With Childhood’s End as our current Title Spotlight and a SyFy TV mini-series coming later in the year, we thought it an opportune time to republish Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Paul McAuley’s take on this seminal classic, as originally written for our good friends at SFX and their excellent Book Club feature:
Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, is an early and important forerunner of that staple of 21st century science fiction, the posthuman future, in which human evolution is accelerated, directed and deformed by increasing longevity and enhancing intellectual and physical abilities. An expansion of an earlier short story, “Guardian Angel”, its day-after-tomorrow scenario and clever twist on the universal experience of adolescence first brought Clarke to the attention of an audience beyond the genre, and its central idea, of enigmatic aliens acting as catalysts for change, foreshadowed 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unlike the aliens of most Cold War space invasion movies, Clarke’s Overlords are benign conquerors. After their huge spaceships appear above the major cities of Earth, they declare that they are taking charge of humanity to prevent its extinction, and use a variety of ingenious non-violent methods to establish a “long, cloudless afternoon of peace and prosperity”, albeit at the cost of most curiosity-driven research. But despite their global influence on every aspect of human life, their motives and physical form remain unknown. Their first human intermediary, the UN Secretary General, contrives to glimpse Karellen, the Supervisor of Earth, through the two-way mirror that separates them during their meetings, but takes the secret of the alien’s appearance to the grave. When the Overlords decide that humanity has shed its superfluous superstitions, and reveal themselves on the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Earth, the reason for their secrecy becomes apparent: twice the size of humans, they resemble the Christian image of the Devil, complete with horns, hooves, bat wings, and a barbed tail.
Childhood’s End is the first full-scale manifestation of Clarke’s signature fusion of hard science fiction tropes with metaphysical speculation. Science and reason displace religion. Aliens don’t look like devils; devils look like aliens because of a backwards propagation of the tremendous psychic shock of the onset of the final stage of human evolution. Likewise, Clarke rationalises psychic phenomena – telekinesis, telepathy and other superpowers – that were popular in 1950s science fiction. A Ouija board deployed at a party spells out an alphanumeric string that turns out to be the catalogue number of the Overlords’’ home star. Some years afterward, the children of two of the participants of that Ouija session begin to exhibit strange powers: they’re the Patients Zero of a world-wide change whose outcome is witnessed by an astronomy student who, after managing to smuggle himself aboard one of their starships, returns from a round trip to the Overlords’ planet.
Clarke’s ideas about cosmic evolution were influenced by the novels of Olaf Stapledon, but he focuses on individuals rather than the grand sweep of aeons of galactic history, and the early manifestations of posthuman power are effective and chilling not only because of his careful and clever foreshadowing, but also because they disrupt a familiar domestic setting. Although some of its speculations show their age, and the Tomorrowland of its scientific utopia seems somewhat naive in these cynical times, Childhood’s End still grips the imagination. The landscapes of the Overlords’ planet and the strange worlds that one of the changeling children visits in his dreams are conveyed with vivid economy. And while he remains off stage for most of the story, the brooding figure of Karellen dominates the novel. Like Milton’s Satan, he is a sorrowful steward of human destiny, his duty inextricably intertwined with the tragedy of his own race. With this powerful and sympathetic portrait, Clarke skilfully fuses the ideas of modern science fiction with the melancholy ambience of earlier scientific romances, a style that still distinguishes British science fiction from the dominant American mode.
Childhood’s End is available as an SF Masterworks hardback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Arthur C. Clarke’s books at his author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
This piece was written by Paul McAuley and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.
Paul McAuley is the author of the acclaimed Quiet War sequence of space opera novels and the Confluence trilogy – recently republished by Gollancz in trade paperback and eBook. His latest novel is Evening’s Empires, which is available in paperback and as an eBook. Paul McAuley blogs at unlikelyworlds.blogspot.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter.