Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge 2013 – March: Childhood’s End

Childhoods End by Arthur C ClarkeThe March Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Childhood’s End published in 1954 and now available from Gollancz.

‘Blotting out the light from the stars they had linked so effortlessly, the silent ships hang suspended over the great cities of Earth… and a long and bloody chapter of history comes to an end. Armed with a staggering power and an infinite wisdom the invaders from outer space shock Earth into submission – but what is their purpose? Breath-taking in its imaginative sweep, this brilliant story explores the distant reaches of space, tells of the last generation of Man – and of the Last Man himself.’

Mankind is about to reach for the stars but at this moment of technological breakthrough in the mid 20th century, shadows fall across the city of the world – alien starships. Their inhabitants, the Overlords, led by Karellen, appear benign. Hidden from curious human eyes and communicating through one man only – Stormgren – the Overlords establish a series of laws which, over a generation or two, create a near Utopian existence. Independent nations are no more, the inhabitants are unified, war is on the way to being forgotten, the planet itself is cared for. But, even though humans are allowed to settle the moon, they are forbidden the stars. They are also forbidden, as is Stormgren even, to look at the Overlords, although the alien masters finally relent and announce that they will appear to humans but not for fifty years.

Childhood’s End is a story of the progress of humanity over a period of about 200 years. It tells of a series of individuals, including Stormgren, who have to adapt to life under alien control – during its early days when rebellion was common, to much later when most men and women have become comfortable in this peaceful existence but some have a need to exert their artistic and cultural independence. A colony is established, New Athens, peopled by artists and composers, but this is the last flowering of humanity. This is a tale of evolution and change. With the Overlords looking on, humans are almost like ignorant, determined lemmings, rushing towards a precipice, unstoppable, not comprehending, doomed – even pitiful.

There are memorable characters – Stormgren, so desperate to look at an Overlord; Rupert Boyce, a generation later, fascinated by wild animals who entertains Overlords in his home and library; Jan Rodricks, a modern-day Jonah, more curious than any to learn the truth about these visitors. And then there are the Overlords themselves. Once they are revealed after the promised fifty years, the relationship between man and alien becomes even more complicated. There is also our position. We inevitably feel an empathy for the humans of the novel but we are also increasingly aware of something more threatening. It is not a simple matter of dismissing the Overlords as benign or malign – it is far more ambiguous than that and the story challenges preconceptions about religion, good and evil, salvation, knowledge.

Written over half a century ago, Childhood’s End has travelled very well indeed. Time as we know it stops not long after the the close of the Second World War and the course it takes over the next few generations does not feel out of place or implausible. For me only one element feels old-fashioned and that is the very secondary role of women. But because this is novel that is more about humanity than individuals (with a few notable exceptions), this didn’t affect my enjoyment.

Childhood’s End is a poignant tale of mankind’s relationship to his planet. It is a deeply thought-provoking investigation of man’s place in the scheme of things. It is a vast universe and it is humbling and humiliating for man to be told he cannot explore it. Its conclusion is enigmatic and mindbending. For a novel of relatively few pages, it is full of ideas and possibilities.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a disclaimer: ‘The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author’. Arthur C Clarke did believe that man has a place in the stars. In Childhood’s End, however, he has presented a philosophical investigation into our destiny if some great omnipotent force determined a very different future for mankind than the one that Clarke chose to trust in.

The book for April will be A Fall of Moondust.

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