The story of Childhood’s End spans over 130 years and a number of different sometimes interconnected characters. It is the story of the benevolent subjugation of humanity by the Overlords, a technologically superior race of devil-like aliens who themselves are doing the bidding of the Overmind. This is all revealed slowly over the course of the story. It is explained that the Overlords look like the devil because in ancient times humanity sensed it’s own destruction and present at this time are devil-like figures (of course this is strictly a Western viewpoint which turns out to be the truth in this book). The task of the Overlords is to shepherd the human race so that it avoids its own destruction (which given the time this novel was written in 1953 must have seemed far more imminent than now). By eliminating the wasteful pursuits of war, humanity enters a golden age. This utopia eventually results in diminished creativity and competition to the point where cultural and technological growth is stagnant. The Overlords have few rules, but one is that space exploration is disallowed, since the galaxy is a dangerous place and “not for mankind”. This is the reason Clarke puts in a disclaimer stating that this work does not represent his views. Other rules include zero tolerance for racism and animal cruelty.
The book as a few storylines that read more like related novellas. While Karellen the Overlord leader figures in all the stories, I’d hardly call him a main character, just the only consistent one. The end result is a good book but not a deeply satisfying one. Why? because 1) as a reader I couldn’t identify with any of the protagonists and 2) the finale results in the end of humanity (subsumption into the Overmind) and destruction of the Earth.
However, it is a good story and has survived the last 60 years surprisingly well. Despite a reference to “meters of film” this book didn’t feel dated at all (especially when compared to Stranger). While I get the impression that most authors of that era never saw the impact of the telecommunications era and instead concentrated their predictions on wondrous advancements in transportation, Clarke did describe a potential technology that can deliver an immersive virtual reality experience. In 1953. Wow. This also appears to be the book where the scene of hundreds of massive alien starships descend upon every major city of Earth (V, Independence Day) originates. Clarke got his inspiration from seeing hundreds of barrage balloons over London during WW2.
The first story involves Overlord Karellen and Stormgren, the UN Secretary-General. Stormgren is the only man to speak with an Overlord and supports their efforts. He is kidnapped by a political faction that thinks otherwise, pointing out the stagnation of human culture. Stormgren is eventually rescued by the Overlords by the “correct application of power” and I thought it was rather intelligent that the Overlords purposefully left their political rivals intact but fully monitored since they could more effectively counter their efforts that way.
The second story involves George and (later his wife) Jean who attend a dinner party with an Overlord in attendance. At the end of the evening a seance is performed since the paranormal is a hobby of the host. This is a key event in the book. First, the Overlords identify Jean as a conduit to the spiritual world – something they do not comprehend and are actively researching. Second , Jan asks a question about the location of the Overlord world and the response is a star catalog number. This revelation launches the third story about Jan the astronomer plotting (successfully) to be a stowaway on an Overlord vessel where he experiences one of their planets first-hand. However, the journey spans 80 years Earth time due to time dilation. During Jan’s absence, humanity is on the cusp of evolving into the next stage of development, the ultimate reason why the Overlords were sent to protect humanity by the Overmind. Starting with George and Jean’s children, all children everywhere begin the process of merging with the Overmind. No more children are born and homo sapiens begins to naturally expire. This takes several years and ultimately culminates in a scene reminiscent of Biblical Rapture. Jan returns to an empty Earth with the children on the cusp of finally merging with the Overmind. They do so, destroying the Earth in the process.
(Amazon) Childhood’s End