Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke has become a classic of science fiction since its publication in 1953 and has been very influential in the genre. This fairly short, stand alone novel is light on characterization but heavy on ideas. For some reason I’d categorized this book in my head as “scary science fiction” that I’d probably find dry or difficult to read, but that was not the case at all. Although I did find it moved slowly toward the middle, it was a very thoughtful book and I enjoyed it very much.
Childhood’s End is divided into three parts, each exploring a different theme. The first section deals with the arrival of a fleet of spaceships in the sky over Earth, beginning the reign of the aliens known as the Overlords. These Overlords create a peaceful utopia in which not even cruelty to animals exists. Their leader, Karellen, will only speak to Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary General of the United Nations, although none of the Overlords will allow any human to know what they look like. Because of this, people distrust the aliens even though they have made the world a better place for its inhabitants. Rikki informs Karellen that humanity would feel better if they knew what the Overlords look like, but Karellen says that the people of Earth are not yet ready to handle the knowledge of their new ruler’s appearance. Once 50 years have passed and most people do not remember a time without the Overlords, Karellen and his kind will reveal themselves.
The second part of the story is about the golden age that appears once humanity has accepted the Overlords. Poverty and war are nonexistent, crime is exceedingly rare, and no one has to work if they do not want to. However, creativity and scientific discovery have dwindled – after all, what is the point of exploring new theories when the Overlords have known about them for ages? Also, it remains to be seen why the aliens are interested in Earth and if there is a price to be paid for their influence, which is the topic of the third and final section.
Despite being over fifty years old, much of the power of Childhood’s End is still in the revelations that unfold throughout the course of the story. Because of this I am only going to speak in very general terms here, but suffice it to say that I found the various revelations, along with their impact on humanity (both what was discussed and what actually happened), to be the most interesting part of the book and well worth the relatively short time investment required to read the book.
The first section was very intriguing. The changes made by the Overlords and the speculation on what they looked like and what they were hiding made me very curious about their true intentions for Earth. I was enjoying reading about the Secretary General’s attempts to see Karellen and when the mystery of the aliens’ appearance was finally cleared up at the end, I thought it was just starting to get good.
I found the story told during humanity’s golden age to be less interesting overall, though there were some interesting aspects to that world. Much of the beginning of this was exposition on the world the Overlords had created, but it was quite fascinating to read about the problems resulting from near perfection since they were so plausible. Even though people were more educated than ever before, creative works drastically decreased. Art and literature are outlets for making statements and if everything is perfect, it does not leave much room for expression and making points about social injustice and conflicts. Once the advantages and disadvantages of the golden age were established, the focus changed to some new characters and events that did not make much sense until later. It was still more drawn out than it needed to be, but it did at least seem as though there was a point to it in the end.
None of the characters were particularly well developed and the only really interesting ones were the mysterious Overlords with their unclear motivation. Throughout this short book, there were several characters who played a role but this was a concept-heavy story and not a character driven one. Although a lack of characterization is often a deal breaker for me, the story was interesting enough that I wanted to find out what happened anyway and read through until the bitter end (which was rather depressing).
Childhood’s End is a thoughtful novel examining society containing a bit of a mystery concerning the Overlords and their intentions for the world. There are some pacing issues and characterization is not explored, but those aspects are not why you read a book like Childhood’s End. It is about reflecting on both our past and our future, and in that area there are many well developed ideas and a fascinating future scenario.