Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

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26 thoughts on “Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

  1. It sounds a bit like Arthur C Clarke suffers from the same problem as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Once their work was breathtakingly original, but as everyone else has copied them in the meantime, their work doesn’t feel as original today as it really is. I had been meaning to read this for a while, but I think I’ll skip it now.

    • Yes, it’s odd. Sometimes I can read an older book and still think it feels fresh – like Wells or Wyndham – and then there are others that don’t so much – Clarke and Asimov, maybe. Perhaps it depends on how often other people have used their ideas since. I enjoyed 2001 far more, though, and am now wondering how big Kubrick’s input to that book was…

  2. You know, FictionFan, that was the first thing I was thinking of when I read your post: humanity would not that easily submit to the aliens like that. It wouldn’t be nearly that smooth. And it’s interesting you mention that you feel you’ve read the story before. I think that’s a risk of reading certain fiction after reading a lot of others in a similar genre. Still, this sounds enjoyable enough, if a bit of a mixed bag.

    • I couldn’t accept the idea that humanity would just shrug and say OK when the aliens told us to stop all space travel, not to mention wars! I think that would have been a problem for me whenever I read it, though the sense of over-familiarity with the plot is clearly because the book’s been so influential… assuming it was the first to come up with this idea, that is. Always a problem, especially with science fiction which tends to date quite badly anyway often.

    • Thank you! 😀 It seems to happen with science fiction especially – later books and films are often based on earlier ideas, so that the early ones end up feeling unfairly unoriginal.

  3. Disappointing! But I know what you mean about the familiarity of the plot. I’m fairly certain Rod Serling wrote an episode for the old Twilight Zone show based on this book. And I’m sure movies have borrowed from it too. But you raised a great point about humans. Though some would happily submit, many others wouldn’t.

    • I recognised a couple of the elements of the plot in Star Trek episodes and also in Stargate, so it’s clearly been influential – but unfortunately that means it no longer feels original. Yeah, I couldn’t see humans just shrugging and saying OK as a bunch of aliens told us what to do…!!

  4. I have to agree with you on the “perhaps this was read too late” point–I love science fiction, but it’s been harder to me to get into older sci-fi novels, possibly because we’ve now surpassed the time when most of them are set. Good review!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I find it happens quite often too, even though I don’t read a lot of modern sci-fi. I’ve watched a lot though, both on TV and movies and the ideas do get recycled often. Oddly some of the older books still work for me, though – HG Wells and John Wyndham especially. Don’t quite know why…

  5. I seem to remember thinking it’s one of the rare examples of a utopia I’ve read. I think Clarke’s books are of their time and not particularly sophisticated compared to today’s sci-fi.

    • Yes, and yet with the seeds of a dystopia built in. That was the aspect I liked most, the suggestion that when everything is good, life becomes… dull! I don’t read much modern sci-fi, though I always intend to, but I did feel this plot has been done better in both films and TV.

      • I rarely read SF now, but at one time I was into ‘golden age’ SF including authors like Clarke (maybe as a transition between YA and proper adult books).
        The idea of utopia is much older than dystopia (if I remember my studies right), and a utopia isn’t necessarily intended to be the best situation, just a situation which would never realistically work – literally ‘no place’.

        • I still prefer older sci-fi to modern stuff – it’s got all bogged down in “real” science now, which kinda restricts it, I find. Utopias always seem like my idea of hell – what’s the point of life when there’s no struggle! Give me a good dystopia any day… (so long as the chocolate factories don’t close down… 😉 )

  6. Well, gee, I’m sorry you didn’t like this one as much as you’d hoped. I haven’t read it, but I found the premise rather interesting. You do make good points, though, that so much has been written along these lines that it’s tough to tell what’s original and what’s repetitious.

    • It’s a recurring problem with these earlier sci-fi books – later books, movie and TV shows tend to have used the original plots and made them more relevant to our own time, so that the older ones no longer have the impact they might have had at the time. Oh, well, I’m still glad I’ve read it… 😀

  7. Ah although this isn’t one I’d have tackled I’m genuinely sorry that you wanted to enjoy it so much more than you did. I was with you on reading about the rule by aliens… not really going to work like that is it?
    On the plus side its good to know that we have a friend in common; good old Wikipedia reveals all sorts of fascinating facts to me too.

    Here’s to better luck with the next Classic Club read.

    • It was a pity – I had high hopes for it! Haha – no, I couldn’t quite imagine all us squabbling humans just saying, oh, OK, we’ll stop all our wars then and just do what we’re told…!! I couldn’t survive without Wikipedia – I can’t imagine how I got through the first few decades of my life without the ability to find out everything about anything immediately! 😉

      Yup, onwards and upwards! 😀

  8. I love reading your reviews of these classic sci-fis because I know I’ll never read them myself but I’m still curious about them. Too bad this one was a bit disappointing, although I suspect many people would have laughed the way you did. It’s the same reason we tend to laugh at old horror movies I think. Maybe back then it would have had a bigger impact…

    • Ha – yes, maybe this would have been more shocking back in the day, but it just seems a bit silly now. This is definitely one I’d only recommend to sci-fi fans. Some books cross into lit-fic – The Day of the Triffids for example – but lots of these old sci-fi books don’t really have the characterisation – they’re basically all about the idea rather than the people…

  9. Just poking around online today and I came across your blog and this review. I read this last Spring and enjoyed it quite a bit. I can totally see where your criticisms come from, though. As for that big reveal on the aliens… I try to remind myself how things I found frightening in horror/sci-fi films when I was a child are now so campy and laughable. 😀

    Your comments about humanity not submitting to their rulers made me think about Anthem by Ayn Rand. Written in 1937, it sets the stage for so many future stories in which humanity has lost its individuality. (And thankfully, since Rand can be overly verbose, it’s a novella – therefore a quick read.)

    • I think I’ve just seen so many later variations on this theme that unfairly this one didn’t feel as original as it would have done at the time – always a problem with reading older classic sci-fi. The aliens thing did make me laugh though… 😂

      I haven’t read any Ayn Rand and actually didn’t realise she was writing as long ago as that – I thought she was considerably more modern for some reason. I shall look out for it – thanks for the recommendation! And thanks also for popping in and commenting. 😀

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