It will now be hard to film Childhood's End because the opening, with the great ships suspended over the cities of the earth, was cribbed, intentionally or by coincidence, for Independence Day. That's a pity because it would make a tremendous film being a shattering and most skilfully written story. Here the visitors have not come to despoil our planet, indeed so well put together is the plot that we may well forget to ask ourselves why they have bothered to come along and preside over a golden age of universal peace, prosperity and others of Clarke's (and my) liberal preoccupations such as no cruelty to animals. The book is not 200 pages long but it combines Clarke's special narrative gifts as a short-story writer with a vision of the whole nature and purpose of the universe that I find staggering and intolerably poignant to this day, 30 years after I first read it.
Brian Aldiss has perceptively said that if Stapledon has a successor it is Clarke, and Clarke himself has told us how deeply Stapledon has influenced him. However this book resembles Stapledon in nothing except the scale of the concept. Childhood's End is written by a recognisable human being with power over our emotions -- power indeed! When the overlord first shows himself, I wondered whether the story could ever recover from such a dramatic coup so early on. I need not have worried. The story has not even begun: the truth, when we finally get it not far from the end, wrenches my innards to this day, and between times the crux of the narrative (the seance) is as brilliant a false clue as was ever laid by Agatha Christie. Those of us who have been cursed or maybe blessed with a compulsion to worry about our world and our fate, and who cannot find any clue to it in bibles and such like, are bound to react emotionally to an effort like this. It is not 'tragic' in Aristotle's sense, but for a 'purging of pity and terror' I'm not sure I know anything like it.