“Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

childhood'sI am reposting my review of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End before I watch the SyFy channel TV miniseries that aired last month.

Childhood’s End is frustrating. This is one of Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous novels. The story has several great twists, even brilliant, but it’s poorly executed and the ending veers into paranormal mysticism rather than science fiction. Too often, the story drops the interesting ideas it raises in favor of some of the sillier concepts. I can’t really discuss the problems with this book without SPOILERS, so be warned!

The story begins rather quickly as a mysterious alien race comes to Earth and… helps mankind resolve many of its social and economic problems! Even today, most stories about aliens are either about invasions or first contact. Childhood’s End presents refreshingly different take on the aliens genre. The only catch is that the aliens refuse to reveal themselves. Initially, a group of humans resists the advice these alien “overlords” and kidnaps the United Nations Secretary-General to protest his cooperation with them. Great setup, right?

Unfortunately, Arthur C. Clarke drops the part about human resistance to the aliens less than a quarter of the way through the book. I had begun to really enjoy some of the characters in the human resistance movement, as well as the Secretary-General, yet they are suddenly abandoned after Clarke jumps 50 years into the future. Also, this first quarter of the book did a great job raising important moral and philosophical questions, such as the extent to which we should allow aliens to “fix” our problems for us. Although that theme is not entirely abandoned, it’s much less pronounced later in the book.

After the 50-year time jump, all humans have magically accepted the aliens and Earth has achieved a sort of utopia. Clarke tends to “tell” rather than “show” these developments. He gives the reader large chunks of narrative text describing the utopia, but the actual characters and their own stories seem to have little to do with that utopia. I almost got the sense that Clark was writing a short essay about his vision of utopia rather than telling the story.

The book still had potential at this point because the aliens had promised to reveal themselves after 50 years. This created new opportunities for conflict and tension. The reveal itself is well handled as we learn – *** SPOILER WARNING *** – the overlords resemble demons. Imagine aliens arrive on Earth, but instead of looking like little grey men or E.T. they all look like Satan!

Meet your new overlords...
Meet your new overlords… (by Wayne Barlowe)

Again, great twist, but also another lost opportunity. Apparently, humans had evolved sufficiently by this point to not care that the aliens looked like demons. So the whole mystery of what these aliens look like, a huge part of the first third of the book, really does nothing for the story. The characters only seem mildly perturbed. Why the buildup if no payoff?

Finally, the ending of the book veers towards the paranormal. It turns out that the reason the overlords came to Earth and helped mankind was *** SPOILER WARNING *** because humans have some sort of weird telepathic power that needed to be cultivated. A new generation of humans will become godlike creatures. These new creatures have no personality and just seem to do randomly destructive things. We only get a brief glimpse of how regular humans react to this crisis, but again Clarke tends to tell rather than show these developments.

At this point, I had to wonder why Clarke brought the story to this resolution. What sort of scientific or human themes did this ending explore? Science fiction aficionados often praise Clarke for writing “hard sci-fi,” but this ending seemed more like magic than science. At least with something like the Force in “Star Wars” the mystical aspects help illuminate facets of the human condition and religion.

I understand this is one of Clarke’s earlier works and so I’m inclined to forgive him. Still, Childhood’s End seems like a missed opportunity. I’d love to see another author pick up on some of his ideas and do them justice.

4 thoughts on ““Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

  1. The shame is that Clarke, who I have nearly sainted in my own mind, is far from a spectacular writer. He is an idea man plain and simple. If he has strong editors his work is far, far better. But when he doesn’t…his prophetic visions are obscured by poor prose. Now who am I to say such a thing? I wish I was a tenth of the visionary and half the writer. Still, I wish his pure writing and story telling was better. Thanks for the review and honest take on Childhood’s End. Well done. – Cheers, JW


    1. Thanks for the comment. This was a tricky one to review. I don’t want to criticize a book just because the author didn’t write exactly what I wanted to read. Clarke (and Asimov) were more interested in exploring Big Ideas and scientific concepts than in character development or prose. So I know not to read a Clarke novel if I want to read prose like Ursula K. Le Guin’s (and I don’t expect to see much technology in a Le Guin novel).

      That said, Big Ideas are necessary but not sufficient for a good sci-fi story. Strong prose and rich character development can enhance rather than distract from the exploration of Big Ideas. I actually think Clarke improved in Rendezvous with Rama, which has a much stronger narrative thread and at least some character development (review coming soon). But even then, I prefer books like Carl Sagan’s Contact, which is just as visionary as Clarke’s novels, but also has compelling characters and solid prose.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Childhood’s End | NardiViews

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