We all know the story: Aliens come down in their flying saucers, blow up a couple historic monuments with their ray beams, kill the world leaders in a peace conference-turned-devious-trap, and yet mankind survives, often through scientific ingenuity or dumb luck. And you know what? It doesn't make any sense.
What would technologically advanced aliens want so badly that they'd travel parsecs to Earth, the universe's version of the boonies? Technology? Resources? Slaves? Someone to talk with? There have got to be easier ways to get that stuff.
Enter Arthur C. Clarke. During World War II, Clarke saw barrage balloons floating above London, looking like UFOs hovering over and protecting the metropolitan area from Nazi air raids. The sight caused him to "banish all thoughts of the present peril" (P.16), and imagine the future.
Turning the classic alien invasion story on its head, Clarke first wrote about his dreamed future in 1950 in a short story called "Guardian Angel." And years later, he reworked this short story to serve as Part 1 of Childhood's End.
The alien invaders this go-around pop into Earth's atmosphere one day and say the Earth is under new management: theirs. But they don't blow anything up—no famous buildings, no military bases, not even a bridge. Instead, they promote world peace, technological growth, and impose only a few parental rules over the world. But why? Did these aliens really travel across the universe to play intergalactic charity workers… or do they have ulterior motives?
Published in 1953,Childhood's End became Clarke's first successful novel and began his ascension to science fiction stardom. The novel didn't win a Hugo award (there were no awards that year), but it was nominated for a Retro Hugo award offered in 2004. Even though it didn't win, it is still widely considered one of Clarke's best novels. And since Clarke is considered one of the grandfathers of sci-fi as we know it, well, you'd best get reading.
As the novel's title suggests, this is a story about growing up: "Childhood's End." But we at Shmoop prefer to think of it as "Adolescence's End," since the problems faced by the human race are more like those teenagers have to deal with as they navigate that whole becoming-an-adult ordeal.
Think about it: The Overlords tell humanity where they can and can't go (space is a big no-no), what rules they must follow (World State or you're grounded), how to use their technology (nuclear weapons are not toys), and what time to go to bed (okay, maybe not that last one). Sounds like the parents of teens talking, right? And just listen to Karellen addressing the human race:
"Your race, in its present stage of evolution, cannot face that stupendous challenge. One of my duties has been to protect you from the powers and forces that lie among the stars—forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine." (14.32)
Substitute "present stage of evolution" with at your age and "powers and forces that lie among the stars" with the real world, and you've got yourself a classic dad speech right there.
The Overlords refer to themselves as "guardians" (20.18) and "midwives" (18.91) and other metaphors to explain their relationship to humanity, but one they don't use, and perhaps the most on the ball, is "parents." As the Overlords' "children," humans then have to decide the path they want to take toward adulthood.
Will humanity be good little boys and girls and do what they are told just like Stormgren, or will they be rebels with a cause like Jan, fighting the rules and trying to forge their own path? Or, just maybe, it doesn't matter one way or another? Maybe the path to adulthood is already set and nothing they can do can change that.
Childhood's End may focus on the entire human race, but the questions it asks are the same every boy, girl, teenager, alien, and man-child must one day ask himself or herself. So while you may not ever stow away to space inside a whale, well, much of what this book addresses is pretty unavoidable.
Get to Know a Sci-Fi King
This link will provide a quick overview of Clarke and his works, helping you get to know all about the author.
A foundation named in Clarke's honor to promote space and telecommunication technology to infinity and beyond!
This Be the Bio
A biography for old Clarkey boy himself.
U.C. San Diego has opened in a center dedicated to studying the imagination with the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.
Time Travel Ain't No Thing
We do it everyday on the Internet. Just take a peek at this 1953 New York Times review of Childhood's End to see what we mean.
Of course the SFsite would have a review of Childhood's End. Sci-fi's kind of their whole thing.
Reviewing the Future
Jo Walton's review of Childhood's End uses the words wow, strange, brilliant, and influential readily enough. It is, in a word, glowing.
Sci-Fi Studies: A New Study
John Huntington's essay discusses whether Clarke's tech-love and the novel's more mystical ending can find unity like peanut butter and jelly. Warning: it's an academic study for an academic journal. There will be jargon.
Sci-Fi Studies: The Studies Strike Back
David Samuelson argues why Clarke and his generation represent the adolescence of science fiction as a literary genre. Here there be academic jargon; ye be warned.
Sci-Fi Studies: The Return of the Studies
Tom Moylan's essay is technically about Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956), but the information on Clarke works well for our purposes. Again, it's published in an academic journal, so it might not be the easiest read, but that kind of makes it all the more gratifying when you finish, right?
Clarke, the Universe, and Everything Else
Because, seriously, what else is there?
What Have You Done?
Clarke reflects on his ninety years on this Earth. We can't wait for his reflections on his ninety years off of the Earth.
Arthur C. Clarke talks about the social, spiritual, and humanistic aspects of Kubrick and his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you think there might be some crossover between the film and Childhood's End, well, we aren't going to confirm that suspicion—but we won't say you're wrong either.
Audible has produced an audiobook version of Childhood's End because that's what they do.
Axel Mundi Versus Your Senses
It's probably just a coincidence that Axel Mundi's psychedelic album and Clarke's novel share the same name, but you never know—maybe Mundi felt the best way to pay homage to Clarke's vision was to auto-tune it.
Eye See You
One of the novel's many covers through the years. You can tell it's one of the more modern ones because the Photoshop and creep factor have been amped up to eleven.
Ye Olde Cover
Classic science fiction cover alert: You can tell it's classic sci-fi because it tells you nothing about the story, but it begs you to read all the same.
Another oldie but goodie…
Are Those Platform Shoes?
An artistic rendition of the Overlords. Obvious spoiler warning: If you don't want the Overlords' appearances ruined, you probably shouldn't click on this link.
The Overlords Remix
What's better than one artistic interpretation of the Overlords? Two. Guess what this link contains?