Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End
Pan Books 2017 (1954, 1990)
It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 …
Scores — hundreds — of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city …
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood’s End was conceived.
— From the author’s foreword to the 1990 edition
Childhood’s End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood’s End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century — in fact, right now.
When I read such fictions (these are all titles I’ve completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.
In Childhood’s End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?
The answer of course is to sink into the storytelling; as Clarke wrote, “it’s a work of fiction, for goodness sake!” And the first thing to take from Part I of the novel (“Earth and the Overlords”) is how would we react to the appearance of silver alien craft silently floating above the capital cities of the world? Would it make any difference to our tribal, selfish behaviours? Should the extra-terrestrials ever make contact with world leaders or organisations and lay down broad rules about future conduct would humankind lay aside its differences and get on with sensible living?
I think this is where I really became less convinced of the likelihood of Clarke’s scenario. In his part 2 (“The Golden Age”) he seemed overly confident that human nature would, in effect, lie down and allow its tummy to be tickled in exchange for comfort and convenience. Perhaps the oppressive nature of the postwar Cold War led him to optimistically hope that reason and commonsense would result in a better and more peaceful world. We can all but hope, can we not.
A further disconnect came with the appearance of what become known as the Overlords. It’s only slightly of a spoiler to draw attention with the Old Testament story of the Sons of God coming down to Earth (though there’s no procreation with the daughters of men). These ‘fallen angels’ do indeed look like our traditional image of Satan: cloven hooves, barbed tail, horns, wings and all. But the half-century delay in their visible ‘outing’ means that, because humankind has acquiesced in their new almost lobotomised status, the Overlords’ demonic semblance causes no panic, only awe.
I doubt that fifty years would be enough, however quiescent populations were rendered, to virtually eradicate fundamentalist religious thinking, to erase collective memories of medieval devils or to completely modify emotional reactions. But let’s go with the flow of Clarke’s narrative, because we soon come to the significance of his novel’s title. In part 3 (“The Last Generation”) humankind is indeed coming to its end, being made ready for the next stage in its evolution. In place of God, it turns out, there is an Overmind to which the Overlords play the part of subordinate ‘angels’, messengers to do the Overmind’s bidding; and this bidding is that a proportion of the human offspring in the 21st century will simultaneously develop both paranormal powers and a hive mind. These next-generation children will rapidly become so evolved that they will cease to be what we recognise as human.
What mostly saves Clarke’s narrative for me is the succession of human characters that he parades for us to provide some continuity and connection. The United Nations secretary, the dilettante with a sizeable collection of occult literature, the sensitive who observes a Ouija board session, the stowaway on the Overlord’s spaceship, the youngsters who first exhibit paranormal powers — however brief their appearance or reappearance Clarke uses them to push forward his narrative, stretching over the best part of a century.
I should also mention the handful of Overlords who interact with their human flock; though mostly undifferentiated except for names theirs is an authoritative though sympathetic presence throughout Childhood’s End and, dare I say it, I felt for them because of their enforced roles in the evolution of humanity, and sympathised with their melancholy, their fate as long-lived drones with no discernible future existence. The 1957 British horror film The Night of the Demon lost its overall impact with the appearance in the final reel of the titular demon in stop motion animation; in Childhood’s End however the early revelation of the Overlords’ semblances was, conversely, not anticlimactic, allowing us instead to see them as careful stewards reluctantly fulfilling the roles allotted to them.
Classic SF occasionally strayed into philosophical territory concerning extraterrestrial intelligence and how humans might evolve: Clarke famously did so in his short story The Sentinel and again in the screenplay he wrote with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: a Space Odyssey. Here, with demonic-looking Overlords and an Overmind and hive minds I sense some interesting speculative thinking on the part of the author, thinking which however heads resolutely towards a cul-de-sac. Yet it is still possible to feel a bit of that awe and wonder Clarke noted when he saw those barrage balloons in 1941, and to consider for ourselves the what-ifs that might follow the sighting of spaceships hovering above our cities.
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Arthur C Clarke would have been 100 years old in December 2017 (he in fact died in 2008), so this review is a belated tribute to a major figure in SF and science fact
In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as an award-winning book (in 2004 it was nominated for a retroactive Hugo Award for Best Novel for 1954, though it lost out to Fahrenheit 451)