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.