Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood's End Cover

Childhood's End


Random House, 1953
Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: None
Ace/Genderqueer characters: ?
Rating: PG
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 3/5
Plot/Concepts: 3/5

On the eve of humanity's first journeys into space, the Overlords arrived. There was no war for humanity's independence—they put down resistance so peacefully and effortlessly that Earth could only resign itself to alien supervision. Nor will war ever again be possible, or poverty for that matter. Their intentions seem good… but the Overlords keep troubling secrets.

I haven't yet made as deep an exploration into classic science fiction as I would like, but I have to say that the most exciting and stimulating stories I've encountered from Clarke's era are those which show humanity's place in the universe as being outside our usual subconscious assumptions or comprehension. Isaac Asimov's robots are great, but I was never a fan of his expand-or-die rhetoric. It strikes too close to colonial sentiments. Although Clarke's writing is not completely free of dated biases, I've noticed from reading this and 2001: A Space Odyssey, that he brings an incredible sense of perspective to both stories.

The possibility of other intelligent life—and even just the contemplation of our relative insignificance in the universe's incomprehensible vastness—are themes which he brings to life in a breathtaking way. He makes these realizations personal through his characters, and the effect is simultaneously humbling and inspiring. I don't know of many authors who can strike such a balance, showing that we may have greatness in us, but it is relative greatness. To us, an anthill may be remarkable, but nothing of real importance when compared with our own technology and dreams. Still, to the ants, that anthill is as important as our nations are to us. What might a more capable species—even if they are benevolent—make of us who are like ants to them?

Considering such questions was much less depressing than I expected. Rather, I felt inspired toward a more humble, optimistic, and compassionate perspective of all life in the universe. Empathy is, after all, trying to feel things from a perspective outside our own narrow self-interests. Childhood's End is a prime example of how science fiction can encourage a more tolerant and unified future without directly pushing one agenda or the other. That is not to say that the end of Childhood's End is entirely one I would want humanity to see. But I can't say any more about that without spoiling things. Suffice it to say that Clarke's ideas and the execution of those ideas are top-notch.

Unfortunately almost all the characters fall into rigid gender roles. Even a hundred years after the Overlords' arrival, women (what few female characters there are) play little role in anything outside of homemaking and child-rearing. Again, there is nothing wrong with a woman being in those roles, but there should be at least one major female character that breaks that mold. I found this aspect extremely unrealistic, as the Overlords worked to eliminate all other forms of oppression. Although the Overlords themselves are always referred to with male pronouns, the topic of sexes among them is never brought up. Do they have only one sex? If there is some kind of male/female distinction, is it invisible to humans? Do they pair off to procreate? They seem ruled by logic far more than instinct. Because of this I prefer to think of the overlords as genderless and asexual, but as it is never confirmed either way, I can only mark "?" for Ace/Genderqueer Characters. There is another life form in the story as well which is beyond our concepts of sexuality and gender, but I can't say much without giving things away.

Because the book takes place over the course of nearly a century, the only character who is present throughout is Karellan, one of the Overlords (or Supervisors, if you prefer). Because of this, and despite the human penchant for thinking of the Supervisors as emotionless, Karellan seems to have a lot more personality and depth than many of the human characters we encounter. The only other character I enjoyed much was Jan, a young man of color who stows away aboard an Overlord ship and lives to see the unexpected fate of his own species. I suspect that part of why I enjoyed him so much was the representation, and the fact that he did not seem as much a stereotypical man as all the other men in the story, but just a person with a dream.

Science Fiction is about broadening our horizons. Some authors see this as an expansion of physical ownership, a staking out of our right to claim space as our own (even outer space). Others, like Clarke, seem to take a more holistic and almost spiritual approach, showing that true expansion outwardly will require an inward expansion of the consciousness and awareness of our relation to everything else in the universe. Luckily, this can happen before and during our efforts to reach the stars, and those who have seen the Earth from space often can't help but have a new perspective of human weakness and potential. Without that kind of expansion, that acknowledgement of connection, whether it's the understanding that we are all made of the same elements and energies that made the stars, or going further into the realm of a common spiritual source… without some kind of mature growth beyond our petty childhood, extending the reach of humans physically into space will be relatively meaningless. Or at least, that's the lesson I've taken from all I've read.

There are many other messages and questions in Childhood's End. It explores the nature of intellectual advancement and change… it explores the deep-seated nature of cultural biases, breaks down the linear concept of time, and speculates about superstition, cosmologies, and the nature of memory. I think it's safe to say that a handful of readers might each walk away from this book with a very different lesson learned, depending on their own personal approach. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone would not be affected by the perspective shift that Clarke pulls off so well. Check it out and see for yourself!