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Clarke at 100: Childhood’s End

By / May 31, 2017 / no comments

Childhood’s End, the first of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels that we can truly consider a classic, began life as a short story, “Guardian Angel”, first published in 1950. The novel version was written, Clarke reports, “between February and December 1952, and extensively revised in the spring of 1953”. The date is important because, as we will see, the novel bears the imprint of the Second World War. However, Clarke thought it was important because the novel felt dated: “when the Ballantine edition appeared on 24 August 1953 … the first earth satellite was still four years in the future – though not even the most optimistic space enthusiast dreamed it was that close”. So, in 1989, Clarke sat down to produce a new, revised edition of the novel. The revision consists of a new Foreword (which I’ve quoted from here) and a new first chapter, which shifts the timescale of the novel firmly into the 21st century. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, everything from chapter two onwards remains exactly as it was when the book was first published.This is fortunate in that it allows us to read, unblemished, one of the three or four best things that Clarke ever wrote. It is unfortunate, since some details in the unrevised portion of the book conflict with the timescale introduced in the new opening chapter, such as one character, an engineer in youthful middle age, recalling making bombs for the French Resistance during the Second World War (just one of the lesser imprints of that war I mentioned earlier). But that chapter is short and easily forgotten and impinges in no way upon one’s pleasure in and appreciation of the rest of the novel.

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End is now so much a part of the mythology of science fiction that the central revelation – that the aliens who arrive at the beginning of the novel have the appearance of, and are in some way the origin of, our folk image of the devil – will probably come as no surprise to anyone. What did surprise me, re-reading the novel now for the first time in many years, was how early in the book this revelation came; I misremembered it as coming pretty close to the climax of the story. So, even if you had remained in blissful ignorance of this detail, learning it now will not spoil your reading of the novel in any way. What is interesting is that this image of the devil ties in with references to the paranormal. Such references are not totally unexpected, of course, for anyone who Arthur C. Clarke Collectionremembers the television programme, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World; but they were not normally a feature of his fiction. And other that this paranormal incursion, the scientific rationalism espoused by the book is absolutely typical of his work. Indeed, in many ways this is the archetypal Arthur C. Clarke novel, containing features that would become familiar in much of his best work.

The novel is divided into three parts, “Earth and the Overlords”, “The Golden Age”, and “The Last Generation”, though my sense is that the final section should itself be divided into two. These are not quite self-contained novellas, there is some overlap of characters and themes between them, but they are split chronologically with a gap of several years between each one.

In the first part, the aliens have arrived, massive silver ships hanging silently above every major city on Earth. The image, repeated endlessly in subsequent films like Independence Day, would become a cliche of alien invasion stories, though Clarke reveals in his Foreword that here it was inspired by the wartime sight of silver barrage balloons tethered in the skies above London (yet another way in which World War II informs the book).

The aliens appear to be benevolent, but they are implacable in the imposition of their will upon Earth. All wars are stopped, and the resultant peace bonus means that the world’s population generally sees its standard of living rise. Nevertheless, the Overlords, as they quickly become known, are not universally popular. Clarke is unusual among his generation of science fiction writers in his sensitivity towards non-Western nations, noting for instance that those countries that had most recently won their independence from European colonisers were particularly upset about losing their freedom again so quickly. (We shouldn’t make too much of this sensitivity, however, since Clarke also seems to believe that “nigger” could be rehabilitated as a term for black people, and women appear only as wives or girlfriends with no careers of their own, and the only artistic expression he shows them having is knitting.)

What particularly stirs up the opposition, however, is the fact that the Overlords do not show themselves, and indeed deal directly with only one human, Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Stormgren’s Scandinavian nationality is presumably a nod towards Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who became UN Secretary General in April 1953. It is noticeable that Clarke here seems to share the view of other generally utopian sf writers such as H.G. Wells, who saw the United Nations as a potential world government. Of course, even Stormgren doesn’t actually meet an Overlord; he is regularly carried to their craft, but speaks only to a blank screen. Nevertheless, he becomes the focus of anti-Overlord opposition, and is eventually kidnapped by activists, but naturally the Overlords, with their vastly superior technology, know where he is at all times, and once they have identified the leaders of the activists, Stormgren is freed without fuss. However, as a result of this incident, Stormgren concocts a plan to see what the Overlords look like. The plan works, with the apparent connivance of the Overlord Karellen, but Stormgren goes to his grave without ever revealing what he saw.

The story now jumps forward 50 years, to the moment when the Overlords finally reveal themselves to the waiting public, though their horns, tails and leathery wings don’t seem to have anything like the visceral effect that we might have expected. This second section is mainly concerned to show how good life has become under the Overlords, people living wherever and however they choose, no poverty, no shortages. Central to the section is a glamorous party in a sumptuous house set in what was once desert but is now productive land. A surprise guest at the party is one of the Overlords, who is there because the host has a unique library of books on the paranormal. When most of the guests have gone, the few remaining gather around a high-tech ouija board, which supplies the usual bland, generalised replies to bland general questions, until one guest, Jan, asks where the Overlord’s home planet is. Surprisingly, the ouija board gives a specific star catalogue number.

Jan (a black character, not the only one in Clarke’s early work, though rare in the work of his contemporaries) is a physics student who is frustrated because one of the few restrictions the Overlords have imposed is on anything to do with space research and exploration. As a result of this frustration he devises a way to stowaway on an Overlord ship, and over time puts his plan into action. The Overlords know he is there, but do nothing to stop him. This part of the novel ends with him aboard a ship leaving the solar system.

Again, the novel jumps forward a few years. This time we follow a couple with their two children who move to an artists’ colony on an island in the Pacific. Here again life is idyllic, until the island is threatened by a tsunami. Their eldest boy is alone on a beach in the direct line of the tsunami, until he receives a mysterious warning which allows him to escape just in time. This is a trigger point, from this moment on he has increasingly vivid dreams that are true visions of alien worlds. Meanwhile his baby sister starts to control objects with her mind. Before long, all children are displaying similar talents.

This, we now learn, is what the Overlords are here for: their galactic role is to oversee such moments of transcendence. in a scene that deliberately echoes the evacuation of children from London railway stations during the Second World War, a vessel arrives to take all of the children away from the island. Humanity has run its course: the children will shortly transform into something else, while their parents will simply die out.

And there is another time jump, 80 years this time, that I am convinced should mark a fourth section. Jan returns from the planet of the Overlords. Thanks to time dilation, he is only a few months older, but he finds a world that is radically transformed. He is the last human, there to act as witness as the children transform into something immaterial and indescribable.

It is interesting how much Childhood’s End prefigures Clarke’s later work. The interest in transcendence that comes again in 2001, A Space Odyssey, for instance. And in the scenes that show Jan on the Overlord’s planet, Clarke is at pains to show how much of a truly alien culture will be incomprehensible, a theme he will return to in Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke was never the most stylish of writers, but there is a humanity here, particularly in his descriptions of the emotional effect of watching your child turn into something else, that he would only rarely match in later works. It is hard to say whether Childhood’s End is Clarke’s best novel; it is very much of its time, and there are some parts of it that are clunky indeed, but still I think it must come close to being his best.

Buy Childhood’s End on Amazon.

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