Childhood’s End shares many similarities with Clarke’s first novel on this list, 2001, in that it describes a jump in human evolution brought about by an advanced alien species. But while the aliens of 2001 are never seen or explained in any detailed way, the ones in Childhood’s End make themselves apparent at the very beginning (although they don’t show themselves in physical form until later in the book). The novel doesn’t spend a lot of time developing the individual human characters in any meaningful way and instead focuses more on the gradual transformation of society that occurs when Earth is confronted with the seemingly benevolent Overlords. In a way, though, Humanity itself is the main character in the book – and we watch as it slowly begins to realize its greater purpose and potential for achieving a higher plane of existence.
Childhood’s End Summary: In the midst of a heated space race between the United States and Russia over who will be the first to send a mission to the moon, large spaceships begin to hover over most of the world’s major cities. While they don’t show themselves at first, they do communicate with Earth enough to assure them that they are not hostile and have been charged with helping to smooth over international tensions in the hope of preventing the extinction of humanity, much like a parent would to a child who has been unruly. While the Earth begins a period of peace and prosperity under the Overlords watchful eyes, there are some who believe that the aliens are limiting human creativity and ingenuity. They decide to start a separate colony devoted solely to the development of creativity and the arts. Eventually, after years of “Supervision,” human children begin to exhibit telekinetic powers and are separated from the rest of humanity. It is then that the Overlords finally reveal their true purpose in helping human kind achieve the next step in their evolution.
The idea that our current stage of human development is merely a stepping stone to a greater level of consciousness and existence is one that has fascinated Science Fiction writers for decades, and it is a reoccurring theme in many of Clarke’s works. But he is not simply saying that we should submit blindly to the rule of omnipotent beings. While the Overlords do help usher in a Utopian period, they also help produce a world of increasing artistic stagnation and dissatisfaction. As humanity starts to resist this “Growing Up” that the Overlords force upon them, Clarke seems to be showing us how conflict and struggle are at the root of our desire to better ourselves and achieve a higher purpose and that utopias, by their very nature, only serve to repress these emotions. While the eventual goal of the Overlord’s forced transformation is a communion with a single galactic consciousness, man’s primal instincts lean more toward individuality and the power of unique human expression.
Childhood’s End Review: If you’re a lover of “Big Idea” books, then Childhood’s End won’t let you down. If you’re more of a swash-buckling, adventure type Sci-Fi fan, you may be a bit disappointed. But if you’re someone who has ever contemplated the nature of the universe and our true purpose in the grand scheme of things, then this book will definitely give you something to think about.