Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Genre: Science Fiction
So I decided it was time to put down the never-ending litany of literary atrocities that Tropical Mary and I normally subject one another to and read a real book. I’ve only ever read one other book by Arthur C. Clarke (The Songs of Distant Earth, which was fantastic), so I decided to give another a go. As with many things I’m a little late to the party in my appreciation of Mr Clarke’s work (since he’s been in the ground for the last 7 years), but Childhood’s End was a fantastic read. It’s one of those rare books that’s a brilliant piece of science fiction for those who just want a fun read, but is also full of ideas that were well ahead of its time and leaves you with a lot to think about after you’ve read the final page.
The story of Childhood’s End is divided into three parts: ‘Earth and the Overlords’, ‘The Golden Age’ and ‘The Last Generation’. The book has no central character, focusing rather on events and the actions of different individuals over the 100+ years the story covers.
The first part deals with the arrival of the Overlords, an alien race who have come to Earth to supervise the human race and save it from eventual extinction at its own hands. Their ships hover over the world’s main cities but the Overlords do not, with the exception of two incidents, interfere in human affairs. The fleet over Earth is headed by a being known as Karellen, who will only speak to the United Nations Secretary-General. He does not, however, appear to the Secretary-General, instead saying that the Overlords will reveal themselves to humanity in 50 years once people have become accustomed to their presence.
The reason for this becomes clear in the second part, where it turns out the Overlords look exactly like the traditional image of the Devil, complete with leathery wings, horns and tails. Because so much time has passed and science has quickly overtaken religion, people are not frightened of them, and a Golden Age begins. All basic needs on Earth are met, so whatever time people have is now dedicated to education and whatever particular spheres of interest they themselves have. National borders have been done away with, wars have ended, and the concept of the supernatural has completely faded from the human mind, with only a few still interested in it as a scholarly pass time. The Overlords themselves are also very interested in psychic research, although they won’t divulge the reason for this.
The final part takes place largely on New Athens, an island colony established to ensure that cultural expression and the arts continue during this time where people have little need or want to express themselves. It is here that the Overlords take an active interest in Jeffrey and Jennifer Anne, the children of George and Jean Greggson. Having previously established the rule that humans may do what they want with one another and actively choosing not to get involved in human affairs, the Overlords step in to save Jeffrey’s life when a tsunami strikes New Athens. Through their actions we learn that the Overlords are not here purely to benefit mankind, and that they themselves are guided by another power higher than themselves. Their mission is not a malevolent one, but one where individuals are inconsequential in the face of a far greater plan.
The Writing Style
The thing that I really like about Arthur C. Clarke is that for all he was clearly an intelligent man and his books deal with incredibly complex ideas, he writes in a way that anyone can read his work and follow along with little difficulty. The characters that you do come into contact with won’t bring out any great sense of attachment in you, but that’s because they aren’t meant to. Much like the plot as a whole the characters are inconsequential, but their actions and their effect on the development of the plot are important.
As an aside and something which has absolutely no bearing on the book itself, what I did find fascinating when reading this book was the development of language. I have a fairly good grasp on the English language and can whip out some decent sounding Latin-based words where simple Germanic ones would have sufficed, but there were quite a number of words in this book that I simply didn’t recognise as they’ve fallen out of common use since the book was written. It’s one thing to look at Shakespeare and not understand what on Earth the man was trying to say, but I did find it mildly interesting just how much the way we speak has changed in the 60-odd years since this book was written.
Much like I when I read The Songs of Distant Earth my thought to myself when I finished Childhood’s End was ‘that’s so powerful and hopeful and bleak and soul-destroying’. As a species humans tend to think quite highly of themselves, and whilst we have achieved a lot (both good and bad), reading a book like this really makes you think. The Overlords are clearly superior in every conceivable way, both in terms of intelligence and evolution. It’s not that they don’t care for humanity, because they do, but it’s a similar care that we would have towards a beloved pet that’s trying its hardest rather than a care born out of respect for equals.
It also deals quite subtly with the idea that a lot of what humans want for themselves are things that, by our nature, we couldn’t handle. A large part of the book is spent in a true utopia where all of mankind’s ills are long forgotten. In its place, however, is a stagnation of culture and general boredom. In the face of the Overlords’ superior intelligence and technology, trying to do anything seems pointless.
Why I say I felt conflicted while reading is because I spent the duration of the book, and a fair bit of time afterwards, grappling with the idea that there is a greater purpose in the universe beyond our little blue marble on the one hand, and on the other being unable to reconcile this far greater plan with the natural belief that humanity is important and that the lives of individuals count for something.
I do enjoy having some good science fiction that also allows me to stretch the philosophical parts of my brain, and Childhood’s End certainly doesn’t disappoint.