The Earth and Then Some
The setting of Childhood's End is really the planet Earth. Yeah, we know, most novels can lay claim to being set on Earth, but for this one, it really is all of Earth.
Characters cruise around visiting any place on the planet without so much as a bathroom break, the entire world is governed by an entity called the World State, and the Overlords share their bounty of technology with all peoples equally.
Sure, we catch a few glimpses here or there of other planets in Jeffrey's dreams or Jan's little jaunt to the Overlords' home planet, but Earth is where the heart is.
Here are a few key features that separate the Earth of Childhood's End from the Earth of other novels, science fiction or otherwise.
We Were Promised Jetpacks
Thanks to the Overlords' technology, the world has become a technological wonderland. Hey there, aircars. Poverty is a thing of the past, crime is way down, and people can play, study, or lounge about all day without worrying about losing their job.
Earth has become one of those super-awesome societies, those, oh, what are they called? "By the standards of all earlier ages, it was Utopia" (6.17). Ah yes, that's it—utopia.The world is everything humanity's always wanted it to be. There's a bit of irony to the whole thing, though: By making everything perfect, the Overlords manage to ruin that perfection.
Utopia, Dystopia, What's the Difference?
The problem with the utopian society is that it makes everything perfect. Yeah, that sure is an odd thing to say, but it turns out to be the case. See, by removing adversity from humanity's path, the Overlords provided man with a new enemy:
Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom. (6.36)
With the end of conflict, the end of strife, the end of challenge, humanity quickly begins to morph into boring creatures. Creative art becomes a thing of the past just like war (6.34); survival of the fittest changes into survival of the masses; people no longer have to work hard for anything, or indeed even work at all.
In other words, without having something to fight against, mankind stops fighting altogether. For anything.
To be fair, this doesn't seem to bother most people. Characters like Rupert live it up by throwing swank parties at night and then enjoying their hobby/jobs during the day. But for a few characters—such as Jan, George, and even Wainwright—the urge to continue struggling and striving for something better is too great. They push themselves to find something to fight against.
As the narrator notes: "No Utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams" (8.1). Them's the breaks when you're dealing with an entire planet of individuals, we suppose.
That New Athens Smell
Ben Salomon, the founder of New Athens, sees how the Overlords' perfect society is harming the artistic endeavors of mankind, so he decides to do something to prevent total and complete artistic stagnation:
The decline had barely started, yet the first symptoms of decay were not hard to discover. Salomon was no artist, but he had an acute appreciation of art and knew that his age could not match the achievements of previous centuries in any single field. (15.48)
Salomon creates New Athens to provide an alternative to Karellen's perfect society. He adds conflict back into peoples' lives by building the colony on an island, setting it next to a wild and rocky wilderness (Sparta island), and removing many of the amenities of future-modern life, such as television, cars, automated kitchens, and such. Unfortunately, though the novel mention some new developments in the arts of music and cinema (15.57, 59), the experiment ultimately proves itself to be too little, too late.
Perhaps it's the fact that everything about New Athens is planned and scientifically thought out, and as such, just as artificial, scientific, and conflict-free as the world the Overlords made (15.42). Or perhaps it is just that things didn't start fast enough to counter Karellen's plans. Either way, New Athens is destroyed in a nuclear explosion, and the rest of the planet soon follows once the Overmind awakens.