Passages from Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
The early part of the book involves a faction of the public that objects to the Overlords’ presence, on the grounds that their influence deprives them of “Freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.” (p16.6) The religious right is ever-present.
The Overlords actually intervene very little, but one case where they do is described, to defeat a racial strike in South Africa. So that “full civil rights would be restored to the white minority”. (Sic!) This is a classic example of an SF writer casually overturning the reader’s expectations about how things will or won’t be in the future. (p20.2) (Another intervention later in the book concerns the Overlords’ directive to stop killing animals, except for food, i.e. to stop hunting for sport. This strikes me as another example of the tendency of SF to bequeath attitudes on superior aliens that humans, or at least the author, idealize themselves.)
Later, the UN secretary-general challenges his Overlord liaison, Karellen, about the Overlords’ refusal to reveal themselves. Karellen replies, “They know that we represent reason and science, and however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods…” (p23.4) And, “Believe me, it gives us no pleasure to destroy men’s faiths, and all the world’s religions cannot be right, and they know it.” (p23.8)
Clarke, over his career well-known for his interest in the sea-depths and in scuba-diving, and who wrote at least one whole novel about it (The Deep Range), manages to get an underwater scene in this book. (chapter 11)
Once the Overlords have revealed themselves, we get more description of [Clarke’s] notion of an idealized world (chapter 10): The age of reason arrives; humans have great amounts of leisure time, and are well-educated; most people have two homes; there’s little crime, and no militaries. Sports are big, and entertainment. But people ask, Where do we go from here?
(The key failure of prediction here is the idea that higher standards of living lead to greater amounts of leisure time. Our present society has standards of living unimaginable only a century ago… but human nature drives competition, and people seem busier, not less busy, these days compared to the past — a past which is now, ironically, idealized.)
Later, more about how culture develops (chapter 15), on an island colony called New Athens, that has rejected the 500 hours of radio and TV available every day (p141t, a remarkable anticipation). On this island with no vehicles, only bicycles, painting languishes, music is experimental, and cartoon films become indistinguishable from photography. (Another anticipation.) And a new medium of “total identification” seeks to expand film to all the senses.
There is a passage near the end, as Jan, the last man, who witnesses the dissolution of the Earth, is all alone, and listens to music to find peace. (p209m) He listens to Bach. There is a similar passage in 2001.
It turns out the Overlords’ initial purpose was to keep humanity from destroying itself, and secondarily, to stop early 20th century investigation into paranormal phenomena, those hints of humanity’s true destiny. They explain how, tragically, they cannot participate in a similar uplift; but describe what they understand this destiny to be:
We have glimpsed only the vague outlines of the truth. You called us the Overlords, not knowing the irony of that title. Let us say that above us is the Overmind, using us as the potter uses his wheel.
And your race is the clay that is being shaped on that wheel.
We believe—it is only a theory—that the Overmind is trying to grow, to extend its powers and its awareness of the universe. By now it must be the sum of many races, and long ago it left the tyranny of matter behind. It is conscious of intelligence, everywhere. When it knew that you were almost ready, it sent us here to do its bidding, to prepare you for the transformation that is now at hand.
All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic—instantaneous. It has already begun. You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of Homo sapiens.
So here is what the best science fiction does: it alerts your mind to the possibility that everything you know and assume about what you think is true is but a tiny fraction of what may be real. We, the human race, may be as fish living in a pond who are not aware of the presence of water, much less that there are other realms apart from water, like air — not to mention other ponds.
In the final pages, the last human narrates, for his Overlord sponsors, the dying moments of Earth.
Everything we ever achieved has gone up there into the stars. Perhaps that’s what the old religions were trying to say. But they got it all wrong: they thought mankind was so important, yet we’re only one race in—do you know how many?