Matthew Kresal revisits the classic 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood's End.
1953's Childhood's End was the first novel by a man whose name would become inextricably linked with science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke. From a viewpoint of over sixty years later, the idea behind the novel might seem to be either outdated, done to death or both. Yet it's nether of those things, as one soon discovers.
The events covered in the novel are nothing short of epic. The story begins with the arrival of a fleet of alien ships over Earth's major cities, crewed by a mysterious race that come to be known as the Overlords. From there, the novel takes the reader on a journey through more then a century. First comes the early days when a single Overlord known as Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," speaks only through the Finnish born Secretary General Of The United Nations, Rikki Stormgren, to bring peace to a world on the brink of disaster. The novel then jumps ahead fifty years as the Overlords finally appear into a world which has grown accustomed to their presence, humanity is at peace and yet unfulfilled. The last part of the novel begins on the island colony of New Athens before revealing who the Overlords really are, their purpose in coming to Earth, and the meaning of the cryptic title as humanity reaches for its destiny. The results are nothing short of fascinating to read.
What sells all is the characters. Clarke never loses sight of the people caught in the incredible events around them. These range from the Stormgren and Freedom League leader Alexander Wainwright, the inquisitive Jan Rodricks and the Greggson family who find themselves at the heart of the events in the last part of the book. Clarke writes all of these character's across all sections of human society believably, which makes Childhood's End feel all the more real.
Some aspects of the novel may seem familiar. The first section with a fleet of alien ships arriving over major cities is an image well used in the TV show V and the film Independence Day, for example. Indeed the opening of the original miniseries of V in 1983 is very similar to the novel's second chapter (something Clarke himself noted in the introduction featured in some later editions of the novel). Childhood's End is an alien invasion story, but not of the kind you would perhaps expect. As the novel reveals, invasion might in fact be the wrong word to use.
Science fiction has a habit of being tied into the technology and social aspects of the time it was written. There are moments when the novel is guilty of this as it mentions outdated technology and uses racist language (but only a couple of times, thankfully). Clarke, though, did foresee things that didn't need alien intervention to occur. At one point he has a character mention that there are some 500 hours of radio and TV being broadcast, and that the average person watches three hours of TV a day. In a 2015 without aliens, we're well beyond both points already. Clarke covers much of this predicted future in chapter six, and it's one which makes for intriguing reading in its own right.
More than six decades on from its original publication, Childhood's End stands up well. From the epic range of its plot to its well written characterizations, this is more then just another tale of first contact between humanity and an alien race. Where it goes from there makes it a classic in its own right.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.