Childhood's End is a 1953 science fiction novel by the British author Arthur C. Clarke. The story follows the peaceful alien invasion of Earth by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival begins decades of apparent utopia under indirect alien rule, at the cost of human identity and culture.
Cover of first edition hardcover
|Author||Arthur C. Clarke|
|Cover artist||Richard M. Powers|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
Clarke's idea for the book began with his short story "Guardian Angel" (1946), which he expanded into a novel in 1952, incorporating it as the first part of the book, "Earth and the Overlords". Completed and published in 1953, Childhood's End sold out its first printing, received good reviews and became Clarke's first successful novel. The book is often regarded by both readers and critics as Clarke's best novel and is described as "a classic of alien literature". Along with The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), Clarke considered Childhood's End to be one of his favourites of his own novels. The novel was nominated for the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2004.
Several attempts to adapt the novel into a film or miniseries have been made with varying levels of success. Director Stanley Kubrick expressed interest in the 1960s, but collaborated with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) instead. The novel's theme of transcendent evolution also appears in Clarke's Space Odyssey series. In 1997, the BBC produced a two-hour radio dramatization of Childhood's End that was adapted by Tony Mulholland. The Syfy Channel produced a three-part, four-hour television mini-series of Childhood's End, which was broadcast on December 14–16, 2015.
Earth and the OverlordsEdit
In the late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union are competing to launch the first spacecraft into orbit, for military purposes. When vast alien spaceships suddenly position themselves above Earth's principal cities, the space race ceases. After one week, the aliens announce they are assuming supervision of international affairs, to prevent humanity's extinction. They become known as the Overlords. In general, they let humans go on conducting their affairs in their own way. They overtly interfere only twice: in South Africa, where some time before their arrival Apartheid has collapsed and been replaced with savage persecution of the white minority; and in Spain, where they put an end to bull fighting. Some humans are suspicious of the Overlords' benign intent, as they never visibly appear. The Overlord Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," who speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, tells Stormgren that the Overlords will reveal themselves in 50 years, when humanity will have become used to their presence. Stormgren smuggles a device onto Karellen's ship in an attempt to see Karellen's true form. He partially succeeds, is shocked by what he sees, and chooses to keep silent.
The Golden AgeEdit
Men called them Overlords
They had come from outer space—
they had brought peace
and prosperity to Earth
But then the change began.
It appeared first in the children
Now the Overlords made their announcement:
This was to be the first step
in the elimination of the human race
and the beginning of—What?
Humankind enters a golden age of prosperity at the expense of creativity. Five decades after their arrival, the Overlords reveal their appearance, resembling the traditional Christian folk images of demons: large bipeds with cloven hooves, leathery wings, horns, and tails. The Overlords are interested in psychic research, which humans suppose is part of their anthropological study. Rupert Boyce, a prolific book collector on the subject, allows one Overlord, Rashaverak, to study these books at his home. To impress his friends with Rashaverak's presence, Boyce holds a party, during which he makes use of a Ouija board. Jan Rodricks, an astrophysicist and Rupert's brother-in-law, asks the identity of the Overlords' home star. George Greggson's future wife Jean faints as the Ouija board reveals a number which has no meaning to most of the guests. Then Jan recognizes it as a star-catalog number and learns that it is consistent with the direction in which Overlord supply ships appear and disappear. With the help of an oceanographer friend, Jan stows away on an Overlord supply ship and travels 40 light years to their home planet. Due to the time dilation of special relativity at near-light-speeds, the elapsed time on the ship is only a few weeks, and he has arranged to endure it in drug-induced hibernation.
The Last GenerationEdit
Although humanity and the Overlords have peaceful relations, some believe human innovation is being suppressed and that culture is becoming stagnant. One of these groups establishes New Athens, an island colony in the middle of the Pacific Ocean devoted to the creative arts, which George and Jean Greggson join. The Overlords conceal a special interest in the Greggsons' children, Jeffrey and Jennifer Anne, and intervene to save Jeffrey's life when a tsunami strikes the island. The Overlords have been watching them since the incident with the Ouija board, which revealed the seed of the coming transformation hidden within Jean.
Well over a century after the Overlords' arrival, human children, beginning with the Greggsons', begin to display clairvoyance and telekinetic powers. Karellen reveals the Overlords' purpose; they serve the Overmind, a vast cosmic intelligence, born of amalgamated ancient civilizations and freed from the limitations of material existence. The Overlords themselves are unable to join the Overmind, but serve it as a bridge species, fostering other races' eventual union with it.
As Karellen explains, the time of humanity as a race composed of single individuals with a concrete identity is coming to an end. The children's minds reach into each other and merge into a single vast group consciousness. If the Pacific were to be dried up, the islands dotting it would lose their identity as islands and become part of a new continent; in the same way, the children cease to be the individuals which their parents knew and become something else, completely alien to the "old type of human".
For the transformed children's safety — and also because it is painful for their parents to see what they had become — they are segregated on a continent of their own. No more human children are born and many parents die or commit suicide. The members of New Athens destroy themselves with an atomic bomb.
Jan Rodricks emerges from hibernation on the Overlord supply ship and arrives on their planet. The Overlords permit him a glimpse of how the Overmind communicates with them. When Jan returns to Earth (approximately 80 years after his departure by Earth time) he finds an unexpectedly altered planet. Humanity has effectively become extinct and he is now the last man alive. Hundreds of millions of children – no longer fitting what Rodricks defines as "human" – remain on the quarantined continent, having become a single intelligence readying themselves to join the Overmind.
Some Overlords remain on Earth to study the children from a safe distance. When the evolved children mentally alter the Moon's rotation and make other planetary manipulations, it becomes too dangerous to remain. The departing Overlords offer to take Rodricks with them, but he chooses to stay to witness Earth's end and transmit a report of what he sees.
Before they depart, Rodricks asks Rashaverak what encounter the Overlords had with humanity in the past, according to an assumption that the fear that humans had of their "demonic" form was due to a traumatic encounter with them in the distant past; but Rashaverak explains that the primal fear experienced by humans was not due to a racial memory, but a racial premonition of the Overlords' role in their metamorphosis.
The Overlords are eager to escape from their own evolutionary dead end by studying the Overmind, so Rodricks's information is potentially of great value to them. By radio, Rodricks describes a vast burning column ascending from the planet. As the column disappears, Rodricks experiences a profound sense of emptiness when the children have gone. Then material objects and the Earth itself begin to dissolve into transparency. Rodricks reports no fear, but a powerful sense of fulfillment. The Earth evaporates in a flash of light. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System and gives a final salute to the human species.
Original short storyEdit
The novel first took shape in July 1946, when Clarke wrote "Guardian Angel", a short story that would eventually become Part I of Childhood's End. Clarke's portrayal of the Overlords as devils was influenced by John W. Campbell's depiction of the devilish Teff-Hellani species in The Mightiest Machine, first serialized in Astounding Stories in 1934. After finishing "Guardian Angel", Clarke enrolled at King's College London and served as the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society from 1946 to 1947, and later from 1951 to 1953. He earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics from King's in 1948, after which he worked as an assistant editor for Science Abstracts. "Guardian Angel" was submitted for publication but was rejected by several editors, including Campbell. At the request of Clarke's agent and unbeknown to Clarke, the story was edited by James Blish, who rewrote the ending. Blish's version of the story was accepted for publication in April 1950 by Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine. Clarke's original version of "Guardian Angel" was later published in the Winter 1950 issue of New Worlds magazine. The latter version published in New Worlds more closely resembles Part I of the novel, "Earth and the Overlords".
Most of the short story is word by word the same as the first part as the novel, but there are also a number of differences. Some are trivial revisions with no obvious narrative motivation (for instance, in the short story, Karellen first spoke on radio to the world on the eighth day after the arrival of the alien ships, in the novel, on the sixth day). Other differences are more significant, and some changes were necessitated by the full-length novel Clarke would write later, the author taking the story in a different direction from the outcome he had seemingly envisioned in the short story.
The plot of the short story is mainly built around the one mystery of what the Overlords look like. As in the later novel, they promise to show themselves after fifty years, but the story ends when there are still twenty years to go. Rikki Stormgren, former UN General Secretary and the one human who had been physically close to Karellen, reflects on the one glimpse he got of him; he saw a black "barbed tail" disappear behind a closing door. It is thus strongly hinted that the Overlords look like the pop-cultural version of devils. The corresponding section in the novel only has Stormgren reflecting on what he saw and agreeing that the world was not ready to meet the Overlords face to face. The reader does not learn what it was Stormgren glimpsed, since this revelation is now withheld until the next chapter, describing how the Overlords finally showed themselves after fifty years.
In the short story, Karellen has indicated to Stormgren that he came from a world called Skyrondel, where he was "professor of astropolitics" and supposedly accepted the assignment to supervise earth only after putting up a great fight (though Stormgren suspects that Karellen has come to greatly enjoy his position). In the novel, Karellen never names his homeworld. In the book version, Stormgren believes the Supervisor's original field of work has something to do with mathematics, and that he only rules earth with a small portion of his vast mind. However, nothing is any longer said about Karellen having actively resisted the assignment, nor that he was a "professor" on his own planet.
In the short story, Karellen is dictating the establishing of a European federation, though it is foreseen that other states will eventually join it. In the novel, he is forming a world federation very early in his rule, and it is said that a European federation was already in existence when the Overlords arrived (ca. 1980, per the chronology of the 1953 novel). Later in the short story and novel alike, Karellen however speaks of the "foundation of the World State" as a "first step", making the short story potentially self-contradictory on this point.
In the short story, the mission of the Overlords is to generally civilize earth and prepare humans to play a role in the continuing exploration of the universe. Karellen's species brings civilization to all worlds "that can understand it", seemingly for idealistic reasons. Karellen at one point broadly outlines the future he is guiding humankind towards. He foresees that "almost a generation from now, I shall reach the nadir of my popularity, for plans must be put into operation which cannot be fully explained at the time. Attempts may even be made to destroy me." These lines are not carried over into the full-length novel, and nothing is said about Karellen effecting any particularly controversial plans in the period indicated, though this period is covered by the longer narrative Clarke would produce later.
The short-story version of Karellen in any case foresees that these problems will be overcome and forgotten, and after the year the Overlords show themselves, there will be "another pause, only a short one this time for the world will be growing impatient. Men will wish to go out to the stars, and to see the other worlds of the Universe and to join us in our work. For it is only beginning; not a thousandth of the suns in the Galaxy have ever been reached by the races which we know. One day, Rikki, your descendants in their own ships will be bringing civilization to the worlds that are ripe to receive it – just as we are doing now."
The novel's version of Karellen utters no such sentiments. Quite on the contrary, later in the story he declares that "the stars are not for Man" and that humans will never achieve interstellar flight. Instead of Karellen anticipating humans getting out in the universe and helping the Overlords with their work, Rikki Stormberg in the novel asks him whether this will happen, and Karellen very evasively remarks that one might put it that way. At the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Karellen is here foreseeing how humans will merge with the cosmic Overmind, at which point humanity will become part of the power directing the Overlords. The short story foresees a more mundanely comprehensible fate for the human race; after sufficient mentoring by the Overlords they will join in the effort to civilize all sentient races in the Galaxy.
The overall implication of the short story, confirmed by Stormgren's musings in the final lines, is that the Overlords had been to earth before and attempted their civilizing experiment already in human pre-history. However, this had somehow ended in spectacular failure, so much so that the physical form of the Overlords entered human legends as icons of demonic evil. This is set up with Karellen admitting to Stormgren that "we have had our failures" and making obscure remarks about the long memory of humankind, yet also saying that the Overlords "wait – and try again" whenever a failure has occurred. Remarkably, all of these narrative elements are maintained in the full-length novel, though the novel ends up denying the conclusion they were pointing to. The human repulsion for the "demonic" shape of the Overlords is re-explained as a racial premonition: Pre-cognitively, the human race associated these beings with the end of humankind, and so came to perceive them as sinister (though the "end" is really human transcendence and merger with the Overmind).
Development into full-length novelEdit
After Clarke's nonfiction science book The Exploration of Space (1951) was successfully received, he began to focus on his writing career. In February 1952, Clarke started working on the novelization of "Guardian Angel"; he completed a first draft of the novel Childhood's End in December, and a final revision in January 1953. Clarke travelled to New York in April 1953 with the novel and several of his other works. Literary agent Bernard Shir-Cliff convinced Ballantine Books to buy everything Clarke had, including Childhood's End, "Encounter in the Dawn" (1953), (which Ballantine retitled Expedition to Earth), and Prelude to Space (1951). However, Clarke had composed two different endings for the novel, and the last chapter of Childhood's End was still not finished. Clarke proceeded to Tampa Bay, Florida, to go scuba diving with George Grisinger, and on his way there visited his friend Frederick C. Durant - President of the International Astronautical Federation from 1953 to 1956 - and his family in the Washington Metropolitan Area, whilst he continued working on the last chapter. He next traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, where he visited Ian Macauley, a friend who was active in the antisegregation movement. Clarke finished the final chapter in Atlanta while Clarke and Macauley discussed racial issues; these conversations may have influenced the development of the last chapter, particularly Clarke's choice to make the character of Jan Rodricks – the last surviving member of the human species – a black man.
Clarke arrived in Florida at the end of April. The short story, "The Man Who Ploughed the Sea", included in the Tales from the White Hart (1957) collection, was influenced by his time in Florida. While in Key Largo in late May, Clarke met Marilyn Mayfield, and after a romance lasting less than three weeks, they travelled to Manhattan and married at New York City Hall. The couple spent their honeymoon in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, where Clarke proofread Childhood's End. In July, Clarke returned to England with Mayfield, but it quickly became clear that the marriage would not last as Clarke spent most of his time reading and writing, and talking about his work. Further, Clarke wanted to be a father, and Marilyn, who had a son from a previous marriage, informed Clarke after their marriage that she could no longer have children. When Childhood's End was published the following month, it appeared with a dedication: "To Marilyn, For letting me read the proofs on our honeymoon." The couple separated after a few months together, but remained married for the next decade.
Ballantine wanted to publish Childhood's End before Expedition to Earth and Prelude to Space, but Clarke wanted to wait. He felt that it was a difficult book to release. He had written two different endings for the novel and was unsure of which to use. According to biographer Neil McAleer, Clarke's uncertainty may have been because of its thematic focus on the paranormal and transcendence with the alien Overmind. While the theme was used effectively by Clarke in the novel, McAleer wrote that "it was not science fiction based on science, which he came to advocate and represent". When he wrote Childhood's End, Clarke was interested in the paranormal, and did not become a sceptic until much later in his life. Ballantine convinced Clarke to let them publish Childhood's End first, and it was published in August 1953, with a cover designed by American science fiction illustrator Richard M. Powers. Childhood's End first appeared in paperback and hardcover editions, with the paperback as the primary edition, an unusual approach for the 1950s. For the first time in his career, Clarke became known as a novelist.
Decades later, Clarke was preparing a new edition of Childhood's End after the story had become dated. The initial chapter of the 1953 novel correctly foresees a race between the US and Soviet Union to first land men on the Moon, but sets it later than it would actually happen (post-1975; the exact year is not given in the text, but 1945 is said to be more than thirty years ago). After the book was first published, the Apollo missions landed humans on the Moon in 1969, and in 1989 US President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), calling for astronauts to eventually explore Mars. In 1990, Clarke added a new foreword and revised the first chapter, now suggesting an early 21st century setting and changing the venue for the space race from the Moon to Mars. Editions since have appeared with the original opening or have included both versions. "Guardian Angel" has also appeared in two short story collections: The Sentinel (1983), and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001).
On October 28, 2008, Audible.com released a 7-hour 47 minute unabridged audiobook version of Childhood's End, narrated by Eric Michael Summerer, under its Audible Frontiers imprint. An AudioFile review commended Summerer's narration as "smoothly presented and fully credible". An audio introduction and commentary is provided by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.
The novel was well received by most readers and critics. Two months after publication, all 210,000 copies of the first printing had been sold. The New York Times published two positive reviews of the book: Basil Davenport compared Clarke to Olaf Stapledon, C. S. Lewis, and H. G. Wells, a "very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas." William DuBois called the book "a first rate tour de force that is well worth the attention of every thoughtful citizen in this age of anxiety." Don Guzman of the Los Angeles Times admired the novel for its suspense, wisdom, and beauty. He compared Clarke's role as a writer to that of an artist, "a master of sonorous language, a painter of pictures in futuristic colors, a Chesley Bonestell with words". Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin called the novel "a formidably impressive job ... a continuous kaleidoscope of the unexpected."
Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas were more skeptical, and faulted the novel's "curious imbalance between its large-scale history and a number of episodic small-scale stories." While praising Clarke's work as "Stapledonian [for] its historic concepts and also for the quality of its prose and thinking," they concluded that Childhood's End was "an awkward and imperfect book." P. Schuyler Miller said the novel was "all imagination and poetry," but concluded it was "not up to some of Clarke's other writing" due to weakness in its "episodic structure."
Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove wrote that Childhood's End rested on "a rather banal philosophical idea," but that Clarke "expressed [it] in simple but aspiring language that vaguely recalls the Psalms [and] combined [it] with a dramatized sense of loss [for] undeniable effect."
In the 1960s, director Stanley Kubrick was interested in making a film adaptation of the novel, but blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it. Instead, Kubrick collaborated with Clarke on adapting the short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Months before his performance at Woodstock in 1969, folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens told Ebony magazine about his appreciation of Clarke's story and expressed his interest in working on a future film adaptation of Childhood's End. Screenplays by Polonsky and Howard Koch were never made into films.
David Elgood first proposed a radio adaptation of the novel in 1974, but nothing came of it in that decade.
Philip DeGuere, whose credits include the TV series Alias Smith and Jones, developed a script in the late 1970s for Universal, who planned to film it initially as a six-hour mini-series for CBS Television, and later as a two- or three-hour telemovie for ABC. However, Universal discovered that its contracts with Arthur C. Clarke - some of which dated back to 1957 - were out of date. These contractual difficulties were resolved in 1979 and DeGuere worked with legendary comic book artist Neal Adams on preproduction drawings and other material. The project had Clarke's approval. However Universal decided that the budget required would be nearly $40 million and they were only prepared to spend $10 million, so the movie was not made.
Director Brian Lighthill revisited the radio adaptation proposal and obtained the rights in 1995. After Lighthill received a go-ahead from BBC Radio in 1996, he commissioned a script from Tony Mulholland, resulting in a new, two-part adaptation. The BBC produced the two-hour radio dramatization of the novel, and broadcast it on BBC Radio 4 in November 1997. The recording was released on cassette by BBC Audiobooks in 1998 and on CD in 2007.
On April 10, 2013, the Syfy Channel announced its plans to develop a Childhood's End TV miniseries. The three-episode, four-hour production premiered December 14, 2015. Charles Dance portrays the Supervisor Karellen.
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