****This Post contains major spoilers. I could not write meaningful commentary on this novel without giving away major plot points that are a mystery throughout much of the book****
I believe that I first read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood's End sometime between 1981 and 1984. I was in my teens at the time. Though I have not reread it until recently, images and ideas from this book have returned to me and, in a way, haunted me over the last thirty years or so. I pondered before this rereading whether Clark’s story would pack the same power and depth for me this time around. I am so much older, and I like to think that I am also much wiser now. To my delight, I am more amazed with Childhood's End now than when I first read it! This is a novel full of big ideas relating to humankind’s place in the universe. First published in 1953, this is in my opinion one of the finest science fiction novels ever written.
The early stages of the plot may seem familiar, perhaps even routine to the modern reader. This is in part because since the publication of Clark’s work, many other stories and films have derived key plot points from Childhood's EndHowever, the later chapters are radically different from most speculative fiction written before or since.
The novel opens with the cold war still on and the United States and Soviet Union about to launch the first manned expeditions to the moon. (The book was first published some sixteen years before the first actual manned lunar landing). Suddenly, giant alien ships appear over all of the world’s cities. The aliens, who humans dub “The Overlords”, while keeping their physical appearances hidden, announce that they are taking over. Using incredibly advanced technology they establish a benevolent dictatorship. In a short time, the Overlords eliminate all forms of war and organized violence, discrimination, poverty, animal cruelty and an entire host of additional human ills. Included in the changes is the elimination of separate nations and governments. Some humans, resenting the loss of human autonomy, attempt resistance. The Overlords’ power and technology is so advanced that they are able to assert control and stifle all opposition without the use of violence. They can monitor any place on earth, whether indoors or outdoors. They can immobilize people without harming them. They are even able turn off sunlight in selected regions.
The main human protagonist in the early chapters is Stormgren, the Secretary General of the United Nations and Earth’s liaison with the Overlords’ leader, known as Karellen. Secretary Stormgren knows Karellen only as a disembodied voice. During Stormgren’s tenure the Overlords agree to reveal their physical appearance fifty years hence. In the intervening years, humankind experiences a “Golden Age” of peace, prosperity and enlightenment. Creativity and pure scientific development is indirectly stifled however, due to the control imposed by the Overlords.
The action jumps fifty years into the future when the Overlords eventually reveal themselves. To the shock of humankind, they resemble winged demons, suggesting Satan himself. Later in the book Clarke provides a neat explanation as to why they appear this way.
In the ensuing years we are introduced to three characters; Jean Morrel, a young woman who manifests some psychic abilities, her husband George Greggson, an artistic production designer and Jan, a brilliant young astronomer and musician.
Jan eventually stows away on an Overlord supply ship bound for the aliens’ home world. Due to the relativistic effects of the high speed at which the ship travels, during what will be one year of time for Jan, eighty years will pass on earth (the physics presented here are accurate, this would happen in the real world if one traveled as fast as the Overlord ships do).
In the meantime Jan and George have two children. The children manifest a psychic connection to the Overlords. The eldest boy Jeffery is able to project his mind over enormous distances and begins to view fantastic scenes of far off planets across the galaxy. The children begin to exhibit telekinetic ability and eventually retreat into isolated mental cocoons.
Here the story takes a radical turn. All of Earth’s children begin to manifest the same effects. At this point the Overlords announce their true intentions. The phenomenon is the result of humankind moving into a new stage of existence as many intelligent races do. The children are no longer really human and are mentally melding into a strange collective mind. Eventually they will join with a vast galactic group conscience called “The Overmind”. The Overlords came to Earth to help shepherd this process. It turns out that the Overlords are really just servants of the Overmind. They are an unusual and “stunted” race as they were never able to transform into a collective mind.
For the safety of both the children, who are no longer individuals, as well as the human adults, the Overlords relocate all of Earth’s adolescents to Africa and isolate them from the remainder of the population.
With the transformation and loss of the children, humanity is doomed to extinction. While many decide to live their lives out, others, despairing as to the dead future, commit suicide. Jean Morrel and George Greggson perish in a group self extinguishment.
Meanwhile, after eighty years have passed on Earth, Jan, having experienced incomprehensible wonders on Overlord’s home world, during a time that for him was only a year, returns to Earth on an Overlord supply ship. The last humans have died off and he is the only real human alive. The “children” exist in a bizarre single minded herd that is still developing its powers and moving toward a melding with the Overmind. Clark’s description of this herd is strange, haunting and disturbing. It is one of the highlights of the book. When the herd becomes so powerful that it begins to change the orbit of the moon, the Overlords abandon the earth out of concern for their own safety. Jan decides to remain, the last individual human being in existence.
Using the Overlord’s instruments, Jan observes the final transcendence of the herd as it shifts to a higher plane to become part of the Overmind, destroying Earth in the process. Humanity and all of its achievements and aspirations are gone in the end.
Clark seems to be saying a lot in this work. He emphasizes that the Overmind is so far advanced, and so vast, that humans can never even comprehend its intentions. Whatever its motivations and stratagems are, individuals could never come close to even appreciating them.
Ironically, the Overlords are limited to individuality and can never merge with the Overmind. They have more in common with humans beings than with the Overmind. Both the Overlords and Jan seem to glimpse that there may be something higher and deeply profound going on with the Overmind. It is only a feeling, however, and neither is capable of understanding or grasping anything meaningful about it. Our minds and abilities are just too limited.
The book is full of references to great human art, music and scientific achievement, as well as human virtues such as love and heroism. Clark gives the impression that such human aspirations, accomplishments and emotions are insignificant when compared to the sheer vastness and impenetrability of the physical universe. This universal immensity and enigma seems to be represented by the Overmind.
At the same time, the book’s characters, both humans and Overlords, appreciate and extol art, culture, positive feelings and great individual endeavors. The Overlords have a vast museum dedicated to the science and culture of various amazing civilizations. At the moment of his death, George Greggson takes comfort in the newly reawakened love for his wife. Jan, all alone on Earth, takes solace and joy in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the last lines of the book, Karellen pays tribute to human individuality. For us small and mortal creatures, things such as art, creativity, love, etc. are all we have. However, such earthly preoccupations, like humankind itself, are ultimately small and completely inconsequential in a gargantuan and inscrutable universe. These things that are so valuable to us can and will eventually become extinct, both in the book and in reality.
Though not identical, I think that the themes presented in this novel share certain parallels to the ideas presented by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India. Forster’s characters also confront the great incomprehensible vastness of creation that dwarfs human concerns. My commentary on Forster’s novel is here.
There are other interesting ideas presented in this book. For instance, Clarke seems to be advocating what in our time would be called a secular humanist civilization as the best path forward for humans. His “Golden Age” is brought about by an altruistic, peaceful, and rational society that rejects all superstition and religion. The author was also amazingly prescient in his predictions on the popularity that both television as well as fast food would achieve in the later part of the twentieth century!
Childhood's End is not a perfect novel as it has its flaws. Clarke’s characters, while at times seeming to show promise, are underdeveloped. Also, some of the early chapters involving the kidnapping of Stormgren come off as a little trite, and not really worthy of a work filled with such important ideas. Nevertheless this book is a feast for the adventurous mind. The novel is at once full and challenging as it presents disturbing ideas about the nature of humans and where we fit into the cosmos.