Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Childhood’s End - still powerful more than 70 years later

I first read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke while on vacation sometime when I was in middle school. I was very lucky that I had absolutely no idea what the book was about, apart from seeing the illustration of the Overlords in Barlow’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.

I still remember being floored by the book. The ending took me by surprise. A couple years later, I read a speech by Kurt Vonnegut where he gives away the ending in the first couple sentences and I was really glad I went in knowing nothing.

(I was similarly lucky and happy to read both The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express completely ignorant)


Okay, Childhood’s End is about how the human race is conquered by benevolent aliens called the Overlords. They bring peace and harmony to the world but their end goal is to help humanity ascend to a higher power, ending the human race for all intents and purposes.

Rereading the book, it’s interesting how dated some elements of it are. The Cold War, the Space Race and memories of WW II are a strong part of the background of the first generation under the Overlords. There are also some comments about race which were clearly written before the civil rights movement.

I also find it hard to believe that any author in recent years (maybe any author post-new wave) could have the human race give in so peacefully to alien invaders. The ease which humanity slides into the utopia before the last generation is born strains my suspension of disbelief.

Having said all that, Childhood’s End is still a powerful and profound book, one that is still a genuine masterpiece of literature. The lack of conflict gives the book a dreamy feel that makes it easier to get pulled in.

I always forget, every time I read the book, how little control and understanding the Overlords have over humanity ascending to the Overmind. Instead of either master puppeteers or following a precise set of instructions, they are clearly doing their best to guide a tsunami. This actually makes the whole ascension thing more powerful by making it more mysterious and unknown.

Childhood’s End isn’t my favorite Clarke book. That would be Fountains of Paradise or maybe Rendezvous With Rama. However, there is no denying that it is powerful and brilliant.  

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