I’ve recently been going through some of the classical science fiction books and short stories. In earlier posts I’ve discussed my reactions to Dracula and Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland and a few more. I have just finished reading
‘Childhood’s End’. Beginning from a short story in 1946 (Guardian Angel) and ending in the novel published in 1953 it details the arrival of an alien race to Earth. For more details it’s always good to start at Wikipedia.
From what I read it seems that this was Clarke’s first book and it takes a surprising view of alien invasion. The so-called ‘Overlords’ are quite hands off and instead of ruining our culture they homogenise it, ensuring war is a thing of the past as well as famine or disadvantage. Everyone is well off but scientific enquiry and creativity tailor off to be only an area of individual interest.
Clarke tells the story through the eyes of several humans. The first is the head of the United Nations who is the only human to deal with the Overlord Karellen. When he retires, the story moves on to Jan, his sister Maia and George and Jean Greggson. It is an interesting way to tell a story over time although when reading it takes a few pages of the new/additional characters to see that the story has moved on in time.
Overall, it is the story of humanity’s development to join the overall mind of the universe. As as such I found the story chilling.
The style of the story suggests that it is a wonderful thing to see humanity destroyed in its current physical form and become part of the Universal ‘Mind’. To me, and maybe because of my stage of life, the loss of all the worlds children to the ‘Mind’ and the destruction of everyone and eventually Earth itself is nothing but apocalyptic.
I think it is this, the style and the horror/apocalypse it portrays, that makes it such a chilling and outstanding story. We have had many apocalyptic stories in recent years and especially in YA fiction. That Clarke had just lived through WWII and was still in his 30’s may have something to do with it. When contrasted to his Oddessy series in which the human race does go out into space (with varying degrees of challenge and success) Childhood’s End is gloomy. Yet the idea of ridding Earth of conflict and living in a ‘Golden Age’ of prosperity for all must have seemed a wonderful idea. I wonder if Clarke was not of the view that anything good has a price and that the loss of humanity as it is currently – it’s physical shape and it’s environment – was the eventual price for the Golden Age.
I found some of the assumptions in the book rather quaint. That in the 21st century people would still be using film was interesting as in the era this was written there was no idea of microchips. Another thing that came to mind was the view that everyone would be using airships of sorts to get around forgoing cars, ocean travel and railways. With the interesting fact that the three day hiatus of air traffic after 9/11 showed a 1.1 degree Celsius change in air temperature the idea that everyone taking to the air with little or no effect on the environment was interesting. And finally there was the assumption that humans playing around with the atom would cause the destruction of Earth and homo sapiens with it. The last was the theme behind the story as the alien invasion stopped it from happening.
We have moved on scientifically since the story was written. That said, it is still a very interesting concept, novel, and it seems no-one has repeated a similar concept in any stories that I’ve read.
I’m glad I’ve read this book. It was only 177 pages so really a novella. Never-the-less it certainly left an impact on me.