Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Ballantine Books, 1953
“No one knew what to expect when the spaceships of the mysterious alien ‘Overlords’ first appeared above all the major cities of Earth. While these seemingly omnipotent and omniscient aliens did take ultimate control of the planet from the hands of humanity, they used their power for our benefit.
Soon humans enter a Golden Age, as the Overlords directly or indirectly abolish crime, poverty, racism, and even cruelty against animals. The near-utopia takes its toll on science and the arts, but at least every human being can live a secure life of comfort. No one knows, though, why the Overlords came to Earth in the first place. What is the final goal of all of their apparent altruism, and why do they refuse to tell humanity?” -Allie
This is the second Arthur C. Clarke novel I’ve reviewed on my blog. The first was Fountains of Paradise, a very dry but entertaining book about building a space elevator. Childhood’s End is one of those classic books that seem to come up often in discussions of science fiction, and I decided that it was a shame I’d never gotten around to reading it.
Childhood’s End is definitely a classic in science fiction, and I think that it first introduced a number of common elements of alien contact stories. The most obvious to me was the first contact scene, where the alien ships appeared in the sky and hovered ominously over all the major cities of the world. While not much felt ‘fresh’ or ‘original’ to me, I recognize that this is probably due to how much so many stories have borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke’s vision over the years.
I felt like the real point of the novel was showing, in wide view, the development of human society under the Overlords, and the development of humans themselves. On these points, Clarke is very thorough. He patiently goes through all aspects of society, describing how they are shaped in humanity’s Golden Age and after. Some of his points predict our actual future remarkably well, despite the fact that we have yet to be invaded by aliens. For instance, he predicted the sharp rise of passive media, and he was fairly accurate about how access to dependable birth control might affect romantic relationships.
Though he discusses many societal changes at length, Clarke is less descriptive about how this Golden Age is brought about. The years where the Overlords are abolishing crime, poverty, nationalism, and all strife felt a little glossed over. Even with near-infinite power, I could not really buy the Overlords achieving these goals without a huge cost in human deaths. Clarke seems to assume here that human beings are, all things being equal, completely rational creatures. Perhaps I’m just crazily pessimistic, but I really don’t think that’s even close to true.
While I really enjoyed Childhood’s End as a description of an imagined human society arising from alien guidance, it did not really work for me as a narrative. The overall story structure is very simple, though it is told in meticulous detail. There are a handful of observer characters, but they have very little depth beyond the basic human views they represent. I think what bothers me the most is the passivity of humanity. This is the story of things that are done to humanity. Nothing any human does ever significantly alters the course of events. I associate the end of childhood with the moment when someone takes control and responsibility for their own life. Similarly, I hoped to see humanity to step up and take charge of its own destiny. Instead, the end of humanity’s childhood seems to correspond with the moment the aliens finish shaping us into what it has been decided that we should become.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Childhood’s End is undoubtedly and deservedly a classic novel of science fiction. Despite having been written over half a century ago, some of Clarke’s predictions of the future are surprisingly accurate. Though he does tend to assume humans are much more rational than I believe, he is incredibly thorough in describing his vision of a Golden Age society and the sociological changes that might arise from the presence of benefactor aliens. I think that this wealth of detail is the main strength of the book. I thought that the handful of characters lacked depth, and I was irritated by the inability of humanity to play an active role in its own story. Overall, I think Childhood’s End is still worth reading today for anyone interested in science fiction literature.