Childhood's End by Clarke, Arthur C., 1953

Childhood

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Arthur C. Clarke I think is one of those authors who has a fantastic back catalog, but for the most part has not produced anything significant in the genre for at least twenty years now (this review was written before A.C. Clarke's passing in 2008). Though I can hardly fault him for that. Clarke has to be in his 80's by now. But for that reason, I think that some people don't really know that in his day, he was not only one of the most visionary authors out there, but also a pretty decent one too. Books like 3001 and the later Rama novels certainly don't go far to show Clarke's prowess. Childhood's End was one of Clarke's earlier novels. It was published in 1953, with an update in 1990. This novel is by most reckonings, mine included, one of the best novels in the entire genre. Five plus out of five stars.

Childhood's End is the story of what happens to mankind after a race of highly-evolved beings come and bloodlessly take over the Earth. One morning hundreds of enormous spaceships descend to a height of a few dozen miles over every major and minor city in the world. The scene was later borrowed by the made-for-TV-movie, "V". The primary ship parks itself above New York City, where the UN building is, and the occupants announce that they will help us achieve a peaceful, prosperous society. Over the next 25 or so years the Overlords, as they eventually come to be known, gradually took over the regulation of human affairs. There were of course a few challenges to them, but no major ones. Most people trusted the Overlords because they were capable at getting the job of government done. Others did not, because the Overlords were very secretive about their appearances, and did not show themselves to us for the first 50 years of their rule. But the Overlords weathered these challenges, and ultimately built up a strong world government that was fair, in which most were happy, and resources were abundant. But the real task of the Overlords was one which after a dozen or so reads still never fails to move me. The Overlords, for all their power, are no more than guardians of the Overmind, a highly advanced collective which species can join after reaching a certain point in their own evolution. It is humanity's turn to join, but the adults of the species may not ascend. The Overlords gather the children and set them on the path to mental and physical transformation, leaving the Earth childless and without hope.

Thematically this book shares a lot of the major themes that dot Clarke's other works, though there is so much more in this one than any of the others. At the point in his life that he wrote this one I don't think that Clarke was an atheist, but he certainly appeared to be on the path to that ideology. In one of his most recent books, 3001, Clark apparently seeks to discredit not religion, but God himself by reanimating the thousand-year dead corpse of Frank Poole, the crew member killed by the insane Hal 9000 AI. The implication in 3001 is that if Poole's consciousness could be reawakened after 1000 years floating in space, it probably did not transcend after death. In this book, written almost 50 years earlier, Clarke seems more to be saying that ordinary beings are capable of godhood with the help from a benevolent creature that is already advanced to that point. This theme runs strongly in his earlier works, including 2001, where Bowman becomes the Starman by forced evolution of the beings around Jupiter.

Clarke also apparently had an interest in paranormal psychology and wrote it into this book. He apparently has some interest in the topic, and while certain of his influential characters poo-poo the idea, as an author he treats it respectfully. As a matter of fact, paranormal sensitivities in very few select humans that are passed down from one generation to the next are the catalyst for the end-game of this novel, but they also give clues to some of the adults who misinterpret them.

The book has some other themes that I particularly love. Its essentially an end-of-the-world story, but in the context of a forced evolution. There is a very good but ploddingly set up last-man-on-earth bit too. The impact on the psyche of the adults after the theft of the children is as horrid and severe as you would imagine. Prior to the beginning of the transformation the world created by the Overlords is obviously a utopia, and in the end Clarke hits the reader right between the eyes with the undesirability and impossibility of continued existence in such a world. In short, it is a striking dystopia, and it changes in the span of a few hours.

One final note. Clarke's descriptions of the world as it moves through various phases of Overlord oversight are phenomenal. In my opinion Clarke does a better job than King at describing everyday life in his books, and this one is absolutely tops in that regard. Even after the change Clark does this superbly. I cannot recommend this one enough.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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