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"Childhood's End" (Review)

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Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End (1953) is sometimes considered his masterpiece, and was greatly admired by C.S. Lewis. At the start, Earth is about to begin space flight, when this is stopped by the arrival of vast spaceships which position themselves about major cities. The inhabitants of the ships do not reveal themselves, but establish a sort of arms-length colonial rule, which mainly consists of preventing war and major evils. The novel follows the subsequent developments.


(Read this only if you have already read the novel, or don't think you ever will, or don't care about spoilers.)











Main review (contains spoilers)

The Plot

Plot (very short version):

Just before human space exploration starts, aliens arrive in vast ships and stop it. These "Overlords" establish an arms-length rule over Earth, in which they prevent major evils like war but leave most of life alone. After some initial suspicion, most people conclude the Overlords are in fact benevolent, though a minority believe that even if this is true they're bad for humanity. Gradually, with separate countries abolished and technological progress, Earth enters a golden age—at this stage the Overlords come out of their ships and meet humans occasionally. In the final stage, however, there is a sudden change: children become telepathic and lose individual identity. They leave the adults and develop towards joining a galactic "Overmind". They are no longer human. Now at last the Overlords reveal their true purpose: they are the servants of the Overmind. This change is the destiny of intelligent species but it can go horribly wrong and even endanger the Overmind, so they are sent to oversee it, mainly by subtly preventing psychic research. The irony is that the Overlords themselves, despite their much greater intelligence, are somehow in an evolutionary blind alley and will never undergo this change. They see this as a tragedy. There are no more children born and humanity dies out, many killing themselves. At the end it is suggested that the Overlords are somehow engaged in a conspiracy, perhaps to learn how they can escape their fate.

C. S. Lewis's take on the novel

C.S. Lewis was extremely impressed. In a letter to Joy Davidman, who he later married, he expressed enthusiasm for it both as mythical vision and for its meditation on ultimate purpose. Clarke was suggesting, very unusually for a modern author, that "there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity". Lewis had criticized the idea of survival as an ultimate value, which he saw as a dangerous idea being promoted in science fiction, in Out of the Silent Planet (see especially Weston's speech to Oyarsa). He also found the writing moving in many places. His main criticism was that he thought the suggestion of the Overlords somehow rebelling was banal compared to the general level, and that he would have preferred them to be like the heroes in Dante's Limbo who dwell in "desire without hope", sad yet upright. This, he felt, would have been more consistent with the mythical vision of Clarke's imagined universe. The full text of Lewis's letter can be found at the blog A Pilgrim In Narnia.

Religion and Time-Viewing

In the golden age, religion disappears, as it tends to in Arthur Clarke's future worlds. The reasons vary. (See the page on The Songs of Distant Earth.) In this case, it's due to time-viewing. The Overlords apparently have some ability to inspect the past, and occasionally answered questions from historians. Eventually they give the historians a simple time viewing machine, just a sort of TV with time and space control, believed to be connected to the real viewer in Karellen's ship. Naturally, the origins of religions are inspected, and although they are noble and inspiring, they're not supernatural, and religion disappears almost overnight, except for a purified Buddhism (Clarke was rather philo-Buddhist even before he settled in Sri Lanka in 1956).

Is this plausible (give Clarke's assumptions)? The idea that religious believers would immediately abandon their beliefs only makes sense if they accept Overlord science as the supreme source of truth. That is a defininte possibility in the "golden age" world but we don't see quite such a total intellectual surrender. In fact we see one group who believe the Overlords' influence has been unhealthy. Also, wouldn't some believers try to modify the religion in a more "rational" direction rather than abandon the whole thing? There is also the problem that Clarke is thinking in terms of western Abrahamic religion. It's hard to imagine what historical data would seriously disrupt Hinduism, or African traditional religion.

Be that as it may, the idea of time-viewing is interesting. The idea of a device to view the past, as opposed to a time machine which actually takes you there, had been around at least since the 1930s, though I don't think there was a developed treatment of it until Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (1959). The unfinished C. S. Lewis novel The Dark Tower, which may date from some time shortly after 1939, involves a chronoscope, though it turns out that what the inventor is watching isn't, as he believes, past or future, but an alternative reality. (There is some dispute about whether this text is actually by Lewis.) Arthur Clarke returned to the idea in The Light of Other Days (2000) co-authored by Stephen Baxter (apparently Clarke wrote the synopsis and Baxter filled in the detail). In this, religion is treated a bit more gently.

Human destiny

It is the destiny of an intelligent species to give birth to a collective consciousness. But this means the death of the original species. The title, "Childhood's End", in fact understates the break (perhaps because Clarke did not want to give away the ending). The Overlords, who are said to be in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, far more intelligent than human beings but unable to give birth to the new consciousness, regard their position as tragic. They envy humanity. But at the same time, they feel pity for the human beings of the last generation who will experience the loss of their children and their future. The destiny of humanity is also tragic, but in a different way.

What is striking, and what impressed C.S. Lewis, is that Clarke has created a mythical vision. A reader could of course say that it seems better to be like the people of the golden age, or like the Overlords, enjoying life—but this is to step outside the myth, as if the reader asked why the Greek gods spend their time backing Homeric heroes. In fact, it's not hard to suspend your doubts (a version of suspending disbelief) and accept Clarke's myth.

Film and TV

There have been ideas for many ideas about a film adaptation, but they have never come to fruition. Stanley Kubrick apparently had ideas of using a few of the themes in 2001. In 2015 there was a mini-series, which I have not seen. Incidentally there is an unrelated film of the same title (1997).

The film Independence Day (1996) features the arrival of vast spaceships which hover over cities: some critics have noted the similarity to the opening scene of Clarke's novel.

Is this Clarke's masterpiece?

Childhood's End has sometimes been considered Arthur Clarke's masterpiece. It's certainly one of his best novels. What would be the other contenders? Here are my choices:

Against the Fall of Night, 1948, 1953
The haunting image of the city at the end of time. The successive widening of view, so that each time you shift to something vastly bigger. The Mad Mind. For me this is the most unforgettable of all Clarke's books. The story stays with essentials, compared with Clarke's later work.
Childhood's End, 1953
A mythical vision. See above.
Earthlight, 1955
A science fiction spy story. It's not a novel of ideas, and I suppose it would be hard to make a case for it as a masterpiece in the same sense as Childhood's End, but it's one of the most enjoyable things he ever wrote.
Rendezvous with Rama, 1973
What's fascinating is that the protagonists never really understand the marvels they explore. There were later a series of co-written sequels which explain things and thus lose the original point.
The Songs of Distant Earth, 1986
Said to have been Clarke's favourite. Again, some memorable images. See page on The Songs of Distant Earth

OK, if we're looking for a serious masterpiece I can narrow it down to the three with mythical vision: Against the Fall of Night, Childhood's End, and The Songs of Distant Earth. Perhaps we could say that Against the Fall of Night has the more powerful mental images, working on an almost Cordwainer-Smith-like level; whereas Childhood's End has the more developed myth. I prefer Against the Fall of Night. But the humbler Earthlight is probably more enjoyable to re-read.

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