Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood's End Cover



Jan Rodericks is the last man on earth. Since he has spent the previous 80 earth years in another galaxy, making the journey there and back by traveling faster than the speed of light, he has aged only a few months during his time away. In his absence there have been major changes on the home planet. Adults have not only quit reproducing, they have died away either by natural causes or suicides that seemed like the most reasonable choice a the time. The most recent generation of children, ages five to fifteen, have so greatly developed their new psychic/spiritual powers, prompted by an unexplained leap in the evolutionary process, that they now live as a kind of single consciousness on the continent of Australia. The slightly repulsive, fungoid image this prompts, at least in my mind, is to be put aside in the face of the miracle of it all. The Overlords, an ominous name for the benign aliens that have shepherded earth through this transformative process for the past century or two, are leaving the planet. They have asked Jan Rodericks to radio them reports.

As the no-longer-human children become part of the Overmind --another creepy sounding but supposedly good thing--Jan Rodericks has this to say. (The following is condensed from several pages of the book.)

"The whole network is beginning to glow...There is a great burning column like a tree of fire...Now it looks like the curtains of the aurora, dancing and flickering across the sky...Something is happening to gravity...of course, the atmosphere is escaping...The buildings round me, the ground, the mountains -- everything is like glass...The light! From beneath me--inside the earth--shining upward, through the rocks, the ground, everything--growing brighter, brighter, blinding--"

That's the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. and my god how I wish I had read it when I was fifteen years old. Not that I didn't enjoy last week, but forty years ago it might have beat out Dune for top spot in my reading career. There are twelve foot aliens that look like the medieval image of Satan, but they're nice. Earth becomes a kind of Utopia where people make quick transglobal flights in their private jet cars. This Jan Rodericks person stows away on a starship to witness first hand other galaxies. And finally it is the children who are the focus of it all. They are new beings, ready to play their part in a grand, cosmic drama. And Clarke accomplishes it all in just over 200 pages.

I have never give Arthur C. Clarke his due respect. For years I thought that he has done the "novelization" of the 2001: A Space Odyssey screenplay -- hardly respectable work for one of the triumvirate of sf writers that included himself, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. His work on 2001was much more complicated than that. He had wanted the novel to come out well in advance but Kubrick wanted it as a tie-in to the film's release. There is also a story of Clarke exiting the film's premiere at intermission, possibly in tears, but I could be making that part up.

Clarke had a distinguished career in the RAF, developed ground radar systems, and after the war worked on the technology that would eventually lead to communication satellites. In 1956, the 39-year-old author emigrated to Sri Lanka, where he could indulge both his love of scuba diving and his taste for young men. The latter predilection was fully acknowledged by Clarke after a disastrous, brief marriage to an Presbyterian in Florida. In 2000 he was made a Knight Batchelor for his literary accomplishments, and he died in Sri Lanka in 2008. Like so many of his SF peers, he wrote a phenomenal number of books, both sf and nonfiction. One bibliography lists 66 titles, along with his work as a television presenter.

His other book to make the Pringle list is The City and Stars, a 1956 reworking of a 1948 novella,Against the Fall of Night. Perhaps he didn't rewrite it enough, or perhaps the project was misguided to begin with, but reading it made me think Clarke had temporarily forgotten how write in the three years since Childhood's End.

The trouble starts with the first sentence.

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert.

(Imagine writing that sentence and thinking, "Damn, I'm good.")

This is earth a billion years in the future, and the city, Diaspar, is a self-enclosed, technological paradise on a planet otherwise turned to desert. The Central Computer keeps things running, and residents live for a couple of centuries then go back into the computer's memory banks until they are reborn a millennia or so later as adolescents without navels. It sounds boring as hell to me, but the populace seems satisfied except for our hero, Alvin. (Everyone is on a first name basis in Diaspar, and I checked and it would still be a couple of years after the novel that David Seville created the singing chipmunk that would co-opt that name for the next fifty years.) Alvin has never lived before. He is a "unique" and has an itch to find out what really lies outside the insulated glass walls of Diaspar.

But the writing is mostly just terrible. Clarke describes one tedious wonder after another, never letting us simply experience his fully imagined strange world. And the dialogue, never his strong point, often reads like more exposition with quotations marks slapped around it.

Why is this book on the 100 Greatest list? Judging from comments on Good Reads, it is a favorite of those who read it around the age of twelve. That makes sense. It is a Boy's Own Adventure story, perfect for a noncritical audience that wouldn't mind that Childhood's End is brainier, funnier, and more sophisticated.