I started Childhood's End with low expectations. Based on a short story that Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the 1940's, the novel begins when alien "Overlords" arrive on planet Earth and enforce policies that abolish war, hunger, and other human maladies. However, without these conflicts, mankind stagnates. Innovations in art and science end. Earth's citizens become a globalized race of dilettantes.
And yet, everyone's life undeniably improves under the Overlords' guidance. At one point, the head Overlord tells the people of earth, "Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness." They've saved man, but man is conflicted about why and whether they really should really be grateful.
For whatever reason, that premise never resonated for me and I hesitated to read this novel for a long time. It sounded like a dead-end idea. What could possibly happen under those conditions? Would the humans rebel? How would they succeed against the technologically superior Overlords? I'd thought Clarke was above that alien invasion/rebellion cliche, especially since his books tend to be very idea driven. For sure, Childhood's End is not a character driven story. It's not even clear who the main character is, because in Clarke's stories, characters are just perspectives on events, like different camera views that just happen to be convenient for the reader. And so for roughly the first half of the novel, we see from different points of view what it means to stagnate as a culture.
This idea wasn't terribly interesting, even if it rings true. I wondered if Childhood's End wasn't a little overrated. That's probably akin to blasphemy in the science fiction community, where the book sits comfortably in the pantheon, but it was hard to get excited about such a dragging conflict, if it could even be called conflict at all, as most of the novel takes place in the status quo.
Nor did I find the mystery of the Overlords' identity compelling, especially not when they eventually revealed themselves. I was expecting aliens in the style of Clarke's other novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey; beings that had progressed beyond material form to become something like gods. So it was a bit of an anticlimax when the Overlords eventually revealed their very corporeal bodies.
But despite all of these issues, Childhood's End slowly won me over, especially as the first half of the book turned out to be something of a red herring. It was never about the human race stagnating. It wasn't about the end of art and science. It was about evolution and layers of authority in the universe. It was about how tiny and individually meaningless we are on a galactic scale, but as a whole race, how we could be a part of something even bigger that is almost impossible for us to understand, because we have no context or comparison for it. Childhood's End not about how the Overlords were in charge of Earth. It was about who was in charge of the Overlords.
If Clarke had known how to write a family scene with the faintest interest, it might have been easier to get through the first half of the story, but I'm glad I pushed through those tedious descriptions of mid-century parties and home life to get to the bigger idea that takes place in the last hundred pages of the book. When you read Clarke, you read to understand the extremes of how life might exist elsewhere in the Universe, in ways your small life wouldn't otherwise allow you to conceive. That's where Childhood's End really succeeds.
Does it ever scare you to think about how we should probably listen to Clarke when it comes to these kinds of life-altering ideas? He's been right about so much else in his fiction, like geosynchronous satellites for global communication. In Childhood's End, he wrote this quote, which I find applies perfectly today:
"The world's now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason's obvious. There's nothing left to struggle for, and there are too may distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that 's available at the turn of the switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating."
Just replace the word, Overlords, with "Internet." We're at the same point, mindless consumption of entertainment and information; it's undeniably displacing our own creativity. The Overlords are already here.
So if Clarke was right about that, then what happens to us next?