the Little Red Reviewer

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Posted on: April 28, 2014

childhoods endChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

published in 1953

where I got it: purchased new

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There’s going to be some spoilers, because I don’t feel bad about spoiling a book that was published the year my Dad went into kindergarten.

 

The novel opens with a momentous event: the day the aliens come.  Their giant ships hover over every major city, but they came in peace. Forced peace, actually.  The Overlords announce they will be taking over all of Earth’s governments, they will be stopping all wars, stopping hunger, disease and poverty, they will be making sure us Earthlings live peaceful lives.  This is the first step towards Earth joining a galactic community, and the Overlords have been tasked with making sure we take this first step.  The Overlords give us no choice in the matter, and any earthly warlords or take it upon themselves to violently disagree are shamed into submission.  No choice at all, really.

 

But no one has ever seen an Overlord, and humans aren’t known to be trustworthy of anything we can’t see. The Overlord spokesperson, Karrelen, tells us that in fifty years they will show themselves to us, it will take that long for us to be ready.  And they were right.

childhoods end 3

Like Moses in the desert, plenty of people who saw the Overlord ships arrive were dead fifty years later. Two generations of children raised in the shadow of the Overlord ships, two generations who couldn’t understand why their aged grandparents shuddered to see that shadow.  In fifty years, we were ready to see the Overlords, because during that time they had gone from novelty to benign mundanity, and who could possibly fear something that had always been just, well, sitting there?

 

There’s a reason the Overlords couldn’t just walk out their spaceships the first day they got to Earth, we would have destroyed them. Think of the most terrifying creature your imagination can come up with.  They don’t look like that, at all. But they do physically resemble a creature which would have terrified humanity for much of our history – they look exactly like devils of dark ages mythology – horns, winges, tail, everything.  But the Overlords turned Earth into a near utopia – disease, hunger, war, these are things of the past. It must only be coincidence that they physically resemble what humans have historically been taught to fear and hate.

childhoods end  4

Even with their strange and frightful looks, everyone is still on “team Overlord”. The interweaving plots follow a handful of people who come into contact with the aliens. We first meet George and Jean Greggson who run into an Overlord at believe it or not, a party, and experience the strangest possible seance.  The story also follows Jan Rodericks, a man George and Jean meet at the party. Later, the story catches up with George and Jean after they’ve had children and moved to a commune.

This was the April book for my local scifi book club, and there was a lot of discussion about if this was an optimistic book, or not.  My vote was that it wasn’t. Sure, it starts out all optimistic, with first contact with an alien species, and one that wants to help us! But at the end of the book, when the children take that irreversible step, I felt the entire had taken a turn for the dark, and that actually, it had been dark the entire time, we just never noticed. It’s like this: The Overlords say they are giving us a choice – take the step or don’t take it.  But there was  never any choice, it was all just clever manipulation to make us believe we were choosing what was best for us, and that manipulation left a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Did the Overlords enable us to stay children forever?  Humans no longer dream of going to the stars, or even of going to the moon. Clarke could have never known it, but it’s as if Childhood’s End predicted the Millennials. Coddle your children and make everything easy for them, and they never dream of growing up, never yearn for it, will never run away from you or challenge you, will never become their own person.

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The story was a fast and entertaining read, but there wasn’t much emotional range. Very rarely did I get the feeling that anyone was ever in physical danger. We get plenty of information about what happens to whom and when, but there’s never much about how that affects those people. A huge alien ship shows up in the sky, and for the most part, people just keep calm and carry on. I get that Clarke wasn’t going for traditional characterization, but that’s usually something I need to get maximum enjoyment out of a book. So nothing wrong on him, it was user error – I was looking for something that he just didn’t do. It’s like being mad there aren’t any Fabrege trebuchets (although that would hella awesome).

 

It’s been quite a while since I read 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two or Rendezvous with Rama, so I’ll need to reread some of those before deciding where Childhood’s End falls in my Clarke favorites list. I also have a sneaky suspicion that Childhood’s End is one of those books that the first time you read it, you just don’t get it. And then you read it again a few years later, and things begin to make sense. And then you read it again a few years after that, and suddenly you understand why it is considered a classic.

 

Fun facts about Arthur C. Clarke (thanks Amazon.com!) – He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize!

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13 Responses to "Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke"

This sounds really interesting. It also reminds me about how I felt about After Doomsday by Poul Anderson, which I read a couple of days ago. Basically, it was a good book, I guess, but didn’t have the things that I was looking for/enjoy the most. But you have def got my curious about reading this one.

I haven’t read much Poul Anderson. so I should skip Doomsday?

Clark is what I’d considered old-school sci-fi with less emphasis on character development or impact on characters and more emphasis on ideas and creating concepts.

oh, absolutely. First time I read read Rendezvous with Rama and complained (loudly) about the lack of characterization, someone had to explain to me that Rama *was* the main character. oh. The concepts and big ideas are just as important as the characters, I just prefer a better balance.

“The story was a fast and entertaining read, but there wasn’t much emotional range.”

There’s a certain kind of old-school science fiction that I simultaneously feel nostalgic about, and have little interest in reading, these days. The “big ideas” are neat, but just don’t carry a book, at least not for me.

don’t tell anyone, but that’s exactly how I feel about all the Larry Niven I’ve read. new and older.

Though all Niven isn’t like that, of course.

Thanks for posting! I enjoy reading your reviews, and agree completely that Clarke has always been more concept oriented than character oriented. An old classic I still remember from my own childhood because it was one of the first new “alien contact” novels I read. It didn’t stick with me as much as it might have if the characters had felt more “real,” but because of the novelty of the idea (at the time), it remains on my list and bookshelf (albeit tattered and dog-eared).

Thanks again, and I look forward to more of your reviews.

Kerry Denney
Author of SOULSNATCHER (LazyDay Publishing, April 2014)

I must admit I do like my great characters. Plot ideas are all very well and good but I need more!
Lynn :D

Whereas I often want to read SF that focuses on ideas and science and big picture instead of characters, especially if they are in some post-apocalyptic grimdark future so many writers like these days. Childhood’s End was written to be just what it is, a first contact novel about how humankind would react and what the aliens would need to do so we would “grow up” as a species. Brin’s novels deal with the same idea set, just more recently. This blew me away when I read it in 1955 or so. Now, I’d read the Brin instead.

Oh, BTW, I have that older Ballentine edition.

I need to read this again, it’s been years.

I last read this in JHS, so I’m certain it went over my head. 2001 is a worthy read, though that series has diminishing returns. I loved the first Rama when I read it (also JHS), but even then, I couldn’t finish the series.

I have mixed feelings on Poul Anderson. “The Saturn Game” is entertaining and short. I think you would appreciate it.

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