Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke

ChildhoodsEnd(1stEd)To my continued bafflement, it seems like every SF recommendation list and message board suggests Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama as a highly enjoyable and critical must read. My experience with that novel was less than satisfactory, so I thought I might have hit an overall author dud in terms of taste. But its twenty-year predecessor, Childhood’s End, has always looked like something I would like to read, and the experience was far more entertaining than I expected. I’m surprised Rama gets more online discussion.

Thirty years after the end of WWII, alien ships fill the skies of the world’s biggest cities. The aliens will not reveal themselves, but lead Overlord Karellen communicates his expectations through one perplexed bureaucrat, Rikki Stormgren. Over the next eighty years, the world changes due to the Overlords’ indirect peaceful, yet intrusive rule, but their interest in Earth’s affairs remains a mystery.

More than fifty years after the publication of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (and its many inspired variations), thirty-year-old Clarke wrote Childhood’s End to address the antagonistic and earthbound characterizations of the typical alien invasion scenario. Ever the pragmatic scientist, Clarke uses Childhood’s End to push the invasion scenario beyond shock-and-awe and into a complex political event with serious sociological repercussions. The aliens (Overlords) engage in diplomacy, with occasional inflexible commands and, on the rare occasions when that fails, they exercise a metaphysical manipulation that’s more paternalistic than aggressive. Rather than the frenzied running and swooning of WOTW, the humans in Childhood’s End react warily, but their distrust eventually fades to shrugging acceptance, if not absolute faith.

ChildhoodsEnd2They behave much like a nation under the sway of a new government. It’s easy to see some mid-twentieth century commentary considering the benevolent fascism of the Overlords, and the bland utopia that results from their rule. “When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure” (p. 85).  The arts and sciences are sacrificed as well. But not only is Clarke commenting on the burgeoning communist governments of his era, he is also sharing his vision for a world of mixed human race and no political borders, as evidenced in the Overlords’ influence over the deterioration of political borders, and the freedom of travel and interaction enjoyed by his characters. The Overlords maintain that the human race cannot advance to its undisclosed fate until they are unified as one planetary utopia.

The world of Childhood’s End is a world of peace and interconnectedness, progressive even in its casting. Some might be surprised to learn that one of the primary characters, the hero in the final act, is a male of mixed white/black ancestry– pretty forward-thinking for a story first published in the 1940’s. However, a bit of “the white man’s burden” vibe carries through some of the early chapters, which is likely to be an overlooked naiveté, rather than any literary reflection of the evolving “Overlord’s burden.” And, although the mixed race character is an engineering student, his mixed race sister serves only as a trophy wife to another (assumed-to-be-white) character. Still, this novel is a far cry from Clarke’s later Rendezvous with Rama, where the stale, assumed-to-be-white characters bear no distinctive markings, (not even personality).

In Childhood’s End, the characters are not fully-fleshed– it is a short novel that spans generations and many characters– but they are distinguishable from one another. Despite the forward moving story line, the story itself is rather non-linear in tone and characterization. It’s essentially several short-stories cobbled together into novel format, probably the fault of its serialized origins. The middle of the book doesn’t feel like the beginning of the book, and the ending is light years away (literally!) from the rest of the book in tone, with sort of an Ender’s Game vibe.

Childhood'sEnd3And yes, we do get to travel light years away from Earth! Because, regardless of the political and social commentary, Clarke’s ultimate goal for this novel is to take an alien invasion story and return it to its home planet. Clarke is a man of galactic imagination: the author who imbues his spaceships with more personality than his characters. So it’s no surprise that the novel builds toward a round trip visit to the Overlords’ strange world, as little an impact as that may have on the conclusion of the novel. But it’s fun, and at this point I’m aware that Clarke’s imaginative visualizations often overshadow his plots.

But the most exciting feature of this little book is the Overlord reveal, which occurs early in the first half of the novel. The Overlords’ reluctance to reveal themselves at first is just as baffling and suspenseful to the reader as it is to the characters. When the moment finally happens, Clarke demonstrates his clever ingenuity and understanding of the human race, which makes for a forehead-slapping Aha!-moment. It’s the best part of the tale.

There are at least a couple of mid-20th century morality lessons in Childhood’s End. First, beware the benevolent dictator. He’ll take your conflict and sorrow, but also your progress and growth. Second, if you have to choose between safety with ignorance, or risk with progress, take the risk. 

I can add a third, more contemporary, lesson: ignore what they say on Reddit. When given the choice between Rendezvous with Rama or Childhood’s End, go with the latter.

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17 thoughts on “Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Perhaps some of the enjoyment people derive from Rendezvous with Rama is that it was one of the first (I think) Big Dumb Object themed SF novels of which there are 5,000 imitators (Shaw’s Orbitsville, Stableford’s horrid Journey to the Center, etc etc).

    I read Childhood’s End when I was 13 or so. I remember rather little….

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Big Dumb Object, I love that. Well, the BDO in Rama is definitely the best part of the novel but Childhood’s End has a bit more going on.

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      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Yup, yup. It’s the “official” term for such things….

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      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Oh and worse than Stross or any new (ish) space opera are the sequels to Rama. He co-wrote them and they are complete trash. I throw down the gauntlet, one of the worst SF novels I’ve ever read. Along with Irving Greenfield’s Waters of Death and Silverberg’s early pulp Master of Life and Death.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I noticed the sequels floating around, but have no interest in reading more about Rama. It was cool, then it went away. What more can be said?

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  2. Gede Prama says:

    Very interested, Have a wonderful day friend 🙂

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  3. […] #4. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke […]

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  4. Interesting review. I’ve been meaning to read this as well. The only book I’ve read by Clarke so far is the sequel to 2001, called 2010, and it was pretty good if you like the 2000 storyline.

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  5. Warstub says:

    The Fountains of Paradise I found tediously boring, The City and the Stars might have been the most enjoyable (alongside Childhood’s End), Rama I loved because of its refusal to give answers and its focus on exploration; to me that’s the ultimate ‘hard SF novel’ though lack of characterisation is fair criticism – imagine how much more powerful it could have been!

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  6. […] at Blood Music‘s first life as an award-winning novella. The cover blurb compares it to Childhood’s End, though I don’t see how, while reviewers tend to compare it to the work of Michael […]

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  7. […] Although MacLeod uses much of the novel to examine presumptions of solar system ownership by Goldilocks’ zone dwellers, and reflects that criticism back upon our own species’ (read: Western) assumption of sun-to-Pluto-length manifest destiny, the primary thematic argument in Learning the World critiques the notion of alien invader paranoia– an odd about-face against much of sci-fi’s history of invasion stories, where even the most peaceful invasions harbor some twisted form of social paternalism, i.e. Childhood’s End.  […]

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  8. I had the same favorite moment! The “this is what the Overlord’s look like” reveal was quite a good one. I remember exactly where I was on my bike commute when that dropped. The rest of the book had a lot of interesting concepts to consider, but nothing was quite as awesome as that moment.

    Where the book ends up is def a bit…strange. Now I cant remember what the hell they were, but I noticed a couple of contradictions within the whole, both things which I assume are symptoms of it having been serialized originally (I didnt know that as I was listening to it).

    And I have to say, I didn’t quite agree with a lot of the book’s thesis, though it was an interesting take on at least 10 topics. But the idea that art would die in the face of peace seemed a bit dumb to me. Maybe Im just a freak, but I don’t think pain is the only route to artistic beauty. (Though of course pain and suffering have inspired much art, how narrow minded it seems to me that they could be the only possible inspirations for art.)

    Oh and I hope it’s not annoying that I necro yer ancient reviews’ commment section every time I read something you read and wrote about 300 years ago. I have an OCD tendency to want to keep conversations in easy to find, indexable places…

    Also, reading this I realized that in listening to Rama, I avoided the “characters have no personalities” thing…as each character had a distinct voice, they all just automatically had personalities, but through the medium more than anything Clarke did. I am endlessly fascinated with how the audio medium changes books. Anyway.

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