Of the golden age sci-fi writers generation, Clarke may be the only one who produced true literature. His books are so finely written, so superby researched, and so subtle and dramatic that he set the standard for the best who were to follow.
Childhood's end is probably the best of his earlier books. Clarke maintains a sense of mystery until the very end, titillating the reader with clues.
Without revealing the plot, humankind is visited by enigmatic space craft, perched over the major cities of the planet. The aliens will not allow themselves to be seen and they let mankind develop more or less as it pleases, though subtly guiding it and rarely overtly. While reading it, you feel the vastness of the universe and the wonder of existence, which sounds pretentious but Clarke pulls it off. He also weaves in certain grand themes, such as the unity of apocalyptic visions in the major religions, the complexity of time, and the destiny of the human mind, all of which are inter-linked. This creates a permanent space in the imagination of the reader, to be nutured for a lifetime.
Recommended as a great introduction to the world of sci-fi.
on 11 November 1998
A brilliant book in which Clarke explores the theme of man's position within the universe. Unlike a lot of Clarke's work which draws heavily on scientific principles this is not a factually based novel.
A highly fantastic plot sees a race of aliens take control of earth and outlaw all immoral acts, instantly producing world peace, through use of their superior technology. Unlike many SF novels, however, they are here not to conquor the globe but to prepare humanity for the future. Some, of course are not willing to sit back and accept this life of blissful slavery from the moralistic aliens. They are determined to discover the truth behind the alien's plans, why noone has ever seen one an alien and precisely what this future holds. The nature of what is to come in the future may not be very believable but this is one of Clarke's space-fantasy novels not factual science-fiction. The end of the book will make you turn back to the front cover to double check it has Arthur C. Clarke's name on it.
The first few editions of the novel had the words "The views expressed in this book are not those of the author" printed on page 1. In the introduction to the later editions, Clarke explains why he insisted on those lines being included as the novel revolves around the idea that man's place is here on earth not in the stars.
This is a superb, thought provoking novel. While the plot may not be all that credible the themes discussed in this book: man's positition in the universe; whether enforced heaven is acceptable and whether man's place is on earth or in the stars are what makes it one of the best science-fiction novels ever written. It may have been written over thirty years ago but it is still relevant in today's world.
Not necessarily for all Arthur C. Clarke fans as if you are expecting a novel based primarily on hard science like "2061: Odessy 3" or "A Fall of Moondust" you will be disapointed. This is, however one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever written and and demonstrates superbly the depth of Clarke's imagination.
on 12 February 2016
I first heard this serialised on Radio 4 back in the late 1990s and it always stuck in my mind as being absolutely spell-binding. Still, despite this, Childhood’s End never seemed to have reached quite the same amount of mass popular appeal compared to say, The Day of the Triffids and I never really heard much more about it, so I was delighted to spot a copy in my local library and now, at last, I have sat down and read this. It does feel like somewhat overdue. Written in the 1950s, this novel draws heavily on post-war themes to create a bewildering and un-nerving tale that questions what it means to exist. Clearly set in the close aftermath of World War II, Clarke describes how humanity came very close to its own destructions when all of a sudden, the huge mysterious ships arrived in the sky – the Overlords had arrived.
Karellen is the Overlords’ apparent leader and it is he who first speaks to humanity, in perfect English and displaying an admirable knowledge of our ways – but it is just Karellen’s voice that we hear, his face remains a mystery, as is where he and his fellows may have come from. From there, Karellen communicates directly with the leader of the United Nations and even to Stormgren, always from behind a one-way pane of glass. Hysteria builds amongst radical groups and what exactly the Overlords truly are and what it is that they have to hide – the Freedom League proclaims that although Karellen’s plans for humanity appear to be to the good, his true agenda is unknown. The Overlords outlaw cruelty to animals, war, famine and racial segregation. They put down the building blocks for a one-world state. And at long last, they agree that they will show themselves. In fifty years.
The unseen nature of the Overlords is, I feel, a big part of the reason why the series worked so well on the radio. When Stormgren is able to steal a glimpse of the Overlords’ true appearance, it is far easier to imagine the horror of it through hearing his reaction than by Clarke’s (often strangely blank) paragraphs of description. Similarly, one of the strongest memories I have of the series was the part when the Overlords finally do show themselves. There is a carnival atmosphere, the news reporter is excited, there are children waving flags – and then the Overlords come out. And everyone is struck silent. I read that SyFy commissioned a three-part mini-series adaptation of Childhood’s End back in December but I won’t be watching; I don’t want to see Karellen – my imagination has filled in the gap far better than the screen ever could.
The Overlords steer humanity towards a Utopia – a Golden age where governments no longer have to spend on a military budget but can instead provide free education for all. Still, I found the details of this perfect world fascinating in what they revealed about Clarke’s own pre-occupations. According to the narrator, the most significant developments to aid humanity were the development of a fool-proof oral contraceptive and the ability to carry out paternity tests. These inventions were still in the future in the 1950s but when one considers the state of humanity now, access to both of these has clearly not exactly brought us back to the Garden of Eden. Equally, Clarke describes ecstatically the world’s human-free factories which are all run by machine – we are coming close to that goal now and it has led to an utter collapse in infrastructure for various communities, a long way away from Utopia. There is an innocence to much of Clarke’s imagining, with a variety of overly-long passages detailing all of the various ways in which humanity has been improved by Karellen’s influence – apocalyptic fiction has rarely been so optimistic.
Clarke does seem to have a real fascination with racial identity, describing in extreme detail the ethnic make-up of his characters as well as which corners of the globe they hailed from. A particularly odd note comes when he explains that in this new age of perfect equality, the n-word has ceased to be offensive and has instead become descriptive. My initial reaction was (and to be honest, still is) to wince – no amount of alien intervention is ever going to make that word acceptable. However, it did make me think about the relationship humanity has with language as a whole. When one considers the various derogatory terms for the disabled, the majority of them started out as medical terms used by doctors. As the general public got hold of them, they were transformed by people’s prejudices into something offensive. Even recently, I was told while working for the University of Oxford that ‘Special Needs’ is no longer politically correct and that we were now to say ‘Disability Register’ – yet we all acknowledged that in a few years’ time, that too would have negative connotations and another term would be needed. If we could overcome our prejudices, perhaps we could stick with the same word. But it seems a very remote possibility.
The story develops around various un-related characters as humanity moves steadily towards its conclusion. This may be a Golden Age but Karellen reflects sadly that gold is the colour of autumn. This is the end game. Yet however progressive this society is intended to be, it retains a conservative social agenda; when George and Jean move to New Athens, her place is firmly held to be in the kitchen and George is encouraged to continue his extra-marital adventures while Jean sits at home and knits. To be honest, Clarke’s indulgent and condescending attitude towards the women on New Athens and their knitting annoyed me more than anything in the entire book. Knitting is awesome and it is Clarke’s own loss if he never realised that.
There is a true beauty to Childhood’s End but it is not in the characterisation, which remains rather flat. I was reminded of John Wyndham’s similarly detached prose; both authors have an eye on the overall plot rather than on their individual players, although I would say that Clarke is a step even further away than Wyndham. I felt that the radio series did a better job at drawing the characters together, inventing a continuity between Stormgren, the Secretary of the United Nations and his apparent descendant Jean. In the novel, people felt very disparate, creating a further sense of loneliness to the story. Clarke’s citizens of Utopia still feel like a lost little group, unsure of what to believe in or strive towards in this goalless society and it is perhaps from this state of ennui that the end is born.
I think that this is the most imaginative envisaging of the apocalypse that I can ever remember reading. Clarke has the last surviving human describe what he is seeing in a monologue, for the benefit of the watching Overlords, meaning that it was again very close to the end of the radio series. I have a feeling that it is this which Clarke had in mind when he was first inspired to write the novel – it is one of the most powerful pieces of the story. Yet, I was caught also by another episode which I did not recall from the radio – when George asks an Overlord angrily if they have been watching his children, the Overlord replies yet. George is furious as the Overlords had promised to stop doing this to humanity. The Overlord replies quietly that this is the case and they have stuck to it – they have not been watching humans, they have been watching the children. And it is best that human enjoy them for as long as they have them for they will not be children for long. True words for any parent but the tragedy of Childhood’s End is that this generation will not merely out-strip their parents in understanding of technology but also in consciousness. Knowing what the end would be was perhaps the reason why the book did not quite live up to the radio adaptation in my mind but in both, the final act gave me gooseflesh. Hold tight to your children, you cannot know what they will grow up to be.
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.
Humanity is about to launch its first manned mission to another world. Finally, the human race is about to escape its cradle and take its first step towards the stars. But on the eve of the launch the skies over the Earth's major cities are blotted out by the appearance of huge, alien spacecraft. The Overlords have arrived, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most famous writers the science fiction field has ever produced, thanks to his work on the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and his role as a popular science commentator (he covered several of the Apollo moon landings for American television and had several successful TV series in the 1980s). Clarke's work is notable for its straightforwardness (he was never a great prose stylist) but also its scientific rigour. With a few exceptions, Clarke had little truck with what he considered to be some of the more fantastical concepts of SF (such as faster-than-light travel and artificial gravity) and did not use them in his work. In his view, the universe is vast, timeless and unknowable. Much of Clarke's work is notable for a certain melancholic optimism: the human race can be much more than it is now, but even so is unlikely to challenge the vastness of the universe.
Childhood's End was published in 1953 and was his fourth novel, although his first published in the United States, where it immediately established him as a major voice in the field. In many ways it is atypical Clarke. The aliens are comprehensible and easily relate to human beings, unlike the enigmatic entities of say 2001 or Rendezvous with Rama. At the same time, his normal scientific vigour is a little slacker than normal, as concepts such as telepathy and group consciousnesses are explored (Clarke had a passing fascination with the supernatural at the time, though later firmly rejected such notions). Clarke's influences are clear, with the presence of Olaf Stapledon particularly hard to ignore.
The novel is extremely concise, with my paperback copy clocking in at 160 pages. For its short page count, the novel is fairly epic. It is split into three sections, each with a distinct cast, focus and storyline (unsurprising, as the first section was originally a stand-alone short story). In the first, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has to oversee the painful transformation of humanity from bickering nation-states to a single world government. In the second, a family 'escape' the Overlords' utopia to live in an island commune free of their influence, only to discover the real reason for the Overlords' arrival on Earth. In the final section, a lone human who stowed away aboard an Overlord ship returns to Earth eighty years later (though only a few months later by his count, due to time dilation) to find a world vastly changed from the one he left. Clarke doesn't waste a word as he lets the story unfold inexorably, moving to a conclusion that looms somewhere between awe-inspiring and horrific.
As a novelist, Clarke was much more interested in ideas (thematic, scientific or both) than people. His characterisation was often variable, although Childhood's End is actually one of his better books in that regard. Its major protagonists (even the Overlords) are clearly defined and sympathetic. In terms of structure, Childhood's End is unusual in that the entire story is pre-ordained, and nothing any of the characters do can change what is happening. They - and the reader - can only witness it and make their own minds up about whether it is something that can be called 'good' or not, and I suspect many will fall on the 'not' end of the spectrum.
As a result Childhood's End can be viewed as a colossal tragedy. The book has a tremendous emotional charge as it poses a simple question: how would we face it if our way of existing ended tomorrow? Clarke's answer is surprisingly bleak but, one suspects, one that would be close to the truth.
The novel has aged in some respects. The first edition opened with the USA and USSR battling to land a man on the moon, since Apollo 11 was still sixteen years in the future at the time it was published. Clarke also makes a very dated joke where he discusses how the Overlords have to force the rulers of South Africa to treat all their citizens equally regardless of skin colour. The 'joke' is that by this time majority rule in South Africa has been restored, and it's the white population that's being mistreated. An amusing aside in 1953 actually feels rather cynical today, assuming as it does that the African population would be as racist and authoritarian as the white one was. However, another point about how the people of Israel bitterly resist being absorbed into the Overlords' hegemony and giving up the freedom they have spent centuries fighting for, is more resonant. There's also a recurring problem in Clarke's work where he underestimates the power of religion, and the sequences where the Overlords' arrival causes the downfall of all world religions in a matter of months are rather unconvincing.
In most respects, Childhood's End (****½) has not aged badly at all, and its central themes of parenthood and the futility of railing against the night - but the effort nevertheless being laudable - remain interesting. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
on 14 August 2014
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back 60 years to Arthur C. Clarke’s fifth published novel it couldn’t be more obvious that he was always going to revolutionise SF. There is a breadth of appreciation here – very few aspects of human life as affected by the Overlords escape him (and his off-hand prediction for television has become distressingly true!) – which hints at the wonderful intellect that would become more apparent in Clarke’s work in the years following Childhood’s End.
You reach a certain point in your reading life where there are authors you just trust: you’ve practically decided before you even opened the book that you’re going to like it, not because you’re slavishly blind to their flaws but rather because you recognise something of their philosophy in your own thinking. Clarke is like that for me (as are Isaac Asimov, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie). I forgive him the lack of consistent focus and largely indistinguishable characters in this because there is so much passion, so much love and hope and life and joy, in these pages that who really cares if he doesn’t keep everything on the tightest of reins? So much thought has gone into the scenario he presents, and the development of his ideas is so effortless, so commonsensical, that I prefer to marvel than to nitpick. Others won’t necessarily agree, but if you’re not able to enjoy Clarke then you’re really missing out.
One word of warning: the synopsis on the Tor paperback edition gives away virtually everything, so my suggestion would be to jump straight into the book if you’re buying that version. You’ll have seen a fair few of the ideas here in other forms, and very popular forms they are too, but Clarke getting there first should give you some idea of just how influential the man was. This is beautiful stuff, I really do hope you can see what makes it so special.
on 18 December 2011
Childhood's End is not a long novel but it's ambitious.
Alien spaceships park themselves over major cities and their leader imposes a benign dictatorship enforcing peace and prosperity. Mankind thrives as subjects of the Overlords, and there's no apparent cost in the form of tax and tribute. There are doubters, who resent their loss of freedom, even if that freedom would leave them worse off, but most people acquiesce readily. The big question is Why? Initially, why won't the aliens show themselves? And once that question is answered, why have they come?
Wanting to know the answers drives the reader towards an awesome conclusion, through some rather pedestrian story telling. It seems heretical to say it of a classic novel, but I found its episodic nature jarring. Three sets of characters are introduced and dispensed with, before their characters are realised. They exist to propel us to the Big Idea. Fortunately it is an idea worthy of capital letters, so we are not let down. But Childhood's end might well have ended anticlimactically.
I found myself vaguely annoyed by the middle part of the story, almost as if it were a barrier to finding out what happened. That's both a testament to the power of Clarke's ideas, and a criticism that he could have made more of the journey.
The novel is bracketed by a foreword that gives too much away (though probably no more than you've read in the reviews here on Amazon), and an afterword by Arthur C Clarke on his changing attitude to the paranormal, which is a major theme.
on 6 September 2001
An intriguing tale of aliens visiting the Earth and overseeing the end of humanity. It includes several ideas that combine mythology and pseudo-scientific topics quite well. The plot is not especially complex but one is always aware that Clarke is steering the reader towards an end that was always in mind. This often makes Clarke's tales a relaxing experience because the reader can sit back and let the author direct the imagination. This book is largely ignored in the shadows of Rama and Odyssey and that is an injustice.
on 16 February 2008
I've read about 10 books by Clarke, and this one definetely goes up to my top three along with "2001" and "2010". If you're a Clarke fan, you have to buy it by any means. If you're thinking of going through Clarke's work for the first time, I would recommend to start from here.
What is this all about? Well, I don't want to spoil anything for you. Let's just say it's a story that unfolds throughout a 100 year period (!), and it concerns humankind's first encounter with superior alien forms, and the fate of the human race. While I loved the book, I believe that it has one mayor drawback. Clarke tries to describe a huge story (100 years that is), in less than 300 pages, and that doesn't always work good. I just wish that the book was a little longer, there are so many more things I would like to know about, but... anyway, a great novel nevertheless.
The bottom line is this: I honestly believe that the story of this book is a very realistic, probable, future scenario for humankind, and that says it all. But that's just me...
on 8 March 2000
For anyone who claims that science fiction is a genre that cannot produce classic literature, they should read Childhood's End. It provides, compact, readible philsophy of the first kind; something you rarely find. Childhood's end confront the value of mere survival for humaniy. A wonderful book.