Time to sample another SF Masterwork. I’ve read a number of Clarke’s other novel but none of them were written before 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While this novel is by far his most well know work, Clarke is mostly remembered as one of the greats of the golden age of science fiction. I must admit my taste seems to run more to the new wave authors but I haven’t read much golden age science fiction yet, so perhaps it is a bit too soon to make that judgement. Childhood’s End was originally published in 1953 but when history caught up with the original Clarke rewrote part of it. The version that was used for the SF Masterworks edition is the 1990 rewritten version. Gollancz has recently redesigned a number of titles. My version is one of the renewed series and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts. Although many of the golden age science fiction novels are by now very much out of date, I thought it an odd choice to go for the rewritten version but still hail this book as one of the best of the era. Roberts even comments on the slightly awkward fit of the old and new sections.
Mankind has taken its first steps to leave its cradle and has begun to explore space. Before we’re good and well ready for the next major step, an alien species referred to as the Overlords make their presence know. Intellectually and technologically vastly superior to humans, the visitors force human history in another direction. Wars are forbidden, the world is to be unified under one government, poverty, illiteracy and disease are all eradicated. The Overlords seemingly effortless mastery of human society is not uncontested. It soon becomes clear however that resistance is futile. Their technological superiority and the benefits mankind is reaping form these changes are just too much to struggle against. Despite this paradise that is taking shape under the guidance of these benevolent tyrants, doubts remain. What are the true motives of the Overlords? Why won’t they show themselves? And why do they refuse to allow further exploration on space?
Although the book deals with humanity growing up as a species, it must be an uncomfortably read for parents. The Overlords seem to think that after a certain age humans are so stuck in their own patterns and beliefs that it is much more successful to let certain bad habits die out. All religion is considered superstition by the Overlords. There is no factual basis for any of it and they are keenly aware of the profound influence it has on the population. They also believe that education and scientific progress will eventually ensure the removal of this obstacle. That is a bold statement, an arrogant one even. I’m not personally a religious man but my experiences with people who are, are such that no amount of education is going to stop them from believing it whatever it is they choose to accept as the truth. Science as an antidote for religion is not something I believe in. However convenient it would be sometimes.
The gradual disappearance of religion is one element of a process that, as Roberts points out in his introduction, appears in a number of forms in the book. Childhood’s End, the reaching of maturity of one generation, means the end of the (biological) need for the previous one. All that is left is death. Humanity is on the brink of taking the next step in their evolution in this book. For those that are left behind this fact is bitter indeed. The finale of the novel is seen from the point of view of one of those left behind. It is not a cheerful end despite the greater goal that has been achieved. The way in which Clarke ends this novel is very powerful indeed. I'm glad he didn't rewrite that bit.
In typical golden age style, the concept of this novel is much more important that the characters. It is one element in Clarke’s writing that is still present in his later work, long after the genre as a whole has taken a different direction. In a fairly brief novel, Clarke shows us a story that takes over a century though the eyes of quite a view characters. Their part illustrates a key development or represents an idea or current present in society but they are not figures a reader can grow attached to. In between these sections seen through the eyes of these various characters are fairly long stretches about what is going on in the world told to us by a narrator. It is not a style that would survive a critical editor these days, I think Clarke relies on the narrator a bit too much to drive his point home. It has to be said though, the concept is an intriguing one. Clarke takes the time to guide the reader through the process and explain why things are rolling towards their inevitable conclusion. Paradise is not the end of the line, it is the starting point for a new step in our journey.
No doubt there are people who would radically disagree with Clarke’s logic in this novel. Although a lot of it makes perfect sense to me there are a few points where I think he glosses over some of the obstacles in the Overlords’ way a little too easily. The author himself didn’t seem entirely convinced either. Early on in the story he introduces a hint of the supernatural, a plot element that cannot be rationally explained. Scientific explanations and cold logic don’t seem to be enough to take the story where Clarke wants to go. In this light his afterword (written for the 1990 edition) is very interesting. When he wrote the first version of this book, Clarke believed there were things science could not explain. By the time he wrote his afterword he confesses to be an almost complete sceptic. It makes me wonder how he would have written this story later in his career.
Childhood’s End is generally considered to be one of Clarke’s best novels. I have not read enough of his work to say anything sensible about that but it was certainly an interesting read. As with many of his novels, this book is essentially an expanded short story. I wonder if I should try some of Clarke’s short fiction next. In his novels it is blatantly obvious that in terms of prose and characterization Clarke is not, in technical terms, a great writer. His stories are supported by ideas, he tries to dazzle the reader with a clever concept. Perhaps his way of writing is better suited to the short form. If you are interested in golden age science fiction you could certainly do worse than Childhood’s End but this novel is not quite good enough to replace Rendezvous with Rama as my favourite.
Title: Childhood's End
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
First published: 1953