Book Review: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s become a cliché when writing about science fiction to say that it often tells you more about the time it was written than the future in which it’s set, that SF writers often predict technological change correctly whilst getting social change horribly wrong and that, like all writers, they aren’t always the best judges of their own work.

“Childhood’s End” tells you more about the time it was written (1952-3) than the future in which it’s set and Arthur C. Clarke was much better at predicting technological change than social change. The best evidence for both assertions is the following sentence, on p.102 of my edition, said of a black main character – “The convenient word “nigger” was no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone.” And, yes, I would agree that simply having a black hero in the early 50s was radical thinking, but still.

And writers not always being the best judges of their own work? Well, my version of the novel has a foreword written by Clarke in 1989 from which it’s clear that his main concern wasn’t that he might have misjudged exactly how greater racial equality was going to pan out. It wasn’t that he has people still living in “Stalingrad” even after his irritatingly all-knowing aliens, the Overlords, have made generally available what amounts to a magic TV set allowing everyone to look at recordings of any point in history, which would presumably have included pretty solid evidence that Stalin was a bastard (something plenty of people believed in 1953 anyway). It wasn’t even that his aliens are irritatingly all-knowing (more of which later).

No, Arthur C.’s big worry in 1989 was that the plot of the novel turns heavily on telepathy and extra-sensory perception, and by then he had come to the conclusion that these were, as Henry Ford would have said, more or less bunk. They are, but that isn’t a problem in this or any other work of fiction that involves telepathy or ESP or plain old magic. If you establish your fictional world as being one where these things exist, then they do and no-one is likely to quibble about it. Anyway, the ESP is so basic to the plot that it could hardly be removed, so in an effort to make things more believable, he slapped on a prologue to make it clear that the action kicks off in the late 21st century, rather than the late 20th century, just to make all the anachronisms stand out even more. Sometimes, writers are their own worst enemies.

Anyway, you can sum up the plot of “Childhood’s End” in three sentences (spoilers!). All-powerful alien race take over the world, avert the threat of nuclear war and over the course of 150 years or so help mankind create a Golden Age for itself. Why? Because they’re keeping us safe until the children of mankind abruptly start to develop reality-changing levels of psychic power, whereupon the Overlords declare humanity over and haul off the kids to their own planet to merge themselves in with an Overmind made up of many other races that have ascended to the same higher plane of existence, and from which the Overlords have been taking their orders all along. Exactly why humanity, or any other race, would make a sudden evolutionary leap of this kind isn’t really explained, probably because it can’t be, psychic powers being more or less bunk.

Put that way, “Childhood’s End” has one important similarity with “Howard’s End” (apart from both having “End” in the title). They both provoke the question of the most important characters, “How come these guys aren’t the very obvious villains?” Given that neither E.M. Forster nor Arthur C. Clarke are writers of transparently bad fanfiction (that’s my job!), they aren’t stupid enough to try to actively make heroes of the Schlegels or the Overlords, leaving the question more open.

However, the reader is still likely to end up thinking that neither really even deserve neutrality. The Overlords kidnap hundreds of millions of children and call time on the whole human race because some sort of powerful psychic hive-mind thing ordered them to. Admittedly, there is the implication that the Overmind is so powerful that its requests are not to be gainsaid, even by an incredibly advanced alien species, but you could get executed for refusing to obey Adolf Hitler’s orders, and that cut no ice before the Nuremberg Tribunal. Equally, the novel presents the end of humanity as natural, inevitable and even for the greater good, but no doubt the Nazis thought that about the end of the Jews.

The irony of the novel seems to be that Clarke ended up creating such overweeningly powerful aliens that they effectively tore control of his own book away from him. Jan Rodricks, the black character mentioned earlier, is obsessed with space exploration. He ends up stowing away on an Overlord ship and visiting their home planet, only to be firmly told that “The stars are not for Man.” He accepts this too, although it’s by no means clear that what he has seen is exactly on an H.P. Lovecraft-level of mind-breaking. This belief is directly contrary to Arthur C. Clarke’s own views, to the extent that when first published the book included a disclaimer that the opinions in it were not those of the author! But, you just can’t argue with the superior intellect of the Overlords.

Essentially, what Clarke ended up doing was to create a whole race of classic Mary-Sue characters. They are far superior to puny humans – intellectually, in technology, in every other way – to the extent that all tension is sucked out of the book. It’s obvious from the beginning that there’s no way any human is ever going to stop them doing what they want, and they overcome all challenges with ease. And if they aren’t exactly presented as always in the right, what they are doing isn’t exactly condemned either.

The only real question for the reader at any point is what exactly the catch will be with their benevolent rule, because it would be inconceivable for the conclusion to be that the Overlords do it because they are a bunch of nice guys and for everyone to live happily ever after. When the answer comes, it is original, at least for the time it was written, but horrendously depressing. It leaves you thinking that if these are what benevolent aliens are like, Clarke might as well have written another saga of invasion by death-ray wielding Martians.

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