Appreciations: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End

Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush announced plans for the Space Exploration Initiative, which intended to one day put humans on Mars. Today rovers, and high-resolution cameras are busily gathering data in advance of our arrival in the flesh, and it’s just a matter of time—if there’s any time left, that is—before a human foot makes its mark on Martian dust.

All that may be a Very Bad Thing, to trust the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking. He worries that all our buzzing around in space may attract the attention of aliens who will view us, perhaps rightly, as chimps with guns and do away with us. That’s the troubling territory in which Arthur C. Clarke’s short novel Childhood’s End, published in 1953, operates: Sometime around the time of Bush’s announcement, in Clarke’s chronology, the extraterrestrials find us and not the other way around. They put an end to the Cold War. After a time, they announce that since humans are so inclined to mischief, they’ll be taking over the business of world government—and meanwhile putting us out of the space-exploration business.

Even though the UN is in on the deal, black-helicopter conspiratorialists need not worry overmuch, for the Overlords, as they’re called, step in to referee only rarely. It’s more discomfiting to conspiratorialists of another ilk that, once they get around to revealing themselves, the Overlords look like devils, with wings, barbed tails and horns. Even so, the Overlords don’t seem to be especially evil. Indeed, their rule brings peace and plenty, and with it, their human subjects get soft and soft-minded: Creativity ceases, innovation dries up, effort ends.

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Why try to improve things for the next generation, though? There’s not much point when, soon enough, the next generation becomes something not quite human. The most sympathetic of the Overlords, a big-brained fellow called Karellen, helpfully explains that the real reason for their presence is to merge the human species into the great abstraction called the Overmind, for which grown-ups need not apply.clarke_cover

So they do, and the world dissolves as this new species consumes it in a feeding frenzy that no grown-up would want to be around to witness in any event. Readers of Childhood’s End have found in it a parable of alienation and totalitarianism. Whatever its deeper meaning, it was successful in its main intent, which was to scare readers silly. What more anxiety-inducing scenario in the anxious 1950s could one cook up, after all, than the virtual kidnapping of the planet’s children by some devilish pied piper?

Childhood’s End is lesser Clarke, certainly as compared to the more ambitious Space Odyssey volumes and weightier novels such as Rendezvous with Rama. Even so, it sold out of its first 210,000-copy press run within three months, and it’s probably only due to the fact that the Hugo wasn’t awarded in 1954 that Clarke missed winning it for his book, which remains in print today. The moral of Clarke’s story remains strong, too, as we humans busily devour our planet: This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but a flicker.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.