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.
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.
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.
on 11 July 2016
I read this book in my youth, and remember how vivid and memorable some of the imagery was. The image of children round a pillar of light, that is the collective overmind has stayed with me until now.
Recently I watched the TV series, and then re-read the book, as I wanted to see what had changed, and I couldn't remember the story. Whilst the TV series has the main events from the book, and some of the main characters, the flow is completely different, and the shape of the events is chronologically different, although the ending is roughly the same. A modern update.
So, the book was first published in the 50s, and retains all that decades styles and attitudes. It has no modern 'realism' (or technology), and no 'action' sequences. It is largely historical/philosophical in nature, with some strong poetic imagery. Clarke dives in, on a personal level, to show people's reactions to the monumental events occurring to society. Those interactions with the characters are flawed by the dated writing, but are nonetheless not too distracting, merely giving it period feel. Like reading an HG Wells story.
I still like this story. It carries the reader along, and never gets boring, even though it feels slightly old fashioned. The imagery is still inspiring, and of course, the idea of benevolent aliens is still different from the usual 'Alien/Predator' axis. For which I am very grateful!
Read it yourself; it's not long, and if Science Fiction is your thing, then the ideas that Clarke creates are stunning. Well worth a read.
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.
on 27 March 2016
AGain a book to keep on your shelves and read again and again. Clarke had a gift for peering into the future and showing us...possibilities.
A masterful tale told with skill and ... I rather think... a little unease about what he was proposing . Rerad, shiover, and go bacl over certaqin parts and you will be transported into a world that might just happen.The present TV series has chopped up the narrative and although.. if you have not read the book it will intrique you.. my advice is the READ the BOOK and forget the TV version Clarke and Bradbury.. what `a delight to read anything of theirs
on 14 August 2015
A very clever and ultimately quite disturbing book. Written in 1953, Arthur C. Clarke correctly anticipates the arrival of birth control pills, DNA testing, virtual reality and a whole host of other things which have since come to pass. The only thing which he (and many others from the 50's and indeed more recently) seem to have missed is the fact that camera films and recording tapes whilst not exactly obsolete, are certainly no longer the most convenient forms of storage medium!
The story follows the final days of humankind (as we know it), and builds to a thought-provoking and somewhat distressing climax, but with an underlying hope that maybe there is something else out there for us in the universe. This book has become a fully-deserving classic of its genre, - it is worth reading just for the sheer intelligence of the writing alone, even if you're not a sci-fi fan.
on 12 June 2016
I'm not a fan of SF but reverential comments about this book drew me to it and in terms of ideas about the destiny of humanity etc I can appreciate why it is held in high regard. But, oh dear, the clunkiness of the exposition, the stilted dialogue, the painfully thin characterization ... The book is rooted in the immediate post-war world which Clarke, for all his vision, couldn't transcend. Some passages remain powerful, but the work as a whole Is only for SF aficionados I'm afraid.
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.