Childhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us

Readers’ average rating:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke science fiction book reviewsChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

There’s something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, and precise, and they focus on science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke’s world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like … the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scientific progress will steadily continue, bringing humans further and further along a path of enlightenment and shedding the foolish superstitions of the past (i.e. organized religions, antiquated political and social conventions).

In Childhood’s End, super-advanced aliens (dubbed “Overlords”) suddenly descend on Earth. Instead of bringing death and destruction like the Martians of H.G. WellsWar of the Worlds, they immediately impose a benevolent rule over mankind and swiftly solve all of the political, social, racial, and religious problems plaguing the planet, not least of all imminent nuclear destruction (a reasonable fear considering the timing of the book). The only catch is that the Overlords refuse to explain the motivations for their altruistic intervention, indicating only that they are Supervisors in charge of helping mankind for some unknown ultimate goal.

So what is the catch, then? Clarke builds the story slowly and reveals things at a very measured pace, and we don’t find out what the Overlords are really up to until the final 50 pages or so. This is actually the biggest weakness of the story, because the small glimpses of the Overlord’s gradually grooming of the human race for SOMETHING BIG don’t really seem to connect very well with the final denouement. And since the final 50 pages are a fairly mind-blowing vision of the transformation of mankind, I would’ve preferred if Clarke devoted more pages to this and less to the lead-up. It’s like going to a live concert, having to listen to the opening act for a full 90 minutes, and then watching the headline band play an amazing set of just 3-4 songs and waltz off stage with the crowd crying out for more. Then again, sometimes the best books leave you hungry for more, and let your imagination fill in the details.

Clarke is without question a SF writer with a wealth of ideas, but I think he owes a huge debt to two of his British predecessors, both visionaries of enormous talent and ambition, Wells (a vision of the very end of time and the Earth in The Time Machine in particular) and Olaf Stapledon‘s (Last and First Men, Star Maker). Last and First Men depicts the next several billion years’ worth of human evolution, while Star Maker is even more ambitious, tackling the beginnings and ultimate purpose of galaxies, nebulae, group consciousness, and the Star Maker itself. In comparison, Childhood’s End seems almost modest in its story and ambitions. Still, I really enjoyed Childhood’s End and think it deserves its position as a classic of the genre.

Published in 1953. The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city—intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began. But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind… or the beginning?

SHARE:  Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

View all posts by

2 comments

  1. You’re working your way through my childhood’s library with these reviews. And yep, I remember being “mind-blown” by that ending!

  2. I love ACC, too. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for years and have not managed to get to it yet.

Leave a Reply to Kat Hooper Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your own review

Rating