Recommended to me a few years ago during, of all things, a job interview, I recently finished reading Childhood’s End (1953) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. In the same set of recommendations as A Case of Conscience, the book that got my whole Science Fiction and Religion series going. As this might be considered the formal end to that series, maybe it’s fitting.
One of the most interesting things, in my edition at least, is the introduction by the author written in 2000. An interesting year for Clarke, given that his great saga began in 2001… Anyway, he focuses on two interesting things in the introduction. One is that he felt like the movie Independence Day owed a lot to him, and his opening chapter. An alien invasion arrives, and pulls into the sky over all the major cities of the world all at once, trailing their reentry burn. I think that Clarke might have had a better mental image than what he put on the page… because I wasn’t seeing the similarity other than the base concept.
The second was that he was apologetic about the plot content of the story… but didn’t feel that it overpowered the book. That’s probably true, but we can get to that… The story ends up, however, in a very supernatural place, as an explanation of why the invading aliens end up not aggressive, but peaceful. That leads me to the story, so let’s start there!
The Basic Plot
Because that’s the story – aliens show up, totally change everything humanity believes about everything, and then are benevolent, called the Overlords by humanity. They have long life, and they out-wait humanity, allowing generational change to lead to a whole new Earth – one used to the aliens, used to the technology they provide and the limits they impose.
The limits are interesting – no space exploration, no nations and war. Humanity is left with good health and other technologies, no conflict or scarcity to drive them, and no exploration to push them forward. Clarke makes a big deal about this stagnation of innovation and drive: this is maybe the major theme of the book. The question is how do you most quickly get there over the course of a book, and the answer is, by having peaceful aliens show up…
So most of the characters are concerned with trying to preserve the arts and sciences, to still trying to do something with their lives – despite utopia all around them. For the most part, the human characters are just there to reinforce the themes, and to show some of the emotional experience happening.
Clarke wanted to explore humanity without any drive or motivation, and to do so he gives us the Overlords. In trying to figure out why you get the Overlords – why you would have a peaceful alien race show up and still majorly impact and control the Earth – Clarke went to the supernatural for the explanation. So let’s go there too.
Childhood’s End and Religion
So the first interesting relationship to religion in the books is that, when the Overlords finally reveal what they look like, it turns out they look like devils! It gets pretty complicated, though, as to why that ends up being a human fear of the devil form… see, the Overlords haven’t visited before.
However, psychic visions of the future? Sure.
We come to find out that the Overlords came because they knew that humanity would, eventually, become a giant hive mind for a supernatural cosmic presence… that basically, the world’s children would all become part of one being, with visions of space and worlds and other aliens…
It gets weird.
Apparently, the Overlords are themselves an evolutionary dead end… intelligent, long-lived, all sorts of good qualities – but unchanging. An invention of a later age, perhaps, but they remind me of Marvel Comics’ Kree, and their creation of the Inhumans because they have stopped changing and evolving themselves. The Overlords are led to humanity, as they had been led to other species before, to usher in this change. To stop humanity from blowing themselves up, as well – it is 1953 when Clarke was writing. And then just waiting it out, and letting this new humanity go its way, to join whatever the supernatural whatever in the sky is.
This is all the part of the story that Clarke decided he needed to apologize for. He decided that it being part of the story didn’t detract from his overall point, about humanity and losing our drive and benevolent aliens and us potentially destroying ourselves. And having read the book, then, I’d have to agree, because the plot itself is not the point, it’s just what we expect out of a book. That’s what I generally expect out of science fiction of that era…
A Product of its Time
This is the first of Clarke’s work that I’ve read, and I know from reputation that he is considered a classic and a master. However, books from this era, at least, read very differently from what we might expect today. The best example I’ve read of this style is probably the Foundation trilogy, which hits different eras in such a cool way. Maybe Dune was around the tipping point, I don’t know; when the plot mattered as much as the ideas. This book, at its heart, and even with the author’s approval in hindsight, is about the ideas.
It does several things that others of its era do as well. It has long jumps in the timeline, where you move on completely from the characters and current setting to the future. It has long sections where it then catches you up on the changes in the world.
These are the sections I liked the best in the book, these long sections of science fiction “what if,” looking at the world over time after the various effects of the peaceful alien invasion have settled in. This is why the book was written, to get these ideas all together and on the page. I dog-eared some pages. I’ll probably be back to them someday to discuss again.
I heard there was a series on SyFy of Childhood’s End, and after reading the book, I’m fascinated to find out what that was like. Because adapting this today, I imagine a focus on the plot, on the characters. The interesting parts, in a show, would likely be a montage or the backgrounds. Visual instead of explicit. It could overall be a very different experience. If you saw it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below! Or if you’ve read the book, or really any other comments if you’ve made it to this point in the review!