Book Review: “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

Warning: Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read the book, please do not read this review.

Rating:

  • Harlequin level: n/a
  • Plot/action/story: 5
  • Solid conclusion: 5
  • SciFi thrill: 5
  • Fantasy thrill: 5
  • Part of a series but doesn’t skimp: n/a

Overall thoughts about the book

While I’ll do my best to describe my impression of “Childhood’s End”, I have to admit that words fail me. It is a stunning novel beyond description. I read it on my Kindle and immediately ordered a 1953 hardcover version the moment that I finished it. I rarely do that…actually, I never do that.

While I understand that scifi purists might scoff at Clarke’s combination of scifi and the paranormal, I don’t think anyone can deny his storytelling mastery when it comes to both.

Clarke divides the book into 3 parts:

  1. Earth and the Overlords
  2. The Golden Age
  3. The Last Generation

In Earth and the Overlords we are introduced to the mysterious Overlords that show up just as man is about to take off to the stars. This theme of man being prevented from reaching the stars is repeated over and over again and the last part of the book resolves this fundamental issue. Mankind does not ever take off but man’s children leave on a completely different route into the universe.

Getting back to this first part, Clarke plays with and refuses to answer whether the Overlords are ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Are they really here to help mankind or do they have a different agenda? He also taunts the reader with the most basic of questions – what do the Overlords look like and why do they refuse to show themselves?

He constantly hints at a hidden agenda and he uses the relationship of overlord Karellen with the human Stormgren to both clarify and obscure the Overlord/mankind relationship. This part of the book is best summed up by the last paragraph of part one:

And Stormgren hoped that when Karellen was free to walk once more on Earth, he would one day come to these northern forests, and stand beside the grave of the first man ever to be his friend.

There’s this bittersweet tone that the above paragraph sets for the next section of the book – The Golden Age.

In The Golden Age we are immediately shown what the Overlords look like. Sure it’s 50 years later and the Overlords have had time to affect man in a way that brings utopia to all mankind. But it’s still shocking to find that the Karellen (and therefore all Overlords) looks like Satan.

At this point I was sure that the Overlords’s agenda was ‘evil’ and of course I was wrong once again. Clarke is like an amazingly strategic volleyball player that sets up a fake spike and has one of his compatriots slam the ball on his confused opponents.

Mankind’s utopia is in full swing when we’re introduced to Rupert Boyce. Through Rupert we meet George Greggson and his future wife – Jean. And through Rupert’s séance party Clarke shows us some slight hints to the Overlord’s actual agenda. It has to do with Jean revealing the exact location of the Overlord’s homeworld (actually the location of their sun). In the process of showing us this we are also introduced to Jan Rodricks, who in the last section of the book, turns out to be the last man on earth.

Jan figures out a brilliant way to be a stowaway on an Overlord ship reaching for the stars and visiting their world. This daring move in conjunction with time dilation assures his place as the last man on earth.

The Golden Age closes with a one-two punch. The first punch is Karellen’s clear dictate that mankind would never reach the stars:

“It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.” “The stars are not for man.” Yes, it would annoy them to have the celestial portals slammed in their faces.

The second punch is the bittersweet passage that continues the build up of the ending in this constant circular drumbeat sort of way. As I mentioned before – words fail me.

It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn: and only Karellen’s ears could catch the first wailings of the winter storms. And only Karellen knew with what inexorable swiftness the Golden Age was rushing to its close.

The Last Generation begins with the pettiness of George Greggson and the eventual move of both him and his family to New Athens – a sort of modern day commune. Here in New Athens Clarke builds up and hammers through the transformation of the Greggson’s children and the eventual transformation of all of the children of the world.

As a parent, some passages are utterly terrifying:

“I’ve only one more question,” he said. “What shall we do about our children?” “Enjoy them while you may,” answered Rashaverak gently. “They will not be yours for long.” It was advice that might have been given to any parent in any age: but now it contained a threat and a terror it had never held before.

and

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time. In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.

Here Clarke reveals the full plan of the Overlords and the upcoming extinction of mankind. He also intersperses Jan’s journey to the Overlord home-world. It is a sort of high-tech rendition of biblical hell with less drama and lots of tech. Through Jan we get to see that the Overlords are really in their own sort of purgatory.

Jan is truly the last man on earth and through him we see the ascendence of man in the form of the children’s merger with the Overmind. Yet this merger is strange and inexplicable. We don’t know what really becomes of the children, we just know that they are no longer an obvious remnant of mankind.

They were emptier than the faces of the dead, for even a corpse has some record carved by time’s chisel upon its features, to speak when the lips themselves are dumb.

The Overlords are stuck in their own hell. They are servants to a master that they cannot understand. They are at an evolutionary dead-end and the only thing that they can do besides serving the Overmind is to do their best to understand that which they cannot understand. And yet Karellen assures us that they will not bow their heads without a fight.

Yet, Karellen knew, they would hold fast until the end: they would await without despair whatever destiny was theirs. They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service they would not lose their souls.

The above passage reminds me of Invictus and the way Clarke applies it applies to the Overlords – man’s version of Satan is quite astounding.


>Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Man’s children have ascended and become something else (we don’t know if they’re in ‘heaven’, we just know they’re in ‘something else’). But the Overlords…they’re still fighting to be the captains of their soul.