First contact

Photograph of barrage balloons over London during World War II

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.

Tarot XV The Devil

* * * * *

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)

29 thoughts on “First contact

  1. It used to be one of my recurrant dreams ( or nightmares) the sighting of spaceships in the sky. What could I feel? Wonder, of course, soon replaced by terror. As if the “visitors” share our same drives, having a superior technology, they couldn’t but destroy us. It has always been so on planet Earth, at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That projection of our worst fears about our own natures is one that we often put upon the Other, isn’t it, Stefy; though there are many, especially cultists, who expect a benign or even beneficent beings to manifest themselves, perhaps selecting the cultists as the new elite, the Chosen Ones, to partake in a new state of being. Me, I don’t think any extraterrestrial visitation will be anything such as we can imagine! But awe, and not a little terror, would certainly be my reaction. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hobbs is my favourite philosopher, so you may well have an idea of my opinion on human nature. Think about the first colonizers who arrived in the new world with their huge ships and advanced technology. They were seen as gods by the natives. They were helped and given their lands as the people there didn’t know anything about private property, as they believed that the lands belonged only to god or the great spirit only. You know how it ended: “exterminate the brutes”!

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        1. God points, Stefy, though I’m never sure if it’s valid to compare the ultimately brutal conquest of indigenous peoples by European exploiters with putative alien visitors who may or may not have similar mindsets to human beings.

          Still, I suppose there are several nonhuman interactions that we could posit as possible scenarios for such an encounter: ants ‘milking’ aphids; parasites drawing nourishment from their hosts; cancers, viruses or bacteria ultimately killing their hosts; or symbiotic relationships where organisms incorporate one or the other to create new life forms. Any of these seem more likely than humanoid races colonising Earthlings.


      2. inkbiotic

        I agree that any alien visit would be unlike our imaginings, chances are we wouldn’t even know it had happened! The idea of spaceships and little green men always seemed very human to me.
        I think I agree with Clarke theory that humanity would do as it’s told for comfort and security – I know those in power like to blow things up, but the majority of people don’t want the trouble and strife.
        Curious to read Childhood’s End now, thank you for bringing that to my attention 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Do have a try of this novel, it’s certainly stimulating if not provocative! As I mention elsewhere, I’m not sure a craving for comfort and security precludes the temptation to create a bit of trouble and strife, a certain urge to prod the sleeping dragon* — an act that may go one of several ways!

          *You may have recognised the reference to Hogwart’s Latin motto here. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there – long time no talk! I drop in from time to time, knowing your posts always give me something to think about. I haven’t read Childhood’s End, nor am I well read in Sci-Fi generally, but I have found myself writing some recently – well, I say sci-fi but I suppose it is part satire, part spoof but serious in intent nonetheless. My basic contention (and this is its relevance to your post) is that extra-terrestrial life, when discovered, might well be very basic (because we will be looking in our tiny reachable corner of the universe, quite apart from the fact that our level of intelligence may be much more unusual than some think, if not totally unique – though that would require explanation of course – which is where I supply some fiction that may or may not become fact). So while it is a very useful fictional exercise to imagine the arrival of extra-terrestrial overlords, I have become more interested in the human need to progress into the unknown in search of a renewal, some kind of noble redemption, that invariably turns out to be just another chapter in our messy, painful history. I have only done the first two chapters – it’s called ‘Captain Stellon’ – but it will only be for a minority audience as it is very irreverent and somewhat twisted!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That exercise of the imagination, to elaborate on what-ifs that proceed from what we already know, is indeed what makes us Homo Ludens or the beings of unusual or maybe unique intelligence that you mention. Whether receiving strange visitors or going outwards into the unknown, there’s something of the insatiable curiosity in our nature (well, some of us, anyway) that for better or worse means we refuse to stand still — however much a proportion of us want to return to a mythical Golden Age or some equally mythical Good Old Days.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, yes, I think I know what you mean. People are radically different in their psychologies – the extrovert/introvert thing is definitely a divider, and then you have the extremes like psychopaths etc – so the idea of an all-encompassing ‘human nature’ seems to break down. I tend to think of ‘human nature’ as a description of our unique (at least on planet Earth) position as a species suspended between the animal and the self-conscious – a predicament that allows for our ingenuity, playfulness and curiosity but also leaves us all capable of compassion and casual evil. And that human history is a cyclical repetition of these capabilities, because ‘human nature’ (and so ethics on the grand scale) never really changes even if art, science, technology etc do progress. But this is a depressing conclusion to come to – and I take your point that it is a massive (and perhaps unhelpful) generalisation.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, easy to get depressed when we see again and again that the same mistakes are being made and that so many are complicit in allowing them to happen. Well, we can only do what we can do, exercise compassion and model good behaviour. And hope. (Ah, the consolations of philosophy!)

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  3. piotrek

    Interesting! It’s been some time since I’ve read it, but there was a SyFy mini-series recently, have you seen it? Pretty decent, but not really improving on the novel’s deficiencies.

    Of the giants of early s/f I much prefer Asimov… To me, Clarke is better with concepts than the writing itself. Childhood’s End should be, among other things, longer, to allow for more realistic transition of human society, I fully agree it’s not done very well here.

    An intriguing book nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t subscribe to SyFy, no, there’s enough to distract me with the limited channels available on Freeview in my part of the world! Though I did note there was a mini-series done of this a couple or so years ago — Charles Dance or some such actor as one of the Overlords I believe? Hard to transcribe the novel’s limited philosophy to the screen, I’d imagine.


      1. piotrek

        Yes, Dance, as a quite impressive devil.

        You’re right, but having read the book years ago, I could treat the series as an illustration of a familiar story. With no prior knowledge of Clarke’s vision… the show , on its own, would seem much less interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. My parents irritatingly gave me four forenames which spell out CALM (hence this blog’s handle) so I suppose I naturally — life imitating art, maybe — tend towards soothing conclusions! But I agree, Bart, this novel is certainly a frustrating read, and indeed the ending feels both rushed and inconsequential, despite the Last Man’s final philosophising.

      Liked by 1 person

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