by Arthur C Clarke
220 pages, SF Gateway
Review by Pat Black
Childhood’s End begins with a scene that’s become a cliché in sci-fi movies.
One day, without warning, the skies above Earth’s major cities are filled with huge, indomitable alien spacecraft.
Our visitors don’t want to destroy us… but they aren’t going away, either.
What do they want? And why won’t they show us what they look like?
While the visitors take centre stage, like the best of Arthur C Clarke’s work, this story is really about scientific and social progress among humans.
The arrival of the ships has a startling effect on the planet. Firstly, all notions of god and religion crumble in the face of our awesome not-so-near neighbours. Then, thanks to one or two subtle demonstrations of power, all wars are ceased, national sovereignty dissolves, and a common-sense approach of united global government is implemented.
The Overlords, as they come to be known, make it clear that they are not here for conquest - but they are definitely in charge. A nuclear attack launched against one of the gigantic silver ships by a paranoid state comes to literally nothing – absorbed by an energy shield. The Overlords’ attitude to this is close to embarrassment: “Okay, it’s happened; let’s not speak of it again.”
Frowns are rare on the Overlords’ brow, but when they do appear, they are spectacular. The aliens break cover to have a go at the South African regime for apartheid, threatening to blot out the sun over the entire country unless the government plays fair with its people. A neat touch – and bear in mind Clarke was making this gag in the 1950s - this “guarantees equality for the oppressed white minority”. In pointing out the weight of numbers, Clarke was highlighting the gross absurdity of contemporaneous apartheid. It seems that it takes an Overlord to finally overcome useless prejudice among humans.
Alongside this, another sore point for the Overlords is when they issue an edict for humans to take more care of the environment and the other creatures of the earth – a point that will arguably resonate more with today’s readers than with those of the 1950s.
Clarke acknowledges that the line “the sky was filled with ships” originates elsewhere, but the image itself came to him when he saw the skies above London filled with barrage balloons to thwart the Luftwaffe. By contrast, Clarke’s invaders seem benevolent, but their purpose is unknown. They communicate through an ambassador called Karellen, who bonds with one of the book’s main characters, Stormgren, the secretary-general of the United Nations.
Like everyone else on Earth, Stormgren is obsessed with finding out what the Overlords look like. Karellen explains that their actual appearance is so shocking that it would be a trauma to the people of Earth to look upon them. The aliens’ all-too-familiar face, which I will not spoil, is a clever ploy by Clarke. Ostensibly it seeks to remove any reliance on superstition and prejudice among a human population which has proven annoyingly resistant to logic and reason. But there’s another reason for the Overlords’ appearance and our “flinch” reaction to it – based not on ancient myth, but on a type of precognition.
Clarke was famous when I was growing up not so much for his sci-fi, but for a TV series on the paranormal which carried his name. Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World looked at all manner of unexplained phenomena including ghosts, telekinesis, sea monsters and aliens. Total bunk, of course, but Clarke’s imprimatur carried some weight, and judging by his fiction he did seem to be interested in the subject at some point. Perhaps he saw it as a natural extension of human evolution, an as-yet unknown branch of science, manifested as something inexplicable and frightening. In later years he returned to hard-nosed scepticism, more in line with James Randi than Uri Geller, but we can sense an early open-mindedness to the possibilities of new doors of perception being opened.
In Childhood’s End, psychic phenomena build into one of Clarke’s over-arching themes: that of transcendent evolution, whereby humanity ultimately conquers time and death, our physical bodies left behind as a fleshy inconvenience, our consciences floating free across the universe thanks to unimaginably advanced technology.
It is here that the Overlords’ purpose lies - not as devils, but as guardian angels. They are tasked with steering humanity through to the next level of existence, at the bidding of masters even more advanced than they are. Humanity will not reach this peak through moribund adulthood, but through the potential of its children.
There’s a dreadful pay-off, though. By reaching the summit of human existence, we also bring about the end of the world.
Childhood’s End has its problems. Chief among them is Clarke’s inability to build a story with main protagonists. This is a problem he runs into in much of his longer work, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he introduces us to characters, lets us get cosy with them, then dumps them. I suspect that for him, characters are a pesky but necessary link between real people and the philosophical and scientific concerns he really wants to explore.
Stormgren, the UN Secretary General who grows close to Karellen, would appear to be our main character, but he’s taken out of the play at the end of the first act. After we meet galactic stowaway Jan Rodricks in the second, he is similarly disposed of until the end of the book, leaving us with the peculiarly unsympathetic Greggson family as our proxies. Karellen appears throughout the story, but we are necessarily removed from the true motivations behind his somewhat arch, but benevolent view of the human race. There’s too much distance here. I can’t help but feel this would have been a much better novel if character had been handled better, or if we had one single human to relate to throughout.
Most novels begin with an Idea, from which authors fashion plot, characters, motivations, themes. But for Clarke, the Idea is all, the rest mere decoration. I get the impression that now and again his characters and what comes out of their mouths are a distraction from what he really wants to talk about.
For a book written 60-plus years ago, Childhood’s End is packed with concerns which still come across as progressive today. The aliens have a utopian effect on human life, spurring technological advances which mean much of our drudge tasks and drone jobs are automated. Mankind dedicates itself to leisure, and feels no shame in that. But the Overlords’ positive effect on population control, health and lifespan has the curious corollary of negating human advances in the arts. According to Clarke, it seems that once general hardships and the great unknowns disappear, we cease to wonder. Artists survive to form distant communes in a kind of refugee existence, where they indulge their passions locked away from the rest of the world.
When Jan Rodricks returns to the narrative, we discover some of the things he’s seen on his journey to the Overlords’ homeworld. Clarke indulges himself here with eye-popping displays of alien life – living crystals, strange planets – which recalled the space voyage in The City and the Stars. Life, Jim, but not as we know it.
Rodricks is black, which in itself was a progressive move for a white Englishman writing in the 1950s. Bear in mind that when this book was created, James Bond and Felix Leiter were hanging out in “N*gger Heaven” in Harlem in Live And Let Die. Travelling at space-time mangling speeds on board the Overlord ship, decades have passed on Earth by the time Rodricks makes the return journey, having aged only a few months himself. The Earth he returns to is a far different place to the one he left. The Overlords are preparing to pull out; their task is all but complete.
Alongside Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is part of Clarke’s holy trinity. If it has aged, it’s only in contrast to a modern dearth of optimism about human progress, particularly so when it comes to exploring the stars, as well as lingering religious prejudices and intolerance which Clarke probably imagined would be extinct by 2016.
The utopian ideas rang a bell, as I’d recently seen the economist Paul Mason give a talk about how we are actually witnessing capitalism in its death throes - fatally wounded by information technology, and knowledge’s innate need to be free.
Many of Mason’s projected consequences of the end of the capitalist system tally with Clarke’s idea of human society under the benevolent control of the Overlords. If everyone is freed from the oppression of having to make money in order to eat and live, or carrying out menial tasks which mechanisation can do for us, well, there goes warfare and poverty; in comes scientific and social progress, with people taking up key tasks in science and engineering and medicine because they have a passion for it, with life lived for leisure and artistic endeavour existing for its own sake.
The theory goes that not only would everyone be freed from effective slavery, we’d also be comfortable and fully self-sustaining. At some point in the future you might be able to 3D-print a car. Or your dinner.
This might happen sooner than you think. Consider the internet and mobile phones, compared with the same as recently as 20 years ago. You’d never have thought these would become so ubiquitous, so indispensable, and so advanced. Go back another 20 years from there; the device you are reading this review on is hundreds of times more capable than the most powerful computer in the world at that point. This technology is evolving all the time. It will reach incredible, unimagined destinations.
Interesting ideas. And hardly likely. But impossible? We’ll see. Everything has its time. No system lasts forever. You never know.