Wow! Wait, What? Wow!: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End

The title of this post is my considered response to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. It was my response when I first read it at twelve, and it’s still my response reading it today.

Childhood’s End was published in 1953. It’s a truly classic science fiction novel, and a deeply influential one, and one of the books that makes Clarke’s reputation. It’s also a very very strange book. It does as much as any half dozen normal books, and all in 218 pages, and it does it by setting up expectations and completely overturning them, repeatedly.

The prologue of Childhood’s End is brilliant, and it stands completely alone. It’s 1975. There’s an ex-Nazi rocket scientist in the U.S. worrying that his old friend the ex-Nazi rocket scientist in the U.S.S.R. will reach the moon before him. You’ve read this story a million times, you know where it’s going, you settle in to a smooth familiar kind of ride. Then quietly without any fuss, huge alien ships appear over all of Earth’s major cities. And this is just the first surprise, the first few pages of a book that goes about as far from the standard assumptions and standard future of SF as it’s possible to go.

People talk about SF today being too gloomy — my goodness, Childhood’s End has all of humanity die and then the Earth destroyed. It’s not even relentlessly upbeat about it, it has a elegaic tone.

You’ve got to like having the rug pulled out from under you to enjoy this book, and when I was twelve I wasn’t at all sure about it. People talk about SF written now that can only be read by people familiar with how SF works. If there ever was a book that epitomises that it’s Childhood’s End. It’s a roller coaster ride that relies on you lulling you into thinking you know what it’s doing and then shocking you out of that. It’s a very post-modern book in some ways, very meta, especially for something written in 1953. And for it to work properly, you have to know SF, SF expectations, the kinds of things SF normally does, so that you can settle down enough to be going along smoothly and then get the “Wow” when you hit the next big drop. 

When I was twelve I liked it much less than I liked the set of “everything else that had been written by Clarke before 1976,” and it was precisely because of this rug-jerking. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had a category in my head that contained Nabokov’s Pale Fire and John Fowles’ The Magus and Childhood’s End, and that category was “good books where you can’t rely on things.” Now I recognise Nabokov and Fowles were writing unreliable narrators, and Clarke, well, Clarke was doing this really interesting experimental thing. It’s a plot equivalent of an unreliable narrator.

Now, of course, these successive “wow” hits are the thing that I admire about the book the most. You think you’re getting a rocket-ship story? Surprise, alien invasion! You think you’re getting an alien domination story with intrigue and the unification of Earth? Surprise, you have a mystery about the appearance of the aliens with a truly cool answer. (And that cool answer is going to be overturned again at the end.) You think you have a utopia with mysterious aliens, with the big question being about what the all-powerful aliens are really up to? Actually no, this is a story about humanity’s children developing psychic powers and disappearing, almost a horror story. Except that there was this one guy who stowed away on an alien ship and he comes back when there are no more humans and witnesses what happens at the very end, and it turns out that the all-powerful aliens you’ve been wondering about have a lot of things they’re wondering about themselves.

Wow.

There are some odd things about the future that Clarke got right and wrong. No aliens yet! But it’s impressive that he predicts a reliable oral contraceptive leading an era of sexual liberation and equality, even if he couldn’t quite imagine what gender equality would look like. (It’s odd how very much everyone tended to miss that “equal work for equal pay” meant that women wouldn’t be dependant anymore.) Anyway, from 1953 that was impressive predicting. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time I’ve re-read Childhood’s End since Clarke’s homosexuality became public knowledge, because I noticed the line about “what used to be vice was now just eccentricity” and felt sad for him personally — 1953, when homosexuality wouldn’t be legal in Britain until 1969. He was off on that prediction, it’s not even eccentricity. Well, he lived to see same-sex marriage become legal in Canada and be discussed in Britain and the U.S.. There are no visibly gay people in this book. There are straight people with multiple partners, however, as an accepted social institution in a utopia that includes term marriages.

One interesting thing about this future is that there’s no space travel. The aliens have space travel, and they kindly allow some humans to have rides to the moon. But they say that “the stars are not for man.” Another is that humanity seems to be entirely outclassed by the overlords. In fact this isn’t quite the case, as humanity has the potential to become part of the inhuman superhuman psychic overmind, but for the bulk of the book this is the absolute opposite of human supremacist. Earth is colonized by the aliens — and the specific analogy of Britain colonizing India is made more than once. The aliens impose peace through superior technology and for their own inexplicable reasons, which humanity can only hope are for their own good.

Whether it is for our own good, and whether it is a happy ending or a horrific ending, is a matter where reasonable people can disagree. (What I mean by that is that my husband thinks it’s a happy ending and has since he was twelve, and all that same time I’ve been horrified by it.) I think Clarke intended it as positive but also saw the horror in it. I also think he did post-humanity and what it means to see a wider universe much better here than in 2001. There’s a marvellous poetic sequence where a child who is transforming into inhumanity has dreams of other worlds while his parents and the overlords watch and wonder.

Characters are never really Clarke’s strong points, and they’re not here. He’s great on ideas and poetic imagery around science, but his characters are usually everyman. The best character in Childhood’s End is George, who sees his own children becoming something more alien than aliens and doesn’t like it, and even George is more a line drawing than a solid character. If you want something with good characters and where women are more than scenery and support systems, read something else.

The real character here is humanity. And the odd thing about humanity as a character is what happens to it. If you have to force it into one of my “three classic plots” it’s “man vs plan,” and plan completely wins. If you want to use someone else’s “three classic plots” it’s boy meets girl, with humanity as the girl and the overlords as the boy — but it’s not much of a romance. Humanity considered as a hero here is completely passive, everything that happens, happens to it, not because of any action or agency of humanity’s. But that’s one of the things that makes the book good and unusual and worth reading. Wow. Did I say “wow” already?

Science fiction is a very broad genre, with lots of room for lots of kinds of stories, stories that go all over the place and do all kinds of things. One of the reasons for that is that early on there got to be a lot of wiggle room. Childhood’s End was one of those things that expanded the genre early and helped make it more open-ended and open to possibility. Clarke was an engineer and he was a solidly scientific writer, but he wasn’t a Campbellian writer. He brought his different experiences to his work, and the field is better for it.

Childhood’s End has been influential, but there isn’t much like it. People write alien invasions and use Clarke’s imagery (when I saw the trailer for Independence Day I was sure they’d made a film of Childhood’s End), but they keep on writing about alien invaders that humanity can fight off, not alien colonizers with their own agendas. And the only thing I can think of that’s really influenced by the end is Robert Charles Wilson’s ultra-creepy The Harvest.

I assume everyone has read it already, but it’s worth reading again now you’re older and thinking about what Clarke was doing.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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