Title: Childhood’s End
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Date Added: April 19, 2017
Date Started: September 13, 2018
Date Finished: October 19, 2018
Reading Duration: 36 days
Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Classic
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?
Childhood’s End is a Arthur C. Clarke’s vastly different take on the “alien invasion” trope. This is no bombastic War of the Worlds or Independence Day narrative, but inversely, neither is it covert in vein of They Live or The Thing. Because the fore mentioned narratives have the extraterrestrials show blatant hostility, one might be inclined to think they seem less ominous; however, because both the intentions and even appearance of the Overlords is unknown, their endgame could be far more malicious than any world destroying alien race.
On the surface, the Overlords are a boon. They’ve brought about world peace, ended poverty, and ushered in a new era of technology among other things, but humanity has become stagnant. Their secrecy is also a problem for the main character of the first part, a high level government official who attempts to discover more about them, but, of course, it’s far too early in the book for all of the mystery to be resolved.
I’ve seen stories about both malignant and benevolent alien races, but nothing quite like Childhood’s End. The Overlords’ motivation wasn’t entirely original, but Clarke’s execution and the other motifs employed made this a unique read.
The title of the novel could be taken a few different ways. It could refer to humanity’s childhood ending with the arrival of the Overlords accelerating us into the future (which is not dissimilar to the situation in Mass Effect with the salarians and krogan, though the results in the ME are far less fortunate for the latter), forcing us to grow up and realize there was more to the universe than we could ever imagine. Conversely, it could also be more end of story oriented, meaning our “childhood” ends after the Overlords have shown/taught us all they can and leave us to our own devices. Their “interference” regressed humanity into a kind of childhood because we no longer have to worry about all of our needs being met, but there are major problems with this concept.
One of the arguments against UBI (universal basic income) and/or providing humans with basic needs is how it would foster laziness, sap motivation for betterment, and lead to mankind’s stagnation as it does in the novel. However, this idea is horse shit and there are numerous studies that show such “motivation” to be nothing but myth.
People who don’t worry where there next meal is coming from or whether or not they’ll have shelter can exist in a state that isn’t distress. Without the threat of homelessness or destitution, a different type of creativity could flourish. This is not to say that some of the best art doesn’t come out of suffering, but the reason we can find beauty in sadness is because sorrow has been thrust upon us by circumstance, and finding beauty in it is a way to cope. The “best” art comes out of suffering because it acts as a counterbalance to it. Reality and art have a symbiotic relationship. I wouldn’t have written stories about depressed characters with PTSD if I didn’t have depression and PTSD, but…if I wasn’t depressed I wouldn’t need to.
Of course the Overlords not only furnish basic needs, but their scientific advancements far outstrip ours, making the argument that in such a situation, we would stop looking for answers, but I think this is shortsighted, too, and several characters even prove it. There would absolutely be people attempting to reverse engineer or find out more about these new caretakers, because humans are naturally curious.
There’s some…interesting choices made by the author as well when it comes to race. Like everything else, this is not something I can discuss in just a binary sense. On one hand, Clarke is very forward thinking in that several characters are Black or mixed with the main character of the final section acting as the former, and the wife of a white character being the latter. However, I think he steps dangerously out of his wheelhouse with certain terms even though I know he’s doing it in order to paint this society as post-racial.
Note: I almost didn’t include the above paragraph, but I thought it would be intellectually dishonest to not at least mention it, because it’s just another thing the author presents that can offer up such variable discourse.
Clarke’s novel does an excellent job of engendering deep philosophical questions concerning the problems of “utopia,” but I think it functions even better through critique of his ideas around stagnation. An alien race swooping in to fix our issues is something I ponder in our current hellscape every day, and Clarke was writing amidst an entirely different historical context. It’s entirely possible this novel was a scathing metaphor for colonization, though, again, that would put it ahead of its time. When one of the Overlords Karallen says that eventually the human race will be “sufficiently civilized” to run its own affairs, I immediately thought of the Manifest Destiny/White Man’s Burden nonsense philosophy where non-Europeans were believed to be too “primitive” to use their own land and resources properly, which is how Europeans justified theft and slaughter. However, the Overlords only seem to want to bring the humans to a “higher” level like the example from Mass Effect I used before. The reasons for this are eventually seen in the third act of the story.
I probably could’ve done more research on the historical context of this novel (e.g. the time it was written and published) and Clarke before writing this review to paint a clearer picture, but from my limited point-of-view I can say it’s a worthy read due to the wealth of discussion it garners. Whether you agree with the idea of the Overlords is just as deep of a question as whether or not the author did as well.