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Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood's End (1953)

by Arthur C. Clarke

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
7,212156494 (3.93)253
  1. 50
    Nightfall by Isaac Asimov (weener)
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    Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler (Medellia)
  3. 20
    The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Contains the short story upon which Childhood's End is based.
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    Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind by Richard Maurice Bucke (bertilak)
  5. 11
    More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (alaskayo)
    alaskayo: Similar philosophy, stronger writing, & less dated by mid-century sci-fi cliches and ignorance.

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English (147)  Danish (4)  Spanish (2)  French (1)  Hungarian (1)  Dutch (1)  All (156)
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It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 ...
Scores -- hundreds -- of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city ...
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood's End was conceived.

-- From the author's foreword to the 1990 edition

Childhood's End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley's The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood's End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century -- in fact, right now.

When I read such fictions (these are all titles I've completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.

In Childhood's End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it's unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?

The answer of course is to sink into the storytelling; as Clarke wrote, "it's a work of fiction, for goodness sake!" And the first thing to take from Part I of the novel ("Earth and the Overlords") is how would we react to the appearance of silver alien craft silently floating above the capital cities of the world? Would it make any difference to our tribal, selfish behaviours? Should the extra-terrestrials ever make contact with world leaders or organisations and lay down broad rules about future conduct would humankind lay aside its differences and get on with sensible living?

I think this is where I really became less convinced of the likelihood of Clarke's scenario. In his part 2 ("The Golden Age") he seemed overly confident that human nature would, in effect, lie down and allow its tummy to be tickled in exchange for comfort and convenience. Perhaps the oppressive nature of the postwar Cold War led him to optimistically hope that reason and commonsense would result in a better and more peaceful world. We can all but hope, can we not.

A further disconnect came with the appearance of what become known as the Overlords. It's only slightly of a spoiler to draw attention with the Old Testament story of the Sons of God coming down to Earth (though there's no procreation with the daughters of men). These 'fallen angels' do indeed look like our traditional image of Satan: cloven hooves, barbed tail, horns, wings and all. But the half-century delay in their visible 'outing' means that, because humankind has acquiesced in their new almost lobotomised status, the Overlords' demonic semblance causes no panic, only awe.

I doubt that fifty years would be enough, however quiescent populations were rendered, to virtually eradicate fundamentalist religious thinking, to erase collective memories of medieval devils or to completely modify emotional reactions. But let's go with the flow of Clarke's narrative, because we soon come to the significance of his novel's title. In part 3 ("The Last Generation") humankind is indeed coming to its end, being made ready for the next stage in its evolution. In place of God, it turns out, there is an Overmind to which the Overlords play the part of subordinate 'angels', messengers to do the Overmind's bidding; and this bidding is that a proportion of the human offspring in the 21st century will simultaneously develop both paranormal powers and a hive mind. These next-generation children will rapidly become so evolved that they will cease to be what we recognise as human.

What mostly saves Clarke's narrative for me is the succession of human characters that he parades for us to provide some continuity and connection. The United Nations secretary, the dilettante with a sizeable collection of occult literature, the sensitive who observes a Ouija board session, the stowaway on the Overlord's spaceship, the youngsters who first exhibit paranormal powers -- however brief their appearance or reappearance Clarke uses them to push forward his narrative, stretching over the best part of a century.

I should also mention the handful of Overlords who interact with their human flock; though mostly undifferentiated except for names theirs is an authoritative though sympathetic presence throughout Childhood's End and, dare I say it, I felt for them because of their enforced roles in the evolution of humanity, and sympathised with their melancholy, their fate as long-lived drones with no discernible future existence. The 1957 British horror film The Night of the Demon lost its overall impact with the appearance in the final reel of the titular demon in stop motion animation; in Childhood's End however the early revelation of the Overlords' semblances was, conversely, not anticlimactic, allowing us instead to see them as careful stewards reluctantly fulfilling the roles allotted to them.

Classic SF occasionally strayed into philosophical territory concerning extraterrestrial intelligence and how humans might evolve: Clarke famously did so in his short story The Sentinel and again in the screenplay he wrote with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: a Space Odyssey. Here, with demonic-looking Overlords and an Overmind and hive minds I sense some interesting speculative thinking on the part of the author, thinking which however heads resolutely towards a cul-de-sac. Yet it is still possible to feel a bit of that awe and wonder Clarke noted when he saw those barrage balloons in 1941, and to consider for ourselves the what-ifs that might follow the sighting of spaceships hovering above our cities.

https://wp.me/p2oNj1-2Bu ( )
  ed.pendragon | Mar 16, 2018 |
Interesting from a "history of sf/how the future looked from the 1950's" perspective. This really does have some interesting and prescient ideas, but also some eye-roll-inducing sexism. And I never did figure out why bull fighting was forbidden but murder was okay. Actually, there were quite a few similar oddities which might come clear for me on a second reading (and it's a quick read), but I'm not that interested. Worth reading, if not rereading, though. ( )
1 vote meandmybooks | Jan 21, 2018 |
I read this on a wave of enthusiasm for Arthur C. Clarke, having just read Rendezvous With Rama and been very impressed with it. I wasn't overly impressed with this. In my review of the latter book I mentioned having read his 2001: A Space Odyssey two years back and completely forgotten the fact. A similar thing seems to have happened with Childhood's End - I had vague stirrings of memory while reading and must have read it years ago and very quickly forgotten it.

I actually found a large part of the book quite absorbing, but it gradually went downhill for me in the last section, 'The Last Generation'. The direction it took struck me as muddled and rather pointless and I felt Clarke had run out of inspiration.

I'm afraid I've now lost my enthusiasm for Arthur C. Clarke. I don't see myself reading more of his fiction in the near future. ( )
1 vote alaudacorax | Dec 20, 2017 |
The Overlords arrive from outerspace, require that people stop hurting other creations and enforce the stipulation with pain, ensure needs are shared, and refuse to show themselves for many years on end. What are they doing here?

I'm not sure what to make of this book. At first I was trying to read the Overlords as an allegory for the Soviet state -- with ever-present attention, crime drops to nothing; with ever-present resources, there is no more need to work -- and I was absolutely convinced of this interpretation when we finally catch a glimpse of an Overlord body. But it doesn't hang together quite as tightly later in the book, which seems to be arguing that human children hold the most potential of all, and need a clean break with the past to chrysalise and emerge into even more powerful -- but utterly foreign -- beings. A plot with a man stowing away to see the Overlord's planet felt tacked on to me -- though the fact that it starred a black man was surprising to me, it wasn't clear what was added except a convenient view of the next generation of humans.

I also found that reading this book, first published back in 1953, time stretches in a most interesting way. It's painfully dated in places (especially in attitudes to women -- of course they faint and sometimes they faint just for attention, and thank god men are naturally polyamorous because women don't like sex much -- and its idea that we'll all use the n-word just like we use the word "child" now). It also feels dated in the preoccupation with light-speed travel and with the story format, which exhibits almost near-total lack of characterization and one of my least favorite plot devices, multiple multi-decade jumps in time. In others, though, it is modern-feeling or even prescient (Buddhism eats all other religions? universal basic income and twenty hour work weeks? folks start spending excessive amounts of time watching long-form entertainment at home of a complexity that would have been considered high-brow decades earlier?) Perhaps Clarke introduced these ideas in the re-release in the '90s -- even so, the book is interesting for the shadow it casts on what is top-of-mind today and what was top-of-mind in the past.

So. I didn't find this book particularly engaging, and the most interesting parts that seemed prescient or drew contrasts might have been tweaked 30 years ago rather than 60. I'll be dropping Clarke for a while; it isn't standing up for me. ( )
1 vote pammab | Sep 23, 2017 |
Finally listened to the audio book version of this book. Interesting view of the future and alien contact. However, a pessimistic view. ( )
  usma83 | Jul 24, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 147 (next | show all)
I'm not sure Childhood's End is the first book my dad gave me, but it was one of the first, and it's certainly the one I remember most vividly. And it's probably a book that changed my life.
added by RBeffa | editDaily Kos, DOM9000 (Jul 8, 2011)

» Add other authors (42 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arthur C. Clarkeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bacon, C.W.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bing, JonForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bringsværd, Tor ÅgeForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Csernus, TiborCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Deutsch, MichelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ellis, DeanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fernandes, StanislawCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haars, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hollander-Lossow, Else vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kempen, BernhardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Powers, Richard M.Cover Artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sawyer, Robert J.Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schjelderup, DaisyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Summerer, Eric MichaelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whelan, MichaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The volcano that had reared Taratua up from the Pacific depths had been sleeping now for half a million years. (Original)
Before she flew to the launch site, Helena Lyakhov always went through the same ritual.  (1989 Updated Version)
This was the moment when history held its breath, and the present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride. All that the past ages had achieved was as nothing now; only one thought echoed and re-echoed through Mohan's brain: The human race was no longer alone.
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Fine del XX secolo: misteriosi alieni detti "i Superni" impongono la fine di ogni ostilità sulla Terra, che inizia una vera e propria Età dell'oro. Ma Ian Rodricks, inquieto astrofisico, riesce a giungere clandestinamente il pianeta di origine dei Superni e scopre un'amara verità sul loro mondo e sulla loro civiltà che coinvolge anche il destino della Terra...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345347951, Mass Market Paperback)

Without warning, giant silver ships from deep space appear in the skies above every major city on Earth. Manned by the Overlords, in fifty years, they eliminate ignorance, disease, and poverty. Then this golden age ends--and then the age of Mankind begins....

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:34 -0400)

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The author questions the survival of mankind in this science fiction tale about Overlords from outer space who dominate the world.

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