Clarke, Childhood’s End, part 1

I have been re-reading several classic novels by Arthur C. Clarke, published in the 1950s and ‘60s, because they were books that I read in my formative years (i.e. ages 13 to 15), and so influenced my early thinking and worldview. Some four decades later, I’m revisiting them mostly in the spirit of reconsidering them in the context of my current worldview – the theme of this blog, which is about how science fiction informs the tension between traditional and exploratory approaches to understanding the world. To some extent also, to re-examine these books’ premises and speculations, to consider how they hold up in the light of 50 or 60 years of scientific and cultural advances.

The first thing to say about Arthur C. Clarke, for anyone who has never read him (or these particular novels), is that he is a writer of great scientific discipline and of great appreciation for the vast expanse of the universe. Moreso than the other core SF writers of his era (Asimov, Heinlein), Clarke evoked vast expanses of time and space, often in portentous tones, and set his stories in those contexts.


[The cover image shown here is of the 1969 reprint in paperback by Ballantine Books, the edition I just re-read; one of five Clarke reprints they did with similar covers — all obviously inspired by spaceship images from the just recently released film 2001: A Space Odyssey]

For example, in Childhood’s End (1953) the prologue concerns near-future [from 1953] efforts by the US and the Soviet Union to be the first to launch a rocket into orbit. The opening line, concerning the site of the US attempt, is this:

The volcano that had reared Taratua up from the Pacific depths had been sleeping now for half a million years.

In The City and the Stars (1956), the first page prologue delays the reveal until the last paragraph—here are the first two and last lines of that:

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. … They had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

A city that’s existed unchanged for a billion years!!? (Clarke does provide some plausibility for this claim, but that’s for a subsequent post.)

And the opening line of the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.

Everything is set in the context of vast amounts of time. This was very impressive to me as a kid who until then had been told Bible stories about events that had happened a mere 2000 years ago. And it’s still impressive now, or should be – though having read many Clarke novels over the years, I have to admit that a little of this portentous tone goes a long way.

*** Spoiler alerts to what follows, for anyone who has not read this 60-year old novel ***

Childhood’s End, to summarize briefly, is about advanced aliens who appear above Earth in huge spaceships, hovering above all of Earth’s major cities. Their presence alone affects Earth’s culture in many ways. Moreover, the ‘Overlords’ are reluctant to reveal themselves – none of them ever appear in person before the human public; their appearance is a mystery. There’s a big reveal about a third of the way through the book: that the ‘Overlords’ appearance is that of devils, complete with wings, horns, leathery skin, and barbed tails. (I think this might be the most memorable take-away from this book, even though it’s not really crucial to the novel’s central theme.)

Decades pass, during which humanity still does not understand the purpose of the Overlords’ visit. In an island society ‘New Athens’, in the Pacific Ocean, one of the Overlords takes special effort to save the life of one child from a tsunami. It develops that the Overlords have come to supervise mankind’s transition into a higher order of being, of which this child is a harbinger. The history of paranormal phenomena among humankind was evidence of mankind’s destiny.

The children of the world gather and ascend to a higher state of being. And disappear. One man, who’d snuck away on an Overlord spaceship to see their homeworld, is back on Earth to witness its collapse and destruction, as it implodes with departure of those children. Once this happens, the Overlords having observed, they move on.

This theme strongly presages that of 2001 — that humanity’s current form might give way to an advanced state of being. In Childhood’s End, it is inevitable, while in 2001, it is triggered by alien interventionists, in an ‘uplift’ procedure, an idea that became a recurrent SF theme, especially in the novels of David Brin.

A subsequent post will explore themes and details.

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