published in 1953)- a screed against Communism, which offered paradise on earth. The Overmind ends up destroying the planet, yet the reader never really gets a glimpse of what awaits. It could all be a hoax- the Overmind just a psychic predator feasting on the willingly gullible human spirit. Karellan states, ‘The stars are not for Man.’ & by book’s end we take it to mean that he meant mankind’s disembodied descendants would reach the stars, not man. Yet, there is still the nagging feeling that humanity was flushed down a cosmic storm drain, & the more obvious meaning of Karellan’s charge is the most apt.
Yet, ACC suggests that such skepticism is the result of our linear, physical minds- & that is the point of his tale. A final point is that the novel works as both a historical marker, & a still relevant treatise on human nature- whether you buy its premises & conclusions is another matter.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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