In 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 stated: 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.