by Arthur C. Clarke
THE LITERARY WORK
A science fiction novel set primarily on Earth from the mid-1970s to nearly a century into the future; published in 1953.
Members of an alien race known as the Overlords mysteriously appear over Earth’s major cities and promise to eliminate war, hunger, and poverty. Only later is it discovered that they are preparing Earth’s children to transcend into a superhuman entity known as the Overrnind.
Arthur C. Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead, England, a small coastal town on the Bristol Channel. At the age of twelve, he read his first science fiction magazine, a November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. Four years later, he joined the British Interplanetary Society, a group founded on the common desire for space exploration. For the next two decades, his interest in this group would endure, through his tenure as a radar instructor in the Royal Air Force during World War II and later as a student in physics and pure and applied mathematics at King’s College in London. The influence of the interplanetary society is apparent in Childhood’s End, the novel most responsible for placing Clarke’s name among the foremost science fiction authors.
Life in the fifties
“We have arrived at the point … where there is just no real alternative to peace” (Constable, p. 25). With this one brief phrase, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized the prevailing mood of the fifties. Despite an exterior of unprecedented material bliss, beneath the surface lay the fear of impending doom at the hands of the Soviet Union.
In the closing days of World War II, many longed for a return to the peaceful stature of prewar society. But as early as the Yalta Conference in 1945, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that this would not be the case. Already the British statesman could see the world dividing into two separate spheres, with Communist Russia leading the East and the United States leading the West. Throughout the 1950s, these two superpowers and their respective allies engaged in fierce competition both on the world’s surface (the Korean War, 1950-53) and above it (the launching by the Soviets of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, followed by the United States’s own Explorer 1 four months later). The tension between the two superpowers was so sharp at times that though their forces never clashed directly, people came to refer to the competition as the “Cold War.”
The birth of the United Nations
One of the most intriguing characters in Clarke’s novel is Rikki Stormgren, the sixty-year-old Secretary General of the United Nations who serves as the human mediator with the Overlords when they first arrive on Earth. It is primarily through Stor-mgren’s conversations with Karellen, an Overlord, that the reader gains several insights into the Overlords’ actions.
At the writing of the novel, the United Nations was still a fledgling organization, less than a decade old. The world officially gave birth to the United Nations with the signing of its charter in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on June 26, 1945. In January of the following year, the United Nations held its inaugural session of the General Assembly in London, England. Soon after, in 1947, the world organization experienced its first encounter with war.
After several unsuccessful attempts by Britain to assuage the violence in its mandate Palestine, an appeal was made to the United Nations’ General Assembly for a possible solution. Under the latter’s auspices, it was determined that Palestine would be partitioned into two distinct sectors—one Jewish, the other Arab—with an internationalized Jerusalem. But this settlement was not to everyone’s liking, and war soon broke out. The fighting would continue for two years until a cease-fire was established by U.N. representative Ralph Bunche, who earned the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Preoccupied with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, the United Nations had a difficult time choosing a permanent location for its headquarters. After moving from one temporary location to another, it was decided in 1952 that the headquarters would be built on an eighteen-acre site of Manhattan’s east side donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. The architect Wallace K. Harrison was chosen to design the new structure, a “soaring Secretariat Building, flanked by a low-lying domed Assembly” (Janello and Jones, p.25). Over the years the building would come to be recognized across the globe as a beacon of peace in a sometimes chaotic world.
The space age
Historians hesitate to attach an exact date to the start of the space age. But its three founding fathers can be named with more certainty. From the first father of the space age, Robert Goddard (1882-1945) of the United States, came contributions to rocket theory that were rivaled only by his launching of the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. The second, Kon-stantin E. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) of Russia, solved theoretically the problem of escaping the Earth’s atmosphere and introduced the concept of multistage rockets. Finally Herman Oberth (1894-1989) of Germany wrote books on rocketry that tackled everything from maneuverability in space to the abnormal effects of pressure on the human body. Working independently, each of these men contributed significantly to the study of rocket science. The results of their experiments helped lay the foundation upon which later studies about rockets and space would be built.
During World War II, the ideas originally proffered by Goddard and his colleagues were elevated to new heights. While up to this time there had been little continuity of development among the world’s greatest minds, the advent of war brought with it a rejuvenated interest in the study of rocketry, particularly with regard to use of rockets for military weaponry. All the major powers—Germany, Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States—used rockets and missiles of various sizes throughout the course of the war. The most influential of these was the German V-2, which would become the ancestor of all major postwar designs.
Also to emerge from World War II was the idea of using satellites in space to create a worldwide communication network, first posited by Clarke when he was only twenty-eight years old. In a letter written in 1945 to the English magazine Wireless World, Clarke suggested using modified versions of the same German V-2’s that were raining on London to launch into orbit instruments capable of broadcasting information across the globe. At the time of the letter’s publication, few paid attention. Clarke nevertheless expanded the scope of his ideas into a full-length article for the same magazine nine months later. When the first communication satellite was launched in 1958—five years after the publication of Childhood’s End—Clarke was credited as being the “father of telecommunications.”
Postwar science fiction
When the United States dropped its atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945, respectively, many of the world’s inhabitants wondered about the dangers technology had created. Those writing in the realm of science fiction were no different. Whereas before the focus had been on a limitless future made possible by scientific means, now, in a post-Holocaust era dominated by the threat of nuclear weapons, many began to subscribe to a more pessimistic view, replacing “the vision of an earthly paradise with the nightmare of an earthly hell” (Clareson, p. 45).
In addition to the new perspectives World War II had given science fiction literature in the postwar years, this period also served as a major turning point for many of the genre’s authors. In the early 1950s nearly all of the science fiction literature was still being put out by small magazines. According to Scott Meredith, an American agent who represented Arthur C. Clarke, “In this period none of the major publishing companies … were doing science fiction. So several basement operations, cottage industries like Gnome Press and Fantasy Press, had sprung up, and they were started by fans of science fiction. These small presses were the only markets for science fiction novels in the early 1950’s” (Meredith in McAleer, p. 78). In 1952, however, things began to change. Thanks in part to Donald A. Wollheim becoming the science fiction editor of Ace Books and Ian and Betty Ballantine founding Ballantine Books (the latter being the first to publish, along with Clarke’s Childhood’s End, such classics as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 [also covered in Literature and Its Times]), science fiction made the transition to book format. From that year on, the novel would increasingly become the medium by which science fiction reached out to larger audiences.
For centuries, paranormal activity has captivated the imaginations of people everywhere. Included under this label are a number of categories from psychokinesis to astrology, dowsing (searching for underground water with a forked tree branch), card-reading, palmistry, and ouija boards. In more recent times, the study of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) has been added to this list. Clarke was quick to disregard UFOs (one of his favorite lines for would-be UFO observers was: “It’s not a spaceship unless you can read the Mars registration plate” [Clarke in McAleer, p. 135]). The novel, however, suggests that he may have had an interest in other phenomena; in particular, the ouija board. Used for paranormal communication, this apparatus is a board with a pointer that spells out messages. Although the ouija board is said to have been in use as early as 540 b.c., it wasn’t until 1889 that William Fuld of Baltimore, Maryland, and his brother Isaac came up with the format commonly seen today. Based on their inspiration, most boards contain the alphabet as well as the numbers 0 through 9. The Fulds added also the words yes, no, and good-bye. To use the board, people thought of as mediums lightly touch the pointer (sometimes called a “planchette”), allowing it to slide over the board’s surface, forming responses to questions. How the pointer manages to compose these messages has long been the subject of controversy. While some believe that it is the result of conscious muscle movement, usually performed by some joker in the group (one of the characters in Childhood’s End, George Greggson, certainly subscribes to this theory), others believe the movement to be unconscious in origin, either a supernatural occurrence or a display of one’s inner psyche.
Childhood’s End is a novel told in three separate parts: “Earth and the Overlords,” “The Golden Age,” and “The Last Generation.” Before these parts begin, a brief prologue introduces the reader to two ex-German rocket scientists, Kon-rad Schneider and Reinhold Hoffman. The year is 1975 and both men are vying for the opportunity to be the first to launch a rocket into space. As Clarke cuts from one man to the other, providing the reader with glimpses of how close each truly is to reaching his goal, the first of the Overlords’ great ships arrives on the horizon. It is a moment of self-realization, particularly for Rein-hold, who, upon learning that his whole life’s work has now been instantly surpassed, can only offer one prophetic thought: “The human race [is] no longer alone” (Clarke, Childhood’s End, p. 11).
Part 1, “Earth and the Overlords,” opens several years later. By now the Overlords have established themselves in the world’s skies. Their only spokesperson is an enigmatic figure named Karellen who relays the wishes of his race to the humans on Earth through Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary General of the United Nations.
The Overlords constitute a race far superior to anything humankind has to offer. As a result of the shroud of mystery that seems to cloak both them and their motives (not even Stormgren knows what they look like) there are those such as the Freedom League, a group of dissidents led by a clergyman named Alexander Wainwright, who view the Overlords as a threat. But when members of this group orchestrate the kidnapping of Stormgren in the hope that they can interrogate him for information regarding Karellen, the Overlords respond merely by temporarily freezing the Secretary General’s captors and identifying them in case of further subversive activity. Part 1 comes to a close with a promise by Karellen that the Overlords will reveal themselves in fifty years’ time. Unfortunately Stormgren knows that by then he will be dead; only future generations will have the pleasure of seeing the two races—human and Overlord—walk side by side.
Fifty years have passed when Part 2 begins. True to his word, Karellen emerges from his space ship as the whole world watches in anticipation. In the half century since the Overlords’ arrival, humankind has made tremendous strides, exhibited by the crowd’s general acceptance of their alien spokesperson despite his overt resemblance to the devil. “There was no mistake,” says the novel. “The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail—all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past” (Childhood’s End, p. 68).
Thanks to the Overlords’ direct influence, Earth has steadily moved toward Utopia over the years, erasing ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear from the world. Also absent is the concept of war, “[Its] memory … fading into the past as a nightmare vanishes before dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men” (Childhood’s End, p. 71). The only problem that remained was boredom, which plagues most, but not all, of the earthlings.
Some guests attend a dinner party hosted by Rupert Boyce, a man well-known for his collection of books on the occult. Among his guests is an Overlord named Rahaverak. Despite the Overlords’ recent acceptance on Earth, many at the party have never seen one up close and thus much of the evening’s conversation revolves around the unusual guest. The highlight of the party occurs near the end when a small group of individuals engages in a seance with a ouija board. In the course of the seance, the question is asked “Which star is the Overlord’s sun?” (Childhood’s End, p. 100). After receiving the cryptic reply of “NGS 549672,” one of the participants faints, allowing another one, an African American physicist named Jan Rodricks, to secretly grab the piece of paper upon which the answer is written.
After the dinner party, Jan contemplates his next move. Unbeknownst to the rest of Rupert’s guests, “NGS 549672” is the identification number of a star found in an astronomical catalogue Jan had come in contact with during his days as a student. Convinced that it is indeed the location of the Overlords’ home, he sets in motion an intricate plan to become a stowaway on their space ship when it returns for supplies. The end of Part 2 finds Jan putting his affairs in order before he departs for a galaxy four light years away.
At the start of Part 3, the reader is reintro-duced to George Greggson and Jean Morel, who were guests at Rupert’s dinner party. The pair are now happily married with two children, a son named Jeffrey and an infant daughter named Jennifer. In their search for a place that recalls the democratic ideals and individuality of the past, the family has moved to the island of New Athens, a place the novel describes as “what old Athens may have been had it possessed machines instead of slaves, science instead of superstition” (Childhood’s End, p. 148). The family resides here peacefully and productively, at least for the time being.
THE OVERLORDS AS DEVILS
Scholars tie the concept of the devil, or Satan, as the embodiment of pure evil almost entirely to the Hebrew and Christian faiths. In various other religions, good and evil have been regarded not as two contrary forces but rather as polar opposites of a larger divinity. This affects how one views the devilish-looking Overlords in the novel. By the time they show themselves in the story, all religions have disappeared, except for Buddhism, a faith that subscribes to the notion of a larger divinity. Yet, says the novel, although on the surface people accept the Overlords, many can never face such a satanic-looking creature. “In the Middle Ages, people [had] believed in the Devil and feared him. But this was the twenty-first century; could it be that, after all, there was such a thing as racial memory?” the novel wonders. (Childhood’s End, p. 70)
The first sign that something strange is happening to the Greggson children occurs when their son Jeffrey is miraculously rescued from an impending tidal wave moments before it comes crashing down. Soon afterward, Jeffrey begins to experience recurring dreams that seem to make no sense. For their daughter Jennifer, the change in behavior is more drastic. One evening Jean is awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of a constantly changing rhythm emanating from her daughter’s bedroom. After investigating the sound, she immediately calls out for her husband. Not in her wildest dreams could she have imagined the scene that awaits her.
It was the sight of that commonplace, brightly colored rattle beating steadily in airy isolation half a meter away from any support, while Jennifer Anne, her chubby fingers clasped tightly together, lay with a smile of calm contentment on her face.
(Childhood’s End, p. 174)
It is during the course of a meeting that George has later with the Overlord Rashaverak that much of the explanation in the novel is presented. According to Rashaverak, what is happening to the Greggson children is not an isolated event. All around the globe, the world’s children are gradually metamorphosing into a benevolent supreme being known as the Over-mind. It is an event as inevitable as the seasons; the purpose of the Overlords’ presence was merely to facilitate the transformation. As George leaves, Rashaverak can only offer him one bit of advice regarding his children. “Enjoy them while you may. They will not be yours for long” (Childhood’s End, p. 177). The words echo in George’s mind, especially when the transformation has been completed and he must bid his son a fond farewell before the boy departs into a world the elder Greggson will never be able to enter.
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
Clarke’s father died prematurely when Clarke was only thirteen years old (of lung complications resulting from poison gas inhalation suffered in World War I). Some scholars believe that the impact the tragedy had on Clarke is evident in his writings, citing in particular the scene in Childhood’s End in which George Greggson imparts a silent farewell to his son Jeff.
Meanwhile, several light years from the earth, Jan Rodricks awakens from his self-induced slumber, his dream of making it aboard the Overlords’ vessel now a reality. To his surprise, the Overlords are not angry with him for joining them uninvited; rather, they treat him, almost like a child, intervening only in those rare cases in which he may harm himself or serve as a nuisance, or both. Once on the Overlords’ planet in a system they call Carina, Jan is shown the wonders of Overlord society, from marvelous towers built for a race capable of individual flight, to pragmatic buildings, each serving a unique purpose. One day, after riding in an elevator to a height far above the city’s peaks, he experiences the climax of his journey. Right before his very eyes, a large mountain undergoes a transformation of brilliant colors before changing shape into a huge, perfectly circular ring of the most beautiful hue of blue. Little does Jan realize that what he is actually seeing is none other than a physical manifestation of the Overmind. After seeing this and other wonders, Jan is advised to board the next available ship toward earth. He soon finds himself traveling at unheard-of speed back to the planet he calls home.
In the four months that Jan has spent traversing the galaxy, eight decades have passed at home. Since his departure, the children of the Overmind have enveloped much of the world as he knew it through the sheer magnitude of their mental powers. Jan is now the earth’s sole survivor.
After assuming his new role gracefully, Jan seeks out remnants of the human race (such as a villa and a piano) with which to bide his time until the inevitable occurs. Eventually he is summoned by Rashaverak, who explains the Overlords’ appearance on Earth. Although much of their purpose was to facilitate the metamorphosis of the Overmind, they also sought to understand the transformation. Despite their advanced technology and superior intellect, the Overlords are unable to join the Overmind like the children of the Earth and are envious. At the end of Rashaverak’s explanation, Jan is offered a proposition: even though the time has come for the Overlords to depart, he may remain on Earth to inform them of transpiring events. Jan agrees and is soon beaming reports up to Karellen in the Overlords’ ship. The death of his signal’s emission coincides with the death of the Earth. As the novel draws to a close, Karellen sits six thousand million kilometers away, gazing into a suddenly darkened screen. “No one dared disturb him or interrupt his thoughts: and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling sun” (Childhood’s End, p. 218).
Childhood’s End and the Cold War
In the opening pages of Childhood’s End, the reader is introduced to two ex-German rocket scientists, Konrad Schneider and Reinhold Hoffman, as they both vie for the opportunity to be the first to launch a rocket into space. In addition to the personal pride that goes along with such an accomplishment, there are also pervading feelings of nationalism. While the former represents the Soviet Union in the East, the latter serves the United States in the West. It is a division born out of the rubble of World War II. Speaking from the point of view of Reinhold, the novel describes the division’s genesis vividly:
He could still see Konrad’s tired blue eyes, and the golden stubble on his chin, as they shook hands and parted in that ruined Prussian village, while the refugees streamed endlessly past. It was a parting that symbolized everything that had since happened to the world—the cleavage between East and West.
(Childhood’s End, p. 8)
The two men go about pursuing their goal diligently, backed by the resources of the governments they represent. Then, just as they are about to see their dreams fulfilled, into the novel come the Overlords. In one brief second, the hopes and desires of both men seem instantly defeated: “Reinhold Hoffman knew, as did Konrad Schneider at this same moment, that he had lost the race. And he knew that he had lost it, not by the few weeks or months that he had feared, but by millennia” (Childhood’s End, p. 11).
In the months following the Overlords’ appearance, they create a sort of Utopia on Earth by effectively eradicating war, hunger, and poverty. Although there is uncertainty about the novel’s intentions in setting up the U.S-Russian competition and then rendering it meaningless, some scholars have posited that the author is making a statement about the futility of the Cold War. As a member of 1950s society, in which material comfort was offset by the fear that one could perish from nuclear weapons at any moment, Clarke realized that such need not be the case. Rather than use technology to create weapons that inspire fear in the world, these same advancements could be used to promote peace and prosperity, as shown by the Overlords. “[The] novel,” says one scholar, “becomes a magnificently desperate attempt to continue to hope for a future for the race in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. It becomes, in fact, a sometimes brilliant attempt to turn the contrary evidence to the positive. It becomes nothing less than an effort to make positive the destruction of the race” (Hollow, p. 66).
The origins of Childhood’s End hark back to July of 1946 when Clarke wrote a short story entitled “Guardian Angel.” Although in its original format, it met with little success—“1 submitted it to Astounding, [and] it was promptly rejected” (Clarke in McAleer, p. 88)—it would eventually provide the basis for Part 1 of Childhood’s End.
The novel drew also on issues and influences affecting Clarke’s own life at the time. Writing in the midst of the Cold War, Clarke was clearly cognizant of the nuclear threat that existed between the opposing superpowers and their allies. Also reflected in the novel are the author’s personal beliefs about religion. Ever since his days as a teenager in England, Clarke had maintained an aversion toward organized religion. In the novel the Overlord Karellen makes the following statement to Secretary General Stormgren: “You will find men like [Wainwright] in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods” (Childhood’s End, p. 23). Finally, Clarke’s membership in the British Interplanetary Society, or BIS, influenced the novel. Founded in 1933 by Phillip E. Cleator, an as-tronautical expert, the BIS was devoted to the study of space travel. Not only did the group provide avenues for publishing Clarke’s stories, including Childhood’s End, but also the ideas that Clarke fostered during his participation with the group served as a main source of his inspiration.
THE LAST MAN STANDING
While visiting the United States in the early 1950s, Clarke spoke with Ian Macauley, publisher of the science fiction magazine ASFO (Atlanta Science Fiction Organization). Apparently, the two had much to talk about. “We got to know one another and discussed all kinds of ideas—life, marriage, racial problems, and so on,” Macauley later recalled. “At that time, I was very concerned with the racial problems in the South … [Clarke] was writing Childhood’s End.. and these discussions about racial problems may have influenced him. I’d like to think that perhaps this is why he chose to make the last person on Earth [Jan Rodricks] a black person” (Macauley in McAleer, p. 92), Clarke himself admitted that this was “perfectly possible. I never met any blacks before I went to America.” (Clarke in McAleer, p. 92)
Clarke’s novel was immediately hailed as a major literary success. The first 210,000 copies sold out in less than two months and by November, an order for another 100,000 was already being placed with the printer. His science fiction novel won all this attention despite being part of a genre that was still years away from major respectability.
Critically speaking, the novel garnered al-most entirely rave reviews. Basil Davenport, critic for the New York Times Book Review, argued that “In Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke joins Olaf Stapledon, C. S. Lewis, and probably one should add H. G. Wells, in the very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas. Having said that, one must hastily add that it is as readable a book, from the point of view of pure narrative, as you are likely to find among today’s straight novels” (Davenport in McAleer, p. 99). Not all critics shared Mr. Davenport’s sentiments. Some, such as H. H. Holmes, a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, chose to fault Clarke for what Holmes saw as his overzealous desire to tackle so many themes at once. According to Holmes, “Childhood’s End is … fascinating, but the awkward imbalance between the vast major plot and a series of small scale subplots makes for a diffuse and distracting novel” (Holmes in James and Brown, p. 185). Generally, however, the praise for Childhood’s End far outweighed the negative comments, inspiring one scholar to declare thirty years after its publication, “in my opinion [it is] the best SF novel ever written” (DeWeese in May and Lesniak, p. 109).
Clareson, Thomas D. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Ballantine, 1953.
Constable, George, ed. This Fabulous Century: 1950- 1960. Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1970.
Hollow, John. Against the Night, the Stars: The Science Fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
Inglis, Brian. The Paranormal: An Encyclopedia of Psychic Phenomena. London: Granada, 1985.
James, Mertice M., and Dorothy Brown, eds. Book Review Digest. Vol.49. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1954.
Janello, Amy, and Brennon Jones, eds. A Global Affair: An Inside Look at the United Nations. New York: Jones & Janello, 1995.
May, Hal, and James G. Lesniak, eds. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol.28. Detroit:Gale Research, 1990.
McAleer, Neil. Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography. Chicago: ContemporaryBooks, 1992.