Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
There’s something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, and precise, and they focus on science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke’s world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like … the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scientific progress will steadily continue, bringing humans further and further along a path of enlightenment and shedding the foolish superstitions of the past (i.e. organized religions, antiquated political and social conventions).
In Childhood’s End, super-advanced aliens (dubbed “Overlords”) suddenly descend on Earth. Instead of bringing death and destruction like the Martians of H.G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds, they immediately impose a benevolent rule over mankind and swiftly solve all of the political, social, racial, and religious problems plaguing the planet, not least of all imminent nuclear destruction (a reasonable fear considering the timing of the book).
The only catch is that the Overlords refuse to explain the motivations for their altruistic intervention, indicating only that they are Supervisors in charge of helping mankind for some unknown ultimate goal.
So what is the catch, then? Clarke builds the story slowly and reveals things at a very measured pace, and we don’t find out what the Overlords are really up to until the final 50 pages or so. This is actually the biggest weakness of the story, because the small glimpses of the Overlord’s gradually grooming of the human race for SOMETHING BIG don’t really seem to connect very well with the final denouement. And since the final 50 pages are a fairly mind-blowing vision of the transformation of mankind, I would’ve preferred if Clarke devoted more pages to this and less to the lead-up. It’s like going to a live concert, having to listen to the opening act for a full 90 minutes, and then watching the headline band play an amazing set of just 3-4 songs and waltz off stage with the crowd crying out for more. Then again, sometimes the best books leave you hungry for more, and let your imagination fill in the details.
Clarke is without question a SF writer with a wealth of ideas, but I think he owes a huge debt to two of his British predecessors, both visionaries of enormous talent and ambition, Wells (a vision of the very end of time and the Earth in The Time Machine in particular) and Olaf Stapledon‘s (Last and First Men, Star Maker). Last and First Men depicts the next several billion years’ worth of human evolution, while Star Maker is even more ambitious, tackling the beginnings and ultimate purpose of galaxies, nebulae, group consciousness, and the Star Maker itself.
In comparison, Childhood’s End seems almost modest in its story and ambitions. Still, I really enjoyed Childhood’s End and think it deserves its position as a classic of the genre.
Clarke gives us so much to think about in this innovative and now classic novel about humanity and human evolution. I reccommend the audio edition narrated by Eric Michael Summerer and introduced by Robert J. Sawyer.
You’re working your way through my childhood’s library with these reviews. And yep, I remember being “mind-blown” by that ending!
I love ACC, too. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for years and have not managed to get to it yet.