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Childhood's End Paperback – 7 May 2010
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A first-rate tour de force (The New York Times)
Frighteningly logical, believable, and grimly prophetic . . . Clarke is a master (Los Angeles Times)
As a science fiction writer, Clarke has all the essentials (The New Yorker)
There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own 'survival' (C. S. Lewis)
A reissue of an all-time science fiction classic, from the author of 2001: A Space OdysseySee all Product description
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This version is revised (from the 1953 original) by Clarke himself; the new opening chapter and others passages put in to account for the rapid growth in space exploration in the decades after its original release and to revitalize the "dated" feel that Clarke felt it had acquired.
The core of the story remains; the previously mentioned ships appearing over cities and the alien "Overlords" being initially unwilling to reveal their form to mankind.
The Overlord "Supervisor" speaks only to the UN Secretary General, who is brought onto his craft for meetings in front of a blank screen. Karellen, as he is called, says that they will reveal their form only after 50 years have passed. In the mean time humanity's world is charged forever. Gone is war, famine, crime and most of the morbidity that plagues the human race. Countries become mere provinces of earth, religion virtually disappears. Mankind enters a Golden Age, Earth becoming almost a utopia.
When Karellen reveals his form to the world there is initially shock, but soon it becomes accepted. There is still that nagging doubt though "Why are they here? What is their plan for mankind?"
As the story unfolds, over decades, the question is always there. No single main character is followed we see the stages of the story through different eyes. The only constant is Karellen. Clarke tells an engaging and fascinating tale, full of questions about the nature of humanity. Why did the Overlords come? Are their motives as benign as they claim? Why do they share so much with humanity, giving them the gifts of peace and prosperity and advances in technology. Only to keep much from them and allow them only as far as the moon ( with strict Overload controls). Their enigmatic answer "The planets are for Man, but not the Stars" only fuels the curiosity of some.
To tell more would only be a spoiler, so I would just say read it for yourself, it's wonderful. The journey it takes the reader, and indeed mankind, on is always engaging and often surprising. Clarke's ability to put incredible images onto the page then project them into the reader's head is magical.
But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years...
This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.
The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.
The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.
On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.
Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.
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.