CHILDHOOD’S END – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Childhood's EndIn a way, this book is the opposite of Rendezvous with Rama. In both books big stuff from outer space approaches, and whereas in Rama ultimately nothing happens to Earth, in Childhood’s End ultimately everything happens to Earth. Childhood’s End is 20 years younger than Rama, and I found it much harder to like. Although the novel starts promising, the biggest problem I experienced was my growing disbelief. Clarke acknowledges this in his 1989 preface:

When this book was written in the early 1950s, I was still quite impressed by the evidence for what is generally called the paranormal, and used it as the main theme of the story. Four decades later (…) I am  an almost total sceptic. (…) It has been a long, and sometimes embarrassing, learning process. 

Seen in this light, it is one of the more interesting historical pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read… So much has changed in a few decades, and Childhood’s End is clearly a reflection of that. Interesting, yes, but after about the halfway mark I didn’t really enjoy the book anymore.

Aside from the paranormal being such an important part, there are other problems too. The book makes a few interesting social projections (like the effect on the sexual and marital mores of an oral contraceptive – about 10 years before it was invented – and easy paternal tests; or on South Africa) but misses the beat on the supposed effect the arrival of the alien Overlords has on culture. A big part of the book is devoted to this. Clarke poses that great art can only flourish if there is strife. The Overlords bring peace and material prosperity – Iain M. Banks must have surely read this book, humanity after the Overlords resembles his post-scarcity Culture in more than one respect – and as a result humanity becomes “placid, featureless, culturally dead”.

This is utter baloney, and Clarke knows it too. Yet, he is still stuck in the elitist Low vs. High dichotomy of modernism – and everything that came before it. In Childhood’s End entertainment thrives as never before, but of course, that is not real culture, no real, “significant” Art. A strange irony for a writer of what could be considered pulp. Later on in the novel, he admits that other forms of strife wouldn’t necessarily stop if war and grinding work would disappear, but he goes to great lengths to make such other forms of strife artificial: human competition only works on an island called New Athens, for crying out loud. Romanticism clearly wasn’t dead in the 1950s either. Sadly, this doesn’t help my suspension of disbelief. Bearing this in mind, big parts of the already short novel (212 pages in my edition) could have been cut away, the more so because they don’t add to the overall story at all.

And yes, this is pulp. The characters are flat, the language unremarkable and the main (only) narrative device is the slow reveal. Like Rama, this is a simple mystery story. From the very first pages the main mystery is clearly formulated: what are the true intentions of the Overlords? Clarke quickly adds a question about the Overlords’ appearance, gives a clear hint on page 55, and reveals it on page 61. The paranormal theme is introduced soon after that, and at regular intervals the possible threatening nature of the Overlords is repeated. Nothing new is added, and the book becomes a bit of a drag around page 85, since you know you’ll have to just sit it out, and wait for the end to get the big reveal. In the meantime, it ventures into the stale stale-art-theme.

Before the quasi-religious ending (featuring a burning tree!) Clarke exempts himself from too rigorous plotting, and all loose ends are simply cut away, since the Overlords themselves state that they too don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t have anything against mysticism, but Clarke goes for the cheap option only, and doesn’t aspire Significant Art – if I’m allowed such a modernist thought myself.

This is not to say Clarke has no good ideas – some of his insights in human nature do hit home, and the nature of time, another important yet underdeveloped theme of Childhood’s End, indeed remains mysterious – but generally speaking, even if you don’t take the paranormal into account, this book hasn’t aged well. It is, however, of tremendous importance to people with an interest in the history of science fiction.



14 responses to “CHILDHOOD’S END – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

  1. Really interesting and objective review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting review! I never read the book but recently saw the tv mini-series inspired by it and – considering my disappointment with it – I’ve been wondering ever since if the book is different. Your post seems to point toward a close similarity between the original material and the tv script, and does not encourage me to read Clarke’s novel. Which is a pity, because the premise is a fascinating one…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! For me it’s the other way around: having read the book doesn’t encourage me to watch the series 🙂 The remake of V was quite alright, and had a similar premise as well. It watered down seriously as the series progressed though.


  3. You’ve managed to very eloquently convey the reasons why this book just didn’t feel right when reading it. The slow reveal of information was excruciating yet didn’t really seem to add any tension.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, yes, yes aaaaaaaaaaaaand yes. Can I steal this review and post it on my Goodreads page? Kidding. Wouldn’t do that but I’m currently reading the eBook and have been highlighting and notating all the places where he’s guilty of what you’ve written. Apart from Clarke’s “Low vs. High dichotomy of modernism” he outright contradicts himself. He states that most people attend college until almost in their 30s, AND most continuing going back to university for more study later in life. And yet he says nothing of value in science or the arts comes of all that … ???? It’s a really odd outlook. If he’d just said that nobody went to college because making entertainment was so easy that everyone could do it (as is the case right now, BTW), then OK, elitist but maybe not so far off base. But he insists on having it both ways: the highest educated and most literate society ever, but nothing worthwhile comes of it. It breaks his whole world creation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It seems part of SF’s pulp target audience simply doesn’t seem to mind inconsistenties. It’s baffling to me a book like this, filled with sloppy thinking, has the status it has in the field.


      • It is odd. This book, like Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, ends up on practically every Hard SF best of list and yet both are barely a step away from the old Flash Gordon SF fantasy of the pulp era. No one could write a book like this today and be taken seriously, but because it garnered such early admiration people have since given it a pass and are still demanding this be enshrined in The Hall of Great SF. People say that the writers of today are standing on the shoulders of giants … yet sometimes the giants turn out to be really, really short.

        [Finished the book and nothing changed in my opinion. I did love Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but have never been able to finish Rendezvous with Rama. I think overall Clarke just isn’t my kind of writer. I’ll stick with people like Greg Bear, Frank Herbert, Alastair Reynolds, and Philip K. Dick,]

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        • I should revisit Foundation. Those were formative books in my SF reading, but I was inexperienced in the field then, so maybe too easily impressed. Everything else I’ve read by Asimov since has been a big let down.

          I used to love Reynolds, but the quality of his output has declined to a frustrating degree – there’s a bunch of reviews of his books on my blog, I’m guessing he simply puts out too much – and I’m likewise afraid to revisit the RS trilogy, as I read that at the beginning of my exploration of SF too. The Dune series though I’m very sure will hold up 100%.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Having just read this I concur with pretty much all of your arguments, Bart. I actually started to engage with some of the characters, but apart from Jan perhaps it all didn’t go anywhere. I’ve scheduled my review imminently and you’ll see that I too identified none too subtle religious imagery and resonances. Glad I read it but its lack of real insight into human psychology in a social context just didn’t convince.

    Liked by 1 person

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